Food as an art form in Japan
[Artful Japanese kaiseki service on board ANA]
Most visitors to Japan will take notice of a uniformed monoculture society with a high level of politeness and civil awareness. On the contrast, there is also the high level of creativity and attention to aesthetic details that I marvel every time I'm there. Apart from the gift packaging tradition that promises a beautifully wrapped item that the assistant will bring to the store exit and handing to you with a full bow, a visit to the restaurants will ensure that all your senses are stimulated with the intricately presented culinary offerings.
A kaiseki restaurant offering haute Japanese cuisine is a case in point. Visitors are promised an odyssey of flavors, textures and colors. Originating from the Zen monks, the characters for kaiseki means "stone in the bosom", referring to the monks' practice of warding off hunger by tucking hot stones in their kimono sashes. My friend Michiko in Kyoto was telling us over lunch that this zen tradition where the cuisine evolved from explains why most kaiseki meals are so light and consists of largely vegetarian ingredients, such as different types of tofu, tiny cut vegetables in different colors and forms.
Today, a traditional kaiseki meal is often a multiple-course meal with a focus on harmony between food and nature. Emphasis are placed on seasonal ingredients, different preparation techniques and the presentation. From the tiny ceramic bowls and the few slivered sashimi floating on dry ice, everything shouts of the artful forms that the Japanese are so well known for.
[Mini Kaiseki in Kyoto]
Depending on how much you want to spend, a proper kaiseki meal averages about 8000 yen per person. However, in many restaurants in Kyoto, where this form of cuisine originated, you can get a simple version like the picture shown above for about 2000 yen.