Resurrecting the Seasons: The Poetry of Kaiseki Cuisine

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Resurrection is life from the perspective of death. A thought in the mind of Honda, a character in Mishima Yukio’s Spring Snow, set in post-Meiji Japan. We living spend tremendous effort commemorating and memorializing death. Is it possible that rebirth is only what it is because of the distance between life and death that we cover over with the memorial?

Resurrection is a deeply embedded concept in Japan, including its food. A culture that deals constantly with impermanence, rituals commemorate change as much as tradition: Shinto Tori are traditionally torn down and rebuilt every 10 years. They also represent perfection – the divine. It is rare to encounter a temple that hasn’t burnt down, at least in part, sometime during its history.

So it is that seasonality in Japan is much more than about ‘local’ or ‘fresh’ or part of an environmental movement as it is in the West. Seasonality is resurrection, cycles, impermanence. Celebrating seasons, and appreciating their subtle gradations, is an ode on death’s relationship to life. Just as in Japanese poetry each season has a Kigo, or word associated with each season, in the highest form of Japanese dining, each season has not just ingredients, but an entire aesthetic associated with it, one that both simplifies the seasonal references and makes them deeper and subtler than anything seen in Western cuisine.

The name for this most intense of Japan’s cooking traditions is Kaiseki.


Buddhism draws a great thread through Japan, particularly when it comes to death rights. Many different sects entered and developed on the island since the 6th century AD, bringing Buddhist concepts from China. One of the most important was resurrection, which fit well with the Shinto animism that has undergirded Japanese culture since its beginning. If most things, living or inanimate, have a spiritual essence, then there is a logic to resurrection.

This can also help explain how Kaiseki involves appreciation of the spiritual essence of both a season and its manifestation through ingredients. Food is but nature.

Kaiseki cuisine evolved from the tea ceremony, which was brought to Japan by Zen Buddhism in the 13th century AD from china. Now extinct in China, the tea ceremony lives on in Japan as one of its most famous cultural forms. In Zen Buddhism, the tea ceremony was a ‘way’ or path to enlightenment. It facilitated meditation and, as a practical reality, high caffeine matcha helped keep monks awake during long religious ceremonies and practices. The tea ceremony developed into an extremely elaborate aesthetic, part of which was the serving of multi-coursed vegetarian cuisine that was known as cha-kaiseki, cha meaning tea. This type of food was highly seasonal and became more and more refined over time. Now this original form has faded away, but remains a persistent, subtle force.

“Unaware that she was on display, she went through the ceremony without hesitation, and she herself set the tea before Kikuji.

After drinking, Kikuji looked at the bowl. It was black Oribe, splashed with white on one side, and there decorated, also in black, with crook-shaped bracken shoots.

‘you must remember it,’ said Chikako from across the room.

Kikuji gave an evasive answer and put the bowl down.

‘The pattern has the feel of the mountains in it,” said Chikako. “One of the best bowls I know for early spring–your father often used it. We’re just a little out of season, but then I thought that for Kikuji…’

‘But what difference does it make that my father owned it for a little while? It’s four hundred years old, after all–its history goes back to Momoyama and Rikyu himself. Tea masters have looked after it and passed it down through the centuries. My father is of very little importance.’ So Kikuji tried to forget the associations the bowl called up.”

~from Kawabata Yasunari’s Thousand Cranes


Kikunoi is one of the world’s most famous and revered restaurants, serving traditional Kyoto kaiseki cuisine. It has been around for 300 years in Kyoto, one of the oldest and most refined cities on earth. In fact, Kikunoi was once related to a temple and its ‘proprietors’ were priests. These priests are ancestors of current owner and chef Murata Yoshihiro, who was awarded three Michelin stars when that guide colonized Japan in 2008. Today, this strange tension of individuality and ancient tradition break forth simultaneously. Murata Yoshihiro explains that when younger he made a decision to study cooking in France, rejecting his family’s long history with Japanese food. His father told him to go to France if that’s what he cared about and he would fully finance it. After 6 months Murata Yoshihiro returned to Japan, where he told his father he had decided, instead, to study traditional Japanese cuisine. When hearing the news his father threw an object at his head that scarred Murata Yoshihiro permanently. This is Kikunoi: embracing the most traditional but bearing the intended scar of the modern. It is this mark that makes today’s Kikunoi part of history.

What is the relationship between personality and history? Honda, that character from Mishima’s Spring Snow, sees any confluence of personality and history as mere coincidence. Can a person’s vital force make any mark on historical time? Even if one’s utmost desires become reality, why does this ‘achievement’ belong to personality? Is it even relevant that desire and history come together at a single point, for a brief moment. Or is that just an illusion? Is it any more connected than the various individual self-consciousnesses all living simultaneously but unbridgeable.

Over the centuries, cha-kaiseki developed into kaiseki, a culinary and cultural tradition for the nobles and aristocrats who populated Kyoto – the imperial capital for most of Japan’s history. Kaiseki was a multi-course seasonal meal, now with meat, served at luxury ryokan (or inns). This traditional form would see meals served in room, amongst temple-like surroundings of scrolls, tatami mats and often a window into a manicured garden, each component comprising part of the aesthetic experience.

Our Room at the Iwaso Ryokan on Miyajima

The vessels in which food was served played an equally important role as the food, many of which had long, illustrious histories. At the most famous kaiseki restaurants today, some of the lacquerware is priceless.

Eventually, kaiseki restaurants grew independent from the ryokan and most of the very top places now stand alone, though the ryokan tradition is still well alive. While the traditional restaurants still serve meals in private rooms, new forms have developed. The most important of these is kapo ryori kaiseki, which is kaiseki (and all its requisite courses and seasonality) but served at a counter in front of the chefs rather than in a private room. Most recently some chefs have been trying to bring kaiseki to the people in a merging of a more casual izakaya type environment with kaiseki food traditions, for a far lower price.

The Garden View from Private Dining Room at Kikunoi, Kyoto

Kapo Ryori restaurant Nakahara's two chefs at work behind the counter

In summary, kaiseki can take the following forms:

-Honzen Ryori/Shojin Ryori (Buddhist Vegetarian)
-Cha-Kaiseki (tea ceremony, now the base)
-Ryokan/Aristocratic Kaiseki
-Kapo-Ryori (counter Kaiseki)
-Izakaya Kaiseki

Kaiseki has also influenced modern French cooking, particularly the hugely influential Nouvelle Cuisine school (with members such as Paul Bocuse, Fernand Point and Alain Chapel).


First day of Spring
I keep thinking about
the end of autumn.
~Matsuo Basho

Ichiju sansai comprises the foundation for most Japanese cuisine: one soup, three vegetables. Each of the three vegetables derives from one of namasu (vinagered dish), nimono (simmered dish) and yakimono (grilled dish).

Cha-kaiseki (and kaiseki) elaborated on this classic medley: (1) rice, soup and mukozuke (namasu equivalent, usually sashimi in kaiseki), (2) wanmori (simmered), (3) yakimono, (4) Hashiarai (Suimono or clear soup), (5) chinmi (rare luxury food from mountains and sea), (6) ko no mono (rice and pickles). These courses/forms can be and are played with, but generally form the structure for all kaiseki meals.

While in Japan I had about half a dozen kaiseki meals in different forms. Each was revelatory in its own way and each taught me more about life, death, nature and resurrection then I thought possible – the food’s transience gave each reflection greater depth.

Mukozuke – Emergence

Honzen Ryori at Ichijoen temple in Koyasan - seasonal appetizers

Kaiseki at Iwaso Ryokan on Miyajima - seasonal appetizers and sashimi

Izakaya/Casual Kaiseki at Giro Giro, Kyoto - seasonal appetizers

Giro Giro - sashimi

Kapo Ryori Kaiseki at Nakahara, Kyoto

Nakahara - sashimi

Kaiseki at Kikunoi - miso/tofu paste simmered in Yuzu

Kaiseki at Kikunoi - before (seasonal appetizers)

Kaiseki at Kikunoi - after (seasonal appetizers)

Kaiseki at Kikunoi - Sashimi

Wanmori – Vitality

Kaiseki at Iwaso Ryokan - simmered Wagyu beef

Honzen Ryori at Ichijoen (simmered glutinous rice)

Izakaya/casual Kaiseki at Giro Giro - simmered clear broth vegetable soup

Kaiseki at Kikunoi - before (Matsutake simmered in teapot)

Kikunoi - after (Matsutake teapot)

Yakimono – Depth

Izakaya/casual Kaiseki at Giro Giro - grilled oysters

Kaiseki at Iwaso Ryokan (Grilled Seafood)

Kapo Ryori at Nakahara - grilled fish

Hashiarai – Horizon

Kapo Ryori at Nakahara


Kaiseki at Kikunoi

Chinmi – Elevation

Kapo Ryori at Nakahara - tempura of rare vegetables

Honzen Ryori at Ichijoen - tempura fig in broth

Kaiseki at Kikunoi - before - the Chinmi and Yakimono combined - grilled Barracuda and Duck

Kaiseki at Kikunoi - after - barracuda and duck

Ko no mono – Home

Kaiseki at Iwaso Ryokan - chestnuts, rice, pickles

Casual Kaiseki at Giro Giro - mushrooms, vegetables, rice

Kapo Ryori at Nakahara - dried fishes on rice

Kaiseki at Kikunoi - mushrooms, vegetables, rice, miso soup, pickles

“In the last analysis my death is a natural one–man cannot live exclusively for principles. I have one request to make of you, which embarrasses me very much. You remember the hemp kimono of Mother’s which you altered so that I could wear it next summer? Please put it in my coffin. I wanted to wear it.

The night has dawned. I have made you suffer a long time.


My drunkenness from last night has entirely worn off. I shall die sober.

Once more, good-bye.


I am, after all, an aristocrat.”

~from Dazai Osamu’s The Setting Sun

Posted in: Features, Japan 2013


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