A Traditional Kaiseki Meal in the Heart of Kyoto’s “Floating World”

In 2022, Japan celebrated the “Golden Week” national holidays on April 29 and May 3-5. Golden Week is a series of semi-consecutive national holidays, during which most of the country gets time off from work and school. Many people travel–and although in the past (even pre-pandemic) I stayed at home during Golden Week to avoid the crowds, this year I headed south to Kyoto for a three-day trip, during which I booked a meal at Tousuiro, reputed to be one of the best restaurants in Kyoto, and the meal proved every bit as spectacular as promised.

Tousuiro has two locations, but I opted for the restaurant in Gion, which is located in a 150-year old building in the former heart of the “floating world”–the district where geiko (as geisha are known in Kyoto) lived, trained, and entertained customers. Tousuiro’s unassuming storefront sits about ten minutes’ walk up the street from Yasaka Jinja, in Kyoto’s eastern Higashiyama ward.

The entrance to Tousuiro (the noren over the door reads TOUSUIRO tofu cuisine)

If you want to eat at Tousuiro, you have to make reservations at least three days in advance (but they do accept reservation requests online, via email, and in English, if you cant speak Japanese); the restaurant is small (about 15-20 seats) and serves traditional Kyoto kaiseki (traditional, multi-coursed Japanese cuisine). Upon arrival, I removed my shoes in the entry and followed the hostess to my seat. The seating is traditional, too–this “bar” was only about knee high, but had a well-type area below floor level for my feet, so I could sit as if seated in a chair (but on a cushion on the tatami floor) with my feet in the well below.

Seating at Tousuiro

The chef behind the bar was friendly, and seemed quite pleased when I confirmed I could understand Japanese (he liked to explain each dish as it was served–a courtesy he extended not only to me, but to the other patrons also). As soon as I sat down, he greeted me and then lifted the lid of the wooden tub beside my place, releasing a puff of steam. The tub contained local spring water and a square of kombu (seaweed), which together produced a lightly fragrant dashi, or broth.

kombu dashi, table side

The chef added several blocks of Tousuiro’s famous house-made tofu, some slices of kiri mochi (cut rice cake) and some spinach leaves and stems. After that, he replaced the lid and told me to wait about ten minutes for the ingredients to cook.

Tofu and mochi with spinach

Almost as soon as the chef replaced the lid on the tofu cooker, the hostess returned with a beautiful plate of zensai–the traditional first course in a kaiseki meal. At Tousuiro, the zensai course also filled the role of the traditional second course, known as hassun–to evoke the season in which the meal is served.

Early summer Zensai – appetizers – at Tousuiro

The first week of May is the first week of summer, according to Japan’s traditional “72 ,” which divide the year into 72 different “seasons.” Kaiseki chefs pay close attention to these micro seasons, and try to reflect them in the colors and ingredients on the plate.

Clockwise from top, the zensai plate above contains: (i) a small dish of chopped and marinated spring mushrooms (mostly hidden behind the round, green dango ball on the skewer), (ii) a pair of bite-sized squares of tofu mixed with fresh spring herbs, (iii) goma tofu (sesame tofu) with a dollop of fresh wasabi, (iv) a maple leaf-shaped bite of house-made tofu flavored with matcha (powdered green tea) – which is also halfway hidden behind a maple leaf garnish, and (v) a trio of colored mochi balls, known as dango, on a skewer. Colored dango are a traditional spring and summer treat in Kyoto that now are eaten year-round across Japan.

Every bite on the plate was fresh, light, and delicious. The creaminess of the gomadofu provided a lovely contrast to the meaty texture of the mushrooms and the chewy dango.

Kaiseki meals are designed to highlight fresh, seasonal ingredients, as well as a variety of colors, textures, and cooking styles. Since I opted for the vegetarian kaiseki at Tousuiro, my meal leaned heavily into the restaurant’s famous tofu–precisely as I hoped it would.

The next course to arrive was mukozuke (sometimes also called ōtsukuri), the sashimi course:

Mukozuke: the sashimi course

In a non-vegetarian kaiseki, this course would normally be local fish or seafood (prawns and octopus are common choices, and I’ve had snail sashimi too, though that’s an experience I’d rather not repeat). Last week at Tousuiro, the course included fresh Yuba (a tofu product made by skimming the top of boiling tofu milk), seen on the left with a garnish of edible flowers, and two varieties of thinly-sliced konnyaku (konjac), which has roughly the consistency of gummy candy (but isn’t sweet) and is made from the corm of a plant called devil’s tongue. It doesn’t have much taste, but I think it’s quite refreshing. The garnishes on the bottom of the plate, from left to right, are marinated mushrooms, grated ginger, and shiso (perilla).

When I finished the sashimi, the chef let me know that the tofu simmering next to me was ready, and provided me with a little dish that contained freshly grated ginger and slivered onions, with which I could season the soy-based sauce that accompanied the tofu. In the picture below, you can see the tofu (left), spinach, and kiri mochi, which acquires a soft, chewy texture when simmered this way.

Takiawase: Tousuiro’s house-made tofu in a soy-based sauce with ginger and scallions.

This simmered course is known as Takiawase in traditional Japanese cuisine, and although the ingredients in a takiawase course normally are simmered separately, Tousuiro simmers the tofu with the spinach (which doesn’t flavor the water because there’s not enough of it to have an impact) and kombu; there’s no doubt the tofu is the star.

The next course is futamono, or the “lidded course,” customarily a soup but always served in a lidded dish and–like every course in a true kaiseki meal–made with seasonal ingredients. On this May day, that meant a delicate, warm, lily bulb soup. The transparent broth had a delicate taste, which I recognized as lily based on my prior experience eating lily bulbs here in Japan. A single, bite-sized square of tofu, topped with a thin sheet of lily gel, sat at the center of the bowl, surrounded by a scattering of fresh spring peas.

Futamono – lily bulb soup with peas and tofu

Like all kaiseki courses, the bowl contained only a few, flavorful mouthfuls. Almost before I knew it, the bowl was empty, and it was time to move on to Yakimono: the grilled course.

Yakimono is always one of my favorite courses; at Tousuiro, it was even more delightful because I got to watch the chef grill and plate this special course (shown below) directly in front of me.

Yakimono – the grilled course

The picture above, from left to right: (i) mugwort mochi, (ii) koyadofu (freeze-dried tofu) topped with miso, (iii) grilled tofu with mountain vegetable miso, and three palate cleansers: a bite-sized pickled burdock root (right, top), a red Chinese waxberry (also known as a bayberry) (lower right), and the tiny bowl at the top, which held a bite-sized ball of seasoned tofu.

Contrasting textures play an important role in kaiseki, and this meal moved from the crunchy, smoky flavors of charcoal grilled yakimono to the comforting warmth of nimono (simmered food), once again served in a lidded bowl (shown below). The bowl contains a square of “Aomame tofu” (blue/green bean tofu–which basically was tofu blended with Bluegreen soybeans to give the tofu itself a speckled blue-green color and more texture than a standard tofu) topped with yuba and simmered in a broth made from onions and early summer vegetables. Thinly sliced baby celery was added at the end; the celery was tenderly cooked, and retained its crunch, to give texture to the dish.

nimono: Aomame tofu with baby celery

Once again, I had barely finished the course when the hostess arrived with yet another of my favorite kaiseki courses: tempura! Technically, the role this filled was Shiizakana: a “hearty snack” toward the end of the meal, traditionally designed to complement saké.

Tempura at Tousuiro

The plate above contains (left to right) tempura mushroom, shiso leaf, yuba (a first for me, and I loved it), red bell pepper, and tara no me (Angelica). The composition of tempura also changes with the seasons in Japan. Since this was a (very) late spring-early summer meal, the vegetables included both Shiso (to evoke the deep green of fresh summer leaves) and tara no me, which is a popular Sansai–mountain vegetable–eaten in the summer in Japan.

At this point, the meal was drawing to a close–and none too soon, because even though the courses were served fairly slowly, giving me plenty of time to savor every bite, I was getting quite full.

The next tray held three traditional “courses” that come at the end of a kaiseki meal, and signal its close: Gohan (rice), tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and tome wan (miso soup). The rice dish can be either plain steamed rice or a dish containing rice steamed with vegetables or meat; Tousuiro topped the rice with a generous dollop of house-made miso mixed with vegetables (mushrooms, onions, and sansai).

I’ve eaten dozens of kaiseki meals in Japan, and this was one of the most delicious gohan dishes I’ve ever had. I could have made a meal of this miso rice alone. The tsukemono were delicate, freshly made, and nicely acidic–I like a mouth-puckering pickled vegetable, and although these weren’t quite that sharp, they were delicious. On the right below, you can see the rich, red miso soup, which Tousuiro serves with freshly sliced onions.

The meal draws to a close…

Finally, the meal ended with a tiny scoop of house-made ringo (apple) sorbet and a pot of warm hojicha (roasted green tea).

Dessert and tea

I love kaiseki meals for so many reasons, from getting to experience such a wide range of flavors and textures in a single meal, to the seasonality, and the chance to taste the way each individual chef interprets both this classical cuisine and the ingredients themselves. It’s never the same experience twice, but it’s always delicious and memorable.

Have you eaten kaiseki? If so, what did you think? And if not, is it something you’d like to experience someday?

3 thoughts on “A Traditional Kaiseki Meal in the Heart of Kyoto’s “Floating World”

  • May 17, 2022 at 11:56 am

    The Japanese chefs combine visual beauty, , flavor, texture and seasonal awareness with such grace and respect. Thank you for sharing this experience with us. Totally in awe here.

    • May 17, 2022 at 9:17 pm

      Kaiseki meals truly are works of art, in every possible sense. I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  • May 17, 2022 at 10:30 pm

    You’re so GOOD at finding wonderful food! My mouth is watering! I WANT THIS NOW.

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