KYOTO, Nov 13 — It’s autumn in Japan. Nowhere is the season more beautiful than in Kyoto, the heart of momijigari or autumn leaves viewing. But Kyoto is more than temples and colourful leaves. Autumn is also the perfect time to experience the best of seasonal dining in Kyoto and the foremost of such cuisine is kaiseki-ryori.
Originating as a tea ceremony, kaiseki-ryori has since evolved into an elaborate, multi-course Japanese cuisine based on seasonal ingredients. There’s no better place to enjoy a kaiseki meal than at Hyotei, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant located on the grounds of Nanzenji Temple. With a history of nearly 400 years, Hyotei is one of Kyoto’s oldest restaurants and the epitome of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic of refinement amidst rusticity.
The restaurant is hidden behind a discreet bamboo fence, as Hyotei treasures a serene environment for diners. Upon entering, we discover a verdant oasis that’s not unlike a secret garden with aged stone paths leading to the centuries-old wooden teahouse. After removing our footwear and replacing them with indoor slippers, we are invited to enter a private room covered with tatami mats.
We are accompanied by our friend and local food guide, Masatoshi Sugai. Originally from Koriyama, Fukushima, Masatoshi has been living in Kyoto for many years. He tells us that the family-run Hyotei specialises in Kyoto-style kaiseki (or kyo-kaiseki). With a strong emphasis on fresh and seasonal ingredients from the Kyoto region, kyo-kaiseki is particularly famed for its subtle, delicate flavours.
A kyo-kaiseki meal is composed of a specific order of courses, each prepared using a different cooking method. Usually you start with an aperitif (shokuzen-shu) and go through a variety of steamed, grilled, fried and boiled dishes before ending with dessert for a sweet finish. Here at Hyotei, this may be as many as 12 separate dishes.
We begin with shokuzen-shu. A kimono-clad waitress brings us a platter of bite-sized appetisers. There is a small chilled salad of kaki (persimmon) and goma (sesame), very apt given that persimmons flourish in autumn. Seasonal sashimi (or otsukuri) — we have fresh tai (sea bream) today — is served with a tomato-based shoyu (soy sauce).
The second course is suimono, which is traditionally a light soup. As white miso is a specialty of Kyoto, we have a white miso soup blended with chestnut, another autumn produce, laced with tender slivers of soy curd. Masatoshi tells us that white miso is “freshly fermented” and if it’s kept in the refrigerator, it will continue to ferment into red miso and, if you leave it for even longer, into black miso.
Next we enjoy a hassun course of different textures and flavours — from shrimp and sea bream sushi to briny karasumi (dried mullet roe). Scattered like fallen leaves on a forest floor are nuggets of ginkgo, chestnut and sweet potato chips shaped like — what else? — leaves.
The highlight here is Hyotei’s signature hanjuku (soft-boiled) egg, made from a secret recipe that’s more than a century old. Wobbly and melt-in-your-mouth, these eggs are reason enough to come all the way to Hyotei, simply to taste them. The waitress would only tell us they use eggs from Tosajiro chickens raised in the Kochi prefecture, and nothing more.
Kyoto’s delicate flavours are showcased in the takiawase course, where different parts of the dish are prepared separately before being assembled. The mushimono (steamed) ingredient, anago (salt-water eel), is draped over the nimono portion, radish simmered in sake and radish leaves dressed with yuzu. Light and citrusy with the fresh taste of the ocean, this is a classic Hyotei dish that eschews any heavy seasoning.
The yakimono dish is a rare delight: kamasu (barracuda) is wrapped in a piece of sugi (Japanese cedar) bark before being grilled and served with pickled radish and a wedge of sudachi lime. The expensive wood imparts a delicious fragrance to the fish; the sudachi gives it just the right hit of acid.
Our waitress prepares some hojicha (roasted Japanese green tea) to freshen our palates before the following courses. This also allows us to deepen our conversation, learning more about Japanese culture and cuisine. A typical kaiseki meal can last for three hours easily; this is slow food the way Masatoshi’s ancestors used to experience it.
The final warm course is shokuji: we are served a set of rice, soup and pickles (tsukemono). The mushroom rice is comfort food at its most basic; the fluffy grains mixed with ceps and shimeiji mushooms. A single piece of whitefish paste “swims” in a bowl of light broth, painting a pretty picture for those with livelier imaginations.
You’d think we are quite stuffed after so many dishes, but a good kaiseki meal is neither too heavy nor paced too quickly. Therefore when our dessert arrives, we can’t wait to try it. Warm pâte à choux filled with apple, poached pear with jelly, and glacéed persimmon — this is an inspired display of autumn’s best fruits.
We end our meal with wagashi, which is a course of traditional Japanese sweets served with tea. Here sweet potato paste is coarsely mixed with angko (adzuki bean paste) to create a “bouquet” of autumnal colours. A bowl of freshly whisked matcha ensures we finish with a sense of tranquillity.
As we make our way from the rooms through the garden, we observe the splash of koi in the pond and the dripping of raindrops from leaves. Kaiseki is more than a meal, we realise, it’s a way of seeing the world — and it’s a beautiful way.
35 Nanzenji Kusagawacho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily 11am-7:30pm (closed the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of every month); reservations are required
Tel: +81 75-771-4116