Having a Japanese kaiseki meal is an experience in itself, and there is no better place to enjoy it than in Kyoto, where it originated, and where the ruling imperial palace was situated for centuries before relocating to Tokyo.
It is always a challenge for gaijin tourists to secure reservations at high-end kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto; not just because of the obvious language barrier, but also because the stricter ones even require introductions by their regular (and local) patrons.
Since the subtleties of a truly authentic kyo kaiseki meal would most likely be lost on our foreigner tongues anyway, we searched for a restaurant that (i) had an English version of their website, (ii) could be reserved online and (iii) was not in a remote location.
What we found was Gion Karyo, right in the heart of Gion and at one end of the touristy Hanamikoji Street.
Upon entering, we took off our shoes and were ushered to our seats at the counter by an elegant kimono-clad waitress.
There were two other couples seated at the counter, one clearly tourists like us, but the other an elderly obaasan/ojiisan pair, out on a regular lunch. It’s always reassuring to see locals eating at a restaurant.
Our menu for the day was laid out in front of us, together with a minimalist table setting.
The open-plan kitchen was in full view of all counter guests and one thing that struck me was how young all the chefs looked, including those nearest to the guests.
You would typically find very mature and experienced head chefs who were client-facing, and the younger (but still not young) sous chefs in the background doing prep work.
The really young ones would probably be relegated to the back and out of sight, washing dishes and doing various grunt work, slowly working their way up the hierarchy.
Not here though. I’d say late twenties, maybe early thirties. He reminded me of VK, a good friend in Sydney, and I promptly texted him these photos and asked if he had a brother working in Kyoto. The answer was: “Haha, no. I wish”.
We ordered some junmai daiginjyo to start, which arrived in what looked like a hand-crafted metal flask accompanied by metal cups. The sake was nice and cold and oishii.
While we were waiting for our first course, we could smell the hamachi that was being grilled for a later dish. I have to assume that this was deliberately done to increase our anticipation, and part-and-parcel of the entire dining experience.
Our appetiser of cold crab, greens and mushrooms arrived, which we finished quickly.
It was then followed by fish paste in a light yuzu-accented soup broth, topped with slices of Japanese sweet peppers. Which doesn’t sound like much, and doesn’t look particularly appetising, but it was one of the highlights of the meal.
This is not the garden variety stuff that you get with your typical fishball kway teow, but something much more fresh, complex and delicious. The broth must have also been made by boiling all sorts of good stuff for a long time, to be able to condense so much flavour into just a few mouthfuls.
While we were slowly savouring our soup, the chef from earlier was cutting up our next course — hamo sashimi. Pike conger eel, or hamo in Japanese, is in season during the summer and autumn months, and a favourite among the locals.
It’s notoriously difficult to prepare because the chef has to use a heavy blade to slice through the numerous small bones, but not completely through the flesh, for diners to be able to eat it safely.
It takes a lot of training and experience to be able to do it consistently, producing a mesmerising sequence of crunching sounds as the blade breaks the bones in millimetre increments across the entire length of each eel.
I’m not a huge fan of eel sashimi and prefer it hitsumabushi-style, but the skill displayed in preparing the dish was impressive, and no doubt part of the show.
Next was a small dish of “white melon, mushroom bean jam and radish green” served in some goopy sauce. I still don’t know what it was that we ate, but I do know that it was very good.
The grilled hamachi finally appeared, in a long dish filled with various other seasonal dishes including sanma, ikura, kuri and my favourite yuba …
… followed by a steamed dish of yam with maitake mushrooms.
Finally, we reached the rice course, which was hearth-cooked in a traditional cast iron pot. We had a choice of either chicken or chestnut, and of course we went with the less common chestnut.
The rice was accompanied by the usual pickles and miso soup. By then we were already quite full, and they used the leftover rice to make onigiris which they packed in a nice takeaway bag.
Dessert was pumpkin pudding with balsamic vinegar (the small black dot) and sweet potato ice cream, which sounded interesting but tasted fairly average. Or maybe it was simply because our taste buds were overloaded from all the earlier courses.
The beauty of a well-executed kaiseki meal is in its balance of different tastes, textures and techniques, coupled with fresh and seasonal ingredients to create a feast for your senses.
From the touch of a cold sake flask, to the smell of hamachi grilling on charcoal, to the sound of hamo bones being methodically broken, to the sight of beautifully plated dishes and the taste of perfectly prepared ingredients.
We left Gion Karyo feeling grateful that we had the chance to experience a truly memorable kaiseki meal, right in the heart of Kyoto.
Eleven days in Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto
The world has changed forever due to that-which-must-not-be-named and international travel is on an indefinite pause. There are many countries we want to visit again and Japan is definitely among the top choices.
In the meantime, as we remain grounded in Singapore, we can look back and remember the wonderful time we had in our eleven days in Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto during the autumn of 2018, two years and a lifetime ago.