06/28/2011 08:01 EDT | Updated 08/28/2011 05:12 EDT

Eating Beauty: An Adventure in Japanese Cuisine


My friends are all ears. At our monthly gourmet dinner party the table talk has turned to Japan and its esoteric culinary world. Still glowing with memories of my recent visit, I offer, "Kaiseki ryori is like foreplay to the palate. A number of courses of seductive, playful, pretty morsels are presented in subtle sequence, in an atmosphere created to appeal to all the senses."

Historically, kaiseki was indeed foreplay -- a preamble to the formal tea ceremony. During my first meal, I fell head over heels for its discreet opulence. This Zen-inspired, sensual dining experience captured my tastebuds and even now holds them willing hostage.

Originally, Kaiseki was not a meal, it was an abstraction. In ancient times, it was a term used to describe a heated stone (seki) which a Zen monk-in-training would place in the folds (kai) of his robes to give him a feeling of warmth and fullness and help him withstand the pangs of hunger.

To further obfuscate the concept, kaiseki was never a meal per se, like lunch or dinner. By the late 16th century, the actual purpose of eating kaiseki was not so much to enjoy the meal itself, but to assuage one's hunger and enable one to more comfortably appreciate the subsequent tea ceremony.

Grumbling hunger pangs would certainly detract from the elegant tea service, and this heavy tea was not agreeable, drunk on an empty stomach. In the context of my own life, it would be like having an early evening snack to fortify me during the wait for a late dinner.

Kaiseki took on its next role in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it began to appear as a trendy light meal served with sake in the fashionable Geisha quarters of Kyoto. And now, in the 21st century kaiseki has evolved into the expensive, haute cuisine of Japan. To partake of it is considered the height of luxury.

My first kaiseki meal was a kind of elaborate culinary theatre, eaten with four friends in a private dining room in Miyuki, an opulent restaurant in one of the most beautiful settings in Tokyo, the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Chinzan-So (The House of Camellia), once the estate of an imperial prince. An elegant kimonoed hostess flattered us with her attentions. The next time, I was seated on the floor in a Buddhist monastery being served by a barefoot monk.

There were obvious differences between the two experiences, and yet there were marked similarities. While each master chef who plans a seasonal kaiseki meal walks his own creative path -- plucking ingredients as one would pick wildflowers, then arranging them to their best advantage -- the same basic principals and the respect for the tastebuds are observed.

Miyuki, which opened in 1991 with an army of chefs, is unlike most restaurants in Japan, in that it offers the public a variety of Japanese cuisines, (which all change seasonally) rather than a single type like shabu shabu or tepanyaki or sushi, for example. The beautiful hostess/server wears kimono and obi in seasonal hues of dusky lilac and grey to herald the beginning of winter, and leads us through the vast restaurant, past a pond filled with water plants and a source of trickling water, a sound considered pleasing and relaxing to the spirit.

My friends and I notice special corners for sushi and teppanyaki as well as beautifully appointed black lacquered tables for kaiseki and shabu shabu service. Fulfilling its aesthetic contract with nature, the restaurant is designed with natural elements that mirror the 66,000 square meter (seven acre) traditional garden that lies outside, landscaped with shrubs, 500 year old trees, ancient pagodas, artifacts and shrines. Ask any young woman in Tokyo about Chinzan-so and she will call it "the wedding garden," for it is in this special place that girls dream of having their weddings.

Katsutoshi Ishibashi, one of Japan's most celebrated chefs, gives me further insights into the world of Kaiseki.

"I desire above all that you relax and enjoy the dishes I prepare from the heart," says the Miyuki head chef. "I imagine the mountains, the rivers and the valleys," he explains, "and I combine the beautiful scent of the mountain vegetables with the brilliance of the river fish and the ripeness of the valley fruits to create a symphony of natural flavours played to the tunes of centuries-old Japanese traditions."

Whether kaiseki is enjoyed in a luxurious Tokyo restaurant or a quiet monastery, the structure is sacrosanct, (though some chefs introduce personal specialties). There must be a continuity of combinations, and the taste that remains from one course should enhance and not conflict with the flavors that follow. First, the hors d'oeuvre, which this evening at Miyuki is a basket carved from a ripe yellow persimmon, filled with shredded radish and golden mushroom, and set on a black-lacquered, gold- rimmed plate. A single red leaf, as if casually fallen from a tree, is the only adornment.

After this opening of the senses, we cross the threshold to the appetizer. Each guest receives a tray of edible, miniature sculptures. "Every morsel on every dish is visually distinct," points out chef Itabisashi, "and so is the taste."

Silken salmon sushi shaped like a persimmon (man mirroring nature) set on an autumn leaf. A tiny blue and white ceramic house holds a surprise -- lift the roof to find strips of yam dressed with ethereal salted bonito flakes in the shape of a bow. A birds nest of crisp fried shredded baby taro holds a steamed Daitoku-ji chestnut, as if it were a precious egg. A turnip is carved into a camellia, (a nod to Chinzan-so); a single shrimp curves over chopstick-like green chives.

The clear soup is deceptively simple, and if I had to choose a favourite, it would be this. A handthrown tea pot, the hole in it's lid covered by a half fresh lime, holds a crystal consomme of Matsutake mushrooms and sea bream. "Lift the lid, add a squeeze of lime, pour the soup into a cup and drink," suggests our host. We then pluck the mushroom and bream from the teapot with chopsticks and enjoy them as well.

The sashimi (raw fish) that follows, is an artistically balanced, oceanic medley of gaily garnished prawns, bouyant seabream and flat fish. Next, one by one, come the traditional presentations of a simmered dish (here an earthy arrangement of taro and wild duck); a grilled dish ( barracuda, dressed to the nines, glazed with sprightly citric soy sauce and a scattering of sweet potato and carrot nubbins, and gingko nuts). Visions of a thousand gnashing teeth detract from my enjoyment here, but there are more delectable dishes to come.

I love the steamed dish, (the subtle, elusive flavors of delicate dried soybean curd and sharks fin custard steamed in a savory covered cup); and, our palates now properly cleansed, a vinegared dish,( a pretty tower of fresh, baby abalone and golden chrysanthemum leaves in a light vinegar sauce).

Miso soup of the day signals that we are winding down. Rice, the staple of Japan, is given special status and steamed with pedigreed Matsutake mushrooms. Next comes the pickles, which in the kaiseki cuisine are the penultimate dish, followed only by a seasonal fruit dessert.

The sensual complexity of these dishes -- touch, sight, smell and taste -- is a revelation. I am eating beauty.

A few days later, the luxury of Miyuki seems worlds away. Fumiko Higuchi, a friend who lives in Ayabe City, near Kyoto, has invited me for a Zen lunch. The 60-year-old Jitokuji Monastery stands on a hill, about 20 minutes by car from her home. We climb the wooden stairs and are met by a blue robed monk, Taizan Watanabe. He has lived here since he was six years old, and has trained as a chef of Buddhist cuisine. Since the resident monks neither pay to live here nor do they receive regular funds from outside, three years ago the chef opened a restaurant, Ryuan, as a way to earn money for Jitokuji. Each day he accepts only five people for lunch -- the first five to call. (Four is a bad luck number, to be avoided) As a courtesy, we remove our shoes, don slippers, and follow him.

"Simplicity and austerity is the road to enlightenment," he says. It is evident that anything showy or sensuous has been avoided. Our private dining room is unadorned except for a scroll on the wall, two floor pillows and two red lacquer trays. Fumiko gracefully folds herself onto her pillow and takes two English/Japanese dictionaries from her bag, one for each of us. She is prepared to eat and translate.

I flail about like a new born colt, and find to my chagrin, that I simply cannot sit like this. Apparently, this awkwardness is not new to our host. He layers a half dozen pillows on the floor, and an equal number of trays. To make me feel less foolish, Fumiko points out that the best view of a Japanese garden is obtained from a kneeling position.

Watanabe sensei does not turn his back to us, nor does he stand while we're seated. Entering and leaving, he humbly crawls through a small opening in the wall, an attitude that I find slightly unsettling.

Each course arrives on a red lacquer tray. A goblet of sweet plum wine is our aperitif, much appreciated on this chilly November day. The appetizer is a rice paste dumpling with a clear, savory liquid center that comes wrapped in an edible green leaf. It is followed by white miso soup, plump with a rice flour dumpling textured with pungent grated orange rind.

The simmered dish consists of delicate fronds of tiny seagrapes, fingers of okra and maple leaves stamped out of red carrots afloat in a clear vegetable broth. These foods all grow in the surrounding gardens and waters; they are entirely from, and of, Jitokuji. Like the food pairings created in sophisticated city restaurants, their combinations are inspired by the appreciation of nature and the pursuit of simplicity.

Our admiration of each dish is an important aspect of the meal, and the socially imposed strict dining etiquette forces a novice like myself to pause and admire. Clearly, partaking of kaiseki requires a degree of emotional complicity from the diner. One simply would not eat a kaiseki meal and simultaneously read a book, or watch TV news. This is truly destination dining.

To really enjoy Japanese food, they say, you must first understand it and accept that everything has different levels of meaning, different origins and seasons. I think that thorough understanding is impossible for those of us outside the culture; we lack the language skills and have only a cursory grasp of the tradition.

And yet, my enjoyment of kaiseki exceeded my degree of understanding. Through my experience of this cuisine, I learned that -- whatever the regional or circumstantial differences there will always be visual harmony, simplicity and balance in everything from the design of the plates, to the cooking methods employed, to the aroma, flavor, color, and texture of the courses themselves. Little conversation exists during a kaiseki dinner, but there is much appreciative silence.

Japan does not slide open its shoji doors and give up its secrets easily, but it does invite the gai jin (foreignor) to enter and indulge in its culinary pleasures. While there, I set aside my pragmatic tastes (appetizer, main course, dessert), allowed myself to respond to the abstract ideals of nature, and explored a different set of dining rituals. The experience has enriched me, and given me an intimate glimpse into a unique society.

John Guantner is a sake expert, who writes a column for the Japan Times. He is also a sake consultant, author of the Sake Handbook and editor of the newsletter, Sake World.

Tokyo Food Page by Robb Satterwhite is a complete guide to Japanese cuisine and eating in Tokyo with recipes, culinary travel tips, restaurant listings, food-related travels and armchair adventure.

Emiko Kaminuma's Cooking Time is an online version of a popular cooking TV program, that gives one a good sense of what's popular in Japan. Guests are TV personalities.

Stonebridge Press offers news, reviews, events, books and software all about Japan. The book, Little Adventures in Tokyo by social commentator Rick Kennedy is a delightful, off-beat tour for anyone interested in travelling to Tokyo.

Author Sara Waxman is the publisher and editor in chief of DINE Magazine.