Piquant progression through kaiseki classics
DON’T try to do too much. Just let it all wash over you. And make sure you have at least one good lunch. It’s not exactly a sutra, more parting words from a friend that come back to me after a morning spent traipsing around the temples of Kyoto.
As luck would have it, the exchange rate is favourable and my riverside hotel is barely half a block from Ganko Nijo-en, a toney restaurant offering kaiseki cuisine.
Kaiseki is the full nine yards when it comes to haute Japanese dining. Its uplifting approach to food has evolved through centuries, allegedly from vegetarian snacks used to perk up Zen tea ceremonies.
In modern practice, fish and meat are included in a degustation of exquisitely light dishes, each dressed beautifully on plates chosen to match the food, not each other, and delivered in an order determined by cooking method. The atmosphere and ritual of the meal should enhance this celebration of seasonal bounty.
Kaiseki dinners are usually booked in advance but cut-down versions are often available at lunchtime. So I front up unannounced to Ganko Nijo-en, leaving my shoes at the door of this rambling, former merchant’s villa from the Meiji era. There’s something stern about the wellgroomed woman who greets me and I swing into polite gesturing and nodding, hoping she can fit me in. I’m disguising a selfconsciousness common to foreigners entering formal Japanese spaces. Particularly if they haven’t rung ahead.
Grace and gentleness prevail. She can tell the glass-walled tatami room, shimmering with sunlight from the garden, is not my speed and leads me to a Westernstyle salon, carpeted and coordinated in mushroom pink, with dark wood trim, bevelled glass and hanging lights bursting with tulip shapes. An enclosed veranda with more tables surrounds the room.
To my right, 17 Japanese ladies are lunching with a somewhat relaxed composure at the main table, all in expensive Western dress, some of venerable age. They appear to have knocked off a few bottles of sake. Young women in pale kimonos and full make-up glide about on stockinged feet, serving with discreet efficiency.
A warm towelette and a picture menu are produced and I point to a lunch set that skips the customary appetiser with sake followed by a clear soup and begins at the raw course, sashimi. I’m given a tiny appetiser of vegetable slivers when she brings my Asahi beer. The sashimi arrives, whip-sliced with a samurai sword’s edge, gently listing across the plate in a nearperfect wave. Curved before it like a beach is a raw prawn, quiveringly fresh and peeled from the neck down. Garnish forms a delicate undergrowth. Both the wasabi and soy sauce taste more piquant than usual and the pickled ginger is the mellow, pale yellow variety, not the common pink sugary stuff. Is that prawn staring at me? One gulp would be enough, but I bite into it and discover a new texture, almost savouring it. I may have grown as a gourmand. A simmered dish would probably come next, then perhaps something baked, in a progression to the steamed and grilled. I jump to the fried course with tempura, its thin pale batter both crisp and fluffy. A doll’s house pot of pureed daikon with a tiny plop of something astringent accompanies the light dipping sauce. Detail without clutter.
Plain white rice, pickled vegetables, miso soup and lashings of green tea round out the meal. I skip dessert.
A garden to contemplate is part of the kaiseki tradition and Ganko Nijo-en’s covers an area the size of three or four tennis courts, though you might not suspect it was there when walking past its outside walls. Well-placed stones, paths, a waterfall, even a plaster duck in the stream feature among greenery that is refreshingly unclipped by Kyoto standards.
I start to explore it, then stop. Better to just sit in the sun in one spot and enjoy the moment: let the experience of the meal and the flourish of nature wash gently over me.
Ganko Nijo-en is near the Nijokiyamachi river crossing and is marked on Lonely Planet maps. Closest subway station is Shiyakusho-mae. Phone: +81 75 223 3456.