A beginner's guide to kaiseki, the world's finest meal

japanese kaiseki cuisine culinary journey cnn orig_00012519
japanese kaiseki cuisine culinary journey cnn orig_00012519

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Story highlights

  • Kaiseki is a meticulously prepared multi-course Japanese meal
  • Kyoto is Japan's kaiseki capital
  • Hyotei and Miyamasou are two of the city's top kaiseki restaurants

(CNN)Japan travelers researching a trip to Kyoto will inevitably come across the word "kaiseki" -- usually hyped as a must-try culinary experience.

So what exactly is it?
    To the outsider, kaiseki appears to simply be a multi-course Japanese dinner made up of beautifully plated dishes.
    But there's so much more to this meticulously prepared, exquisitely served and, usually, very expensive meal.
    Originally presented to the royal noble classes, a kaiseki meal today could easily hit the triple dollar digits.
    To practitioners of this haute cuisine, kaiseki is the embodiment of "omotenashi," which means wholehearted hospitality.
    Its central tenet is to convey respect, making guests feel special and at ease.
    This means chefs strive for excellence in every detail.

    The standard courses

    While kaiseki meals can vary, there are usually some standard courses served and the chef decides the order.
    These are:
    -- Sakizuke, an appetizer served with sake
    -- Nimono, a simmered dish
    -- Mukozuke, a sashimi dish
    -- Hassun, an expression of the season
    -- Yakimono -- a grilled course
    -- Hanmono or shokuji, a rice dish.
    Traditionally served at a tatami-matted ryokan -- Japanese inn -- the experience culminates with dessert and a matcha tea ceremony.

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    Absorbing the environment

    The finest kaiseki meals are an expression of both time and place.
    Chef Hisato Nakahigashi of Miyamasou, a two Michelin-starred restaurant and ryokan in Kyoto prefecture, combs the surrounding forest and river for ingredients including wild plants and herbs every day.
    "We serve food that's best in the season and beautiful on that day," says Nakahigashi.
    The foraged ingredients -- like the purple shiso flower that blooms in mid-summer -- must match the atmosphere, their flavors reminiscent of a particular season, he adds.
    Designed to create lasting memories, the experience of the meal goes beyond the edible.
    Another establishment famed for its kaiseki excellence is Hyotei, a three Michelin-starred restaurant that's been serving the cuisine for nearly 400 years.
    A former tea house set along the Nanzenji Temple pilgrimage route, it continues to breathe life into one of Kyoto's oldest culinary traditions.
    "A tea house is usually built in a way that allows guests to hear the sounds of nature and sense the atmosphere outside," says chef Yoshihiro Takahashi.
    They may include the chirping birds, the clicks of wooden sandals, a jumping carp in a pond, or the host rolling up the shades.
    Hyotei continues to adhere to this tradition.
    For instance, one of the dining rooms faces a waterfall that runs as gentle background music, while others open up to views of the lush and green surroundings.

    An evolving tradition

    Kaiseki meals were originally much simpler.
    A set consisted of meshi (steamed rice), shiru (soup) and mukozuke.
    And one could never go directly to the sashimi.
    The first rule was to have a little bit of rice and soup to warm up the stomach.
    Then sake would be served, followed by the sashimi.
    But this centuries-old practice has always welcomed new techniques and innovations.
    For example, dashi -- the cooking stock central to Japanese cuisine -- is traditionally made with kombu (seaweed) and bonito flakes.
    However Takahashi's father, curious about alternatives, started making his dashi with tuna flakes.
    It resulted in a clearer soup and more delicate flavors.
    The younger Takahashi also gives various light and dark soy sauces their own twist -- infused with tomato, sake or citrus oil -- to complement different kinds of sashimi.
    Or even in gelee form, tucked under a generous slab of sea urchin.

    A culture of trust

    Chef Shinobu Namae of Tokyo restaurant L'effervescence expereinces traditional kaiseki at Kyoto's Miyamasou ryokan during his Culinary Journeys shoot with CNN.
    Remarkably, the fathers of chefs Takahashi and Nakahigashi knew each other and even shared their skills -- a common practice in group training sessions called "kensankai."
    "We mix with each other very naturally," says Takahashi.
    "Through the two generations -- of our fathers and ourselves -- it's become natural and common to disclose our techniques to each other.
    "We show, disclose and then try to improve ourselves. That's our way of thinking."
    Yet the kaiseki restaurants maintain their uniqueness.
    Each chef is known for their different styles and values -- a diversity that proudly shapes Kyoto's culinary scene and makes it more resistant to fads.
    Recipe theft has never been an issue in the community, either.
    "We all know each individual chef and have absolute trust in each other that they would never do such a thing," says Nakahigashi.
    "We've been brought up by our fathers' and grandfathers' generations to develop such trust."
    On a recent visit to Kyoto as part of CNN's Culinary Journeys series, Tokyo-based chef Shinobu Namae of the acclaimed French restaurant L'effervescence found the contrast between the two cities striking.
    "I wish Tokyo would become like this," he says.
    "People in Tokyo try so hard to protect the secrets of their restaurants. But everyone goes to a certain direction if it is the trend then, and they go a different direction if the trend shows the other way."