Mealtime as meditation
The first course looks like a work of art.
A single red apricot, pickled in dashi stock and topped with a snow white sauce, sits unadorned in a dusky orange lacquer bowl, its curvaceous sides hand-painted with golden clouds. The dish is designed to signify the beauty of spring's cherry and plum blossoms. The taste is beautifully balanced; the sour apricot in almost direct contrast to the shirako sauce, a creamy white potage I startlingly discover is made from sake and the sperm of cod fish.
Such is the complexity and curious nature of a meal at Kikunoi, the fine-dining kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto of Yoshihiro Murata, one of Japan's most acclaimed master chefs.
A profusion of delicate morsels rolled out over two to three hours, if dinner could be captured as an art piece, Kikunoi's would surely belong in a museum. Even a simple lunch has 11 courses, some with multiple parts. There are steamed slices of lily bulb topped with golden orange salmon roe.
Ice fish, their translucent bodies topped with tiny heads and even tinier black eyes, are eaten whole, heads and all, with rice seasoned with sweet potato vinegar. Squid, skewered to resemble a fern, is dusted in the bud of a prickly ash. Grilled abalone smothered with its own liver and sudachi lime arrives hidden under a bed of spongy seaweed.
Each dish is presented by a waitress wearing a pale blue kimono who, on her knees, touches her head to the floor, before leaving the bare wood-clad room.
A traditional multi-course meal involving small, painstakingly prepared titbits deeply entrenched in the seasons, kaiseki has taken the chef world by storm. International star chefs - including the Fat Duck's Heston Blumenthal, Noma's Rene Redzepi and now defunct El Bulli's Ferran Adria - have all travelled to Kyoto to study under Murata.
Kaiseki is food cooked with soul, says Adria, "a communion between the work of man and the gifts of nature ... exemplified in the work of Yoshihiro Murata".
Translated as "bosom stone", the word kaiseki was originally used to signify the habit of monks carrying warmed pebbles inside their robes to ward off hunger. The term altered with the introduction of tea ceremonies in Japan in the 16th century. The powdered green tea served was loaded in caffeine and required small nibbles of food to be eaten alongside it to aid digestion. From this, the practice grew far from its humble beginnings to become a symbol of luxury, a meditation in eating.
It was in the temple town of Kyoto that kaiseki flourished. Kyoto has always been blessed with pure spring water and fertile soils. It was when Japan's imperial palace was moved to the city in 794AD and chefs were forced to create dishes worthy of entertaining the emperor that the cuisine took on a life of its own.
These days, kaiseki restaurants are found throughout Kyoto, a city of 1.4 million that seamlessly blends high-tech modernity with a centuries-old tradition.
Kichisen, a simple wooden restaurant next to the Shimogamo-jinja shrine, is one of Kyoto's best-known kaiseki restaurants. It is owned and run by Yoshimi Tanigawa, a middle-aged chef who soared to stardom in 2001, when he beat the Iron Chef, the live cook-off on TV. Tanigawa still has a steely hand, I discover as I sit down to an eight-course lunch in a simple tatami-lined room overlooking a small garden.
One by one, the procession of dishes starts unfolding. There is clear dashi broth with a wedge of fresh yellow tofu, two raw clams and a profusion of multi-hued forest flowers. A selection of sashimi - eel, shrimp, squid, sea bream and octopus - is served on an earthy ceramic plate. Lightly cooked eel is paired with a sweet citrus sauce.
It is all extraordinarily delicious, balanced and utterly fresh. It is not as refined or philosophical as at Kikunoi, but it is a meal to relish. However, as the courses drag on, two hours soon become three and my afternoon appointments loom. Tanigawa menaces me over the counter, bantering about the way I hold the bowl and clasp the chopsticks, hurrying me to finish.
Rule No.1: Always leave time for kaiseki.
Much the same way as chefs around the world have interpreted kaiseki into degustation menus, kaiseki is being reinvented in Kyoto. These days, there are all manner of kaiseki meals, as I discover booking a table at Misoguigawa, a former teahouse overlooking the Kamo River that has been serving French kaiseki since 1981. Influenced by the Belle Epoque era in France's history, Teruo Inoue has taken the structure of kaiseki and applied it to French dishes and flavours.
"The most important thing about kaiseki food is balance," Inoue explains. "Balance of the seasons; balance of the fields, the mountains and the oceans; balance of salty and sweet. Any world cuisine can be subjected to this understanding."
The ingredients at Misoguigawa are Japanese, but the essence and style is pure French. Instead of raw fish, sake and dashi broths, Inoue serves a mousse of lily bulb topped with leek sauce; a potage of pureed green peas; sole wrapped in its own skin and swimming in a rich crab bisque; super-tender Kanagawa beef served with potato fondant and roasted tubers; French cheeses and petit four chocolates. All are teamed with a selection of chardonnay and pinot noir wines selected by Inoue on annual trips to France.
Yoshikawa Tempura has also transmuted the traditional kaiseki meal, this time with tempura. The 12-seat bar overlooking a one-man kitchen is by far the most famous in Kyoto. Here diners watch as a progression of small morsels - forest fern, oyster mushroom, sea eel, scallop and asparagus - are cooked in front of them and served in rapid succession. The tempura is tasty and filling, but the restaurant lacks ceremony. The service is slow and aloof, the chef barely communicates, diners are lined up cheek to jowl and there are more tourists than locals.
Rule No.2: If it is in a well-known guide book, look elsewhere.
It was with this rule in mind that I discovered one of Kyoto's best eats. A friend had connected me to Ken Yamamoto, the general manager of the Hyatt Regency Kyoto. After discussing my eating plans by email, Yamamoto declared he would like to take me somewhere really special.
Arriving at Kappo Sakamoto, a shoebox restaurant down the end of a dark alleyway with windows almost as big as the floor space and the gentle sound of water running through a canal outside, felt more like turning up to a friend's dining room than a restaurant.
There are only 10 seats, six of these at the bar overlooking a tiny kitchen run by Ryuta Sakamoto, a youthful chef with an easy laugh. Sitting at the counter, our first task is to select a thimble-sized ceramic cup from a tray. Each is unique in shape, size and colour. I choose a dusky pink cup etched with flowers and hold it out to be filled with a cloudy, unfiltered sake called Kikuhime from Ishikawa prefecture. It is unlike any sake I have had before - both sweet and nutty from the rice, but also fresh.
With no more than 10 guests a night, Sakamoto manages to retain an extraordinary intimacy; selecting unusual ingredients and cooking them to order. There is firefly squid that has been shaped into a flower, signifying the first stages of spring. Ice fish have been lightly coated in tempura batter for sweetness and crunch; succulent pan-roasted Kyoto duck served with raw egg and oriental mustard pushes a new height on my taste experience bar; but we all agree the grilled wild sea trout marinated in sun-reduced miso that turns the fish's skin crispy, with concentrated flavours of citrus and a candy density, is worth the plane ride to Kyoto alone.
This is all just a prelude to the furi-yuba, fresh tofu skins that arrive in a wooden box simmering in water heated by pieces of camphor charcoal. We fish the opaque sheets from the bubbling water and dip them in a sauce made from soy, dashi, mirin and fresh wasabi. It is silky and nutty with subtle onion overtones; the flavours are pure and light - the perfect expression of Kyoto cuisine. And, just like the perfect kaiseki meal, this one ends as simply as it begins: fresh kumquats, as sweet as candy, devoured whole, skin and all.
The writer was assisted by the Kyoto City Board.
GETTING THERE Fly to Hong Kong (about 8hr) and then to Osaka (3hr 25min); see cathaypacific.com. Kyoto is an hour by train from Osaka airport.
STAYING THERE The Hyatt Regency has 189 very comfortable rooms, some with wooden Hiba bath tubs, great service and a location close to the temples of southern Higashiyama. Doubles are from ¥19,000 ($217.5); kyoto.regency.hyatt.com.
Kikunoi: kaiseki lunch from ¥8400 ($96); dinner from ¥15,750 ($180); kikunoi.jp.
Kichisen: lunch from ¥8000 ($91.5); dinner from ¥14,000 ($160); kichisen-kyoto.com.
Misoguigawa: kaiseki lunch from ¥7350 9484), dinner from ¥15,750 ($180); misogui.jp.
Yoshikawa Tempura: lunch from ¥3000 ($34), dinner from ¥6000 ($68.7); kyoto-yoshikawa.co.jp
Kappo Sakamoto: lunch from ¥5250 ($60), dinner from ¥13,650 ($156); gion-sakamoto.com.
MORE INFORMATION kyoto.travel.