Last month, I celebrated my birthday with a trip to Kinosaki Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture. Kinosaki Onsen is one of Japan’s most famous onsen towns; it sits near the Sea of Japan, about three hours by train southwest of Kyoto.
Kinosaki Onsen has two major draws: the town’s seven volcanic hot spring baths (which have various properties, based on the springs that feed them) and the food, which I’d heard was some of the best in Japan. The town is most famous for snow crab and Tajima (Kobe) beef, but when I heard that Nishimuraya Honkan (the traditional Japanese inn where I was staying) offered a vegetarian kaiseki (traditional Japanese coursed cuisine) dinner, I couldn’t wait to experience a high-end take on vegetarian cuisine.
The meal was everything I hoped for, and much more, and since meals like this can be difficult to imagine if you haven’t experienced them for yourself, I hope you enjoy the “virtual meal.”
Kaiseki meals traditionally begin with Zensai, or appetizers–a selection of bite-sized, seasonal delicacies designed to whet the diner’s appetite. On the plate below, clockwise from top, the appetizers are: mushrooms and mixed vegetables in a peppery soy-based sauce; steamed taro stems, snap peas, and seaweed in a light vinegar sauce, and house-made silken tofu with soy and kombu (seaweed) dashi.
The meal was served at Sanpo, a beautiful restaurant next door to and owned by Nishimuraya Honkan. The restaurant has an open kitchen, so I was able to watch the chefs preparing food on the massive charcoal grill and plating various dishes while I ate–which added layers of fun to the meal.
After I finished the appetizers, the server brought the Suimono (first soup course): a brilliant green pea soup topped with bitter melon and a cube of fried tofu. This was, without question, the best soup I have ever eaten. It tasted like fresh green peas, and was silky smooth, without a hint of grittiness. Best of all, they served it steaming hot (the way I like it) and it stayed that way until the final sip. I have no idea how the chef managed to achieve the perfect texture, but it was so delicious that I could have eaten nothing but this and been satisfied.
The courses in a traditional kaiseki meal follow a set pattern. While the number of courses varies, and not all of the traditional courses will always be included in every meal (the precise number of courses, like the foods they include, varies by season and by chef), a true kaiseki meal will always include a Hassun (seasonal plate) after the appetizers and near the start of the meal. The hassun course is intended to remind the diner of the season, and to set the tone for the rest of the meal. It typically includes one type of sushi, along with five or more other bite-sized offerings, each of which should be seasonally appropriate.
In the vegetarian hassun below, the role of sashimi is being played by the house-made yuba (tofu skin) at center, which is topped with edible flowers. The other bites, clockwise from top, are: grilled king oyster mushrooms in a bamboo leaf; jellied konjac strips; figs in miso sauce (served in an adorable striped bowl); quick-pickled vegetables; grilled tofu with a crispy chip made of sake lees (the solids left over after brewing sake). The bright green spot on the bottom of the plate is a dollop of freshly grated wasabi.
Most kaiseki meals would have a sashimi course and/or a vegetable course at this point, but the chef decided to omit those dishes omitted here (for obvious reasons). Instead, I was served the Futamono, or lidded dish: red beans and rice in a delicate, slightly thickened dashi.
Traditionally, the next dish would be Yakimono (the grilled dish), which is customarily grilled local fish; in my case, grilled local vegetables in a savory, very light, vegetarian broth. This simple-looking dish was a highlight of the spectacular meal. There’s a reason the vegetables don’t have any sauces or seasonings on them (other than a little salt and a mild broth)–the vegetables themselves had so much flavor that they needed nothing more.
While I was eating, one of the chefs came over and explained that all of these vegetables are organic, locally grown, and sourced from small farms that have been run by the same families for generations. He even showed me a picture of the woman whose farm my dinner came from. While in some places and contexts, that might sound like a gimmick, Sanpo takes pride in the traditions of Hyogo Prefecture and the Kinosaki Onsen area. They also like supporting local producers and traditional ways of life.
Kaiseki meals peak with the yakimono course. The series of dishes that follow are designed to taper the meal down to a satisfying (if often extremely full-bellied) end. The next dish is usually steamed or simmered, to provide a textural contrast to the dish that came before. In my case, it was Nimono (simmered course): a dish of yuba steamed with vegetable broth, topped with a steamed-and-then-deep-fried vegetarian “meatball” made of soybean “meat” and soba.
If you’re not used to traditional Japanese food, this dish might look and sound a little strange. It’s important to note that “soy meat” in Japan isn’t meant to be, or used as, a direct replacement for beef or other animal products. That meatball isn’t pretending to be meat. Instead, Japanese chefs highlight the ingredients they’re working with, pairing textures and flavors to create something unique. This was the first time I’d had all of these ingredients put together in this way – and it was absolutely delicious. The fried ball had a satisfying crunch, and the simmered yuba in broth had a texture similar to a rich noodle soup.
If you’re thinking this looks like a lot of food, you’re not mistaken. The portion served in each course of a Kaiseki meal is small, but the number of courses can make a full kaiseki meal a marathon endeavor for the stomach. And we’re not finished yet…
A variety of different courses could follow nimono; normally, the chef will make the choice based on the ingredients available (i.e., in season, because kaiseki customarily uses only seasonal ingredients) and the dishes already served. On this hot July evening, the chef opted for a Nakachoko course: a light, acidic soup to cleanse the palate. The dish below contains soba noodles with grated mountain yam, fresh green onions, and seaweed in a vinegar-based vegetarian broth. All of the ingredients, including the soba, were grown or harvested locally.
Traditional Japanese meals always end with rice and tsukemono (pickled vegetables). In many cases, there’s also miso soup, but the chef opted to forego that final soup on this menu, and made a startlingly modern choice in the way he executed the rice and pickles. What you see below is a grilled rice cake made from Sanpon’s special “iroiro rice,” a mixture of more than 20 different grains (including corn). The sliver of nori (dried seaweed) represents both the traditional wrapping for grilled rice balls and the seaweed that would customarily appear in miso soup.
The tsukimono choice was even more daring: a grilled-and-then-pickled potato, served slightly chilled.
The rice ball had a delicious crunch on the outside; inside, the rice and other grains were sticky enough to eat easily and with no mess, but tender to chew. The corn was a big surprise; I didn’t know it was there until I took the first bite, and while corn in a rice ball sounds bizarre to me even now, it really, really worked.
The pickled potato was another enormous surprise, and ended up being another of my favorite bites of the entire meal. I love salt and vinegar potato chips, so this really shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. The vinegar was just slightly sweet, and the potato was soft without being mushy.
After rice and pickles, a kaiseki meal closes with dessert, which is usually small, simple, and refreshing. On this night, a dish of seasonal fruit and house-made warabi-mochi (bracken-starch dumplings, which have a texture similar to really firm gelatin) lightly flavored with powdered green tea and topped with kinako (roasted soybean powder–which tastes a lot like powdered peanut). Warabimochi is a very traditional summer dessert in Japan, and is usually served either at room temperature (as this one was) or slightly chilled. This one looks like a bean, but it doesn’t taste like beans. In fact, warabimochi has very little flavor of its own, and what little it has is generally hidden by the kinako topping. Because of the matcha used inside, this one tasted like a combination of rich green tea and kinako, lightly sweet but with a little bitterness from the tea–a perfect complement to the sweetness of the fruit.
And there you have it–a summer vegetarian kaiseki in one of Japan’s oldest and most famous onsen towns. Like all kaiseki meals, the menu changes regularly–sometimes even day to day, depending on what’s in season.
The dishes undergo a more radical shift when the seasons change. Although the types of courses offered and the cooking methods used will be much the same (although a chef might include some secondary courses and omit others, depending on the season) a summer kaiseki like this one will look very different from, and include different ingredients than, a kaiseki meal served in other seasons. In many cases, the dishes used will be different too.
In fact, those differences are one of the primary points of a kaiseki meal: to allow the diner to experience and appreciate the current season with all five senses, beginning with the eyes and culminating with the palate.
So…what do you think? Could you eat it all? (Traditionally, you’re supposed to finish every bite, so as not to offend the chef!) Is this something you would try, if you had the chance?