Kaiseki, or Kaiseki-ryori 懐石, is a traditional style of dining in Japan where a multi-course meal is prepared of fresh seasonal ingredients. Much like the haute cuisine, or high dining experience in the west, the number of courses can vary from a handful to more than 10. The key to the kaiseki experience is a focus on showing off the chefs cooking abilities with the fresh flavors indicative of the current season.
Kaiseki in Ryokan Hotels
In Japan the traditional ryokan hotel is similar to the Bed & Breakfasts of the west. Most guests who stay at a Ryokan will dine in for dinner and breakfast.
Even smaller ryokan typically have a dedicated onsite chef who will solely cook for the hotel. This is really an amazing piece of the experience as the chefs work hard to source local flavors from local farmers, fishermen, and rice fields.
In the mountain regions this means fresh Shiitake Mushrooms and local river sweet-fish, while the inland sea features delicate white fish and citrus flavors. Couple this with the sweet floral notes of spring cherry blossoms or the rich warmth of fall persimmons and you have a one of a kind meal each night!
And what better way to end a great day of activity than a beautifully crafted locally sourced meal. Most Kaiseki Dinners are an event in themselves, taking around 1-2 hours. Portions are typically small but flavorful. And, there is time between dishes in order to truly appreciate each unique flavor as well as share in conversation.
Kaiseki Dinners | Eating First With Your Eyes
One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the complete passion the Japanese Ryokan, and Kaiseki experience, have for immersing you into the current moment and season.
This is not only shown in the seasonal ingredients, but also in the amazing plating. A typical ryokan has at least 4 sets of dishes, one for each season. crimson Japanese Maple and golden Gingko Leaves in fall, barren trees and delicate snow on chopsticks in the winter, vibrant Cherry Blossoms & Wisteria on bowls in the spring, and rich green fields of rice in summer.
In Japan it is said that you must first eat with your eyes, and the Kaiseki experience is the perfect example of this!
Where the kaiseki dinner is a sweeping show of style for the chef to improvise on, kaiseki breakfasts follow a bit more of a pattern in it’s construction.
Still consisting of many small plates, breakfasts often start with most or all of the plates out when you arrive. Once seated, a freshly cooked piece of fish, warm rice, and miso soup are typically added. It is also common to see western favorites such as eggs and bacon or breads and spreads. And, for the adventurous and lovers of all things fermented the infamous natto is a great healthy addition to your rice bowl!
Drinks with Kaiseki Meals
Alcoholic Drinks| Sake, Wine, Beer
A Kaiseki dinner is often a festive evening, and for those looking to partake in alcohol this is a great chance to try another local product, sake!
Most all ryokan will carry a selection of locally made sake in both warm and cold options, there are even some sparkling sake too. And what better pairing with the local cuisine than some locally made sake.
Along with sake most ryokans will have beer and wine options. While some local wines or craft beers might be available, most will carry a standard Japanese beer such as Asahi, Kirin, or Sapporo, and a house red and white wine.
Non-Alcoholic Drinks | Tea, Water, and Coffee
In Japan, as with much of Asia, the standard drink served with a meal is tea (called Cha 茶 in Japanese). These teas come in a myriad of flavors and styles. In general when having a kaiseki meal you will be served either classic green tea (typically just called o-cha お茶), oolong tea (Uuron-cha ウーロン茶), or toasted barley tea (mugi-cha 麦茶).
Of course water is always available, but in Japan they typically do not serve any water without you asking. So don’t be shy!
As for all you coffee lovers out there, Japan certainly has plenty of coffee. And at a Ryokan they will almost always have a pot brewing in the morning as well. Some ryokan will ask if you want any or have it waiting when you arrive for breakfast. But if not, simply asking usually does the trick.
For the few ryokan that don’t serve coffee many have vending machines with coffees in them either within or a short walk away.
Kaiseki Dining FAQ
Most all of our ryokan can work with dietary restrictions. That said, please let us know at time of signup so that we can discuss this for your specific trip.
For example, if you do not eat seafood, we will recommend a tour inland such as the Nikko North Alps Tour over the Shimanami Kaido Setouchi Sea Tour. This is because tours near the ocean feature lots of seafood compared to inland areas.
If you have not yet read our article on Dashi, we recommend reading that as fish broth is a key ingredient to Japanese cooking. Adding just this one ingredient to your diet for your time in Japan opens a huge amount of dishes.
That said, please contact us about any dietary questions and we are happy to discuss and help you find the best fit for your groups dietary needs. We are able to fit any dietary needs in Bespoke Trips and certain guided tours!
A few short answers on dietary restrictions at a typical ryokan:
Vegetarian – moderate with dashi, very difficult without dashi
Vegan – moderate with dashi, very difficult without dashi
Pescatarian – very easy
Kosher – very easy
Halal – easy to avoid pork but difficult to confirm slaughter rules
Lactose – very easy to avoid in Japan
Gluten – easy to confirm dishes with or without, but very hard to confirm cross contamination within kitchen
Nut Allergies – Sesame and soy are hard to avoid and in many dishes, peanut and other nuts are rare and easy to confirm
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