Nowhere in the world has the ritual of tea become more stylized than in Japan. From meticulously manicured tea gardens to the precision of the cha-no-yu tea ceremony, attention to detail in Japan is unrivaled. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the same approach would be adopted when it comes to cuisine. The meal called Kaiseki Ryori brings together two art forms. Though this elegant, tasteful repast is offered elsewhere in Japan, it is in the Ryokan guest houses of the ancient capital of Kyoto that one experiences the full expression of this time-honored tradition. As early as the mid-16th Century, Kyoto was Japan’s center of tea culture, where the practice of Cha Do – The Way of Tea, also known as Sa Do – developed as both a religious and social ritual.
On a recent World Tea Tour, which included a stop in Japan, we had the great privilege of enjoying a specially prepared Kaiseki dinner at the Yachio Ryokan. With serene meditation gardens, a koi pond, attentive service, and a comfortable mix of traditional architecture and contemporary conveniences, this charming guest house is known for its cuisine. Master Chef Toshiyuki Hondo and his staff create their edible works of art using the freshest seasonal ingredients, a virtual parade of ever-more-amazing dishes. During our visit, the servers announced each course, as small saucers and bowls were placed in front of us. Each one was a perfect balance of color, shape, texture, taste, and placement. The thoughtful preparation and presentation of each dish extended even to ensuring the proper temperature of each element. Kaiseki, which can include from 8 to 12 courses, reflects the seasonality of nature. Visiting in September, our plates were ablaze with early Fall colors.
The term, Kaiseki, literally translates to “bosom stone,” referring to a warm stone that monks tucked within their robes, near their stomachs, that helped stave off hunger during long meditations. In time, the word came to mean a simple meal that would help keep hunger at bay. The more formal connection to tea began with Sen no Rikyu, the patriarch of the tea ceremony. He found that the strength of the powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony was a bit unsettling on an empty stomach. So a small variety of snacks and some light soup were served before the ritual, allowing guests to be more comfortable and enjoy the tea. Eventually, the light refreshment evolved into an elaborate meal, though the spirit of its original purpose remains – pleasing the guest. Cha Kaiseki refers to a meal specifically associated with the tea ceremony and remains a more modest service.
Our experience was one I will not soon forget. Perhaps the next time I feel a little empty, rather than butter up a nice scone, I’ll warm my stomach with the memories of our wonderful Kaiseki. This May, the Tea Tour of Japan will return to Kyoto and indulging in a Kaiseki Ryori is on the top of the list of exciting adventures. For more information, visit World Tea Tours.