The major cities of Japan have unique food profiles. Culturally and racially, the country itself may seem homogenous but the cuisine is varied and different from place to place.
Tokyo mega-city, uber-modern Tokyo has more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere else.
Osaka my favourite fun eating city, is casual, welcoming and happy and has a motto to match ... "kuidaore" or "eat oneself to ruin".
Sapporo in the north has a reputation for having the best seafood and boasts of a dish that traces its lineage to Genghis Khan.
Kyoto, elegant, genteel and crowded with centuries-old temples and shrines is famous for shojin ryori or vegetarian temple cooking and kaiseki ryori -- Japan's version of haute cuisine, the ultimate in culinary artistry.
Experiencing a kaiseki meal had always been high on my foodie bucket list.
If I could indulge in a kaiseki meal in Kyoto, it would be, to quote Mastercard -- "priceless".
When she heard of my wish, good friend and Kyoto resident Meiko san set out to help fulfil it.
On this last trip to Kyoto, she made a last minute, same day reservation in my name at one of Kyoto's best restaurants -- Takuma Gion Shirakawa which serves what you could call "mini kaiseki" meals.
I had no expectations -- after all, we were in the middle of Kyoto's sakura season and the restaurant is right alongside the lovely Shirakawa stream in Gion, one of the best places to view sakura. Surely it would be full!
But, the restaurant reservation gods must have been extra kind because she was able to get reservations for dinner for two at Takuma's 8:00 p.m. seating.
Takuma's entrance is on the side street right before the stream. My friend and I showed up promptly for our dinner reservation. The noren at the entrance features a stylised egret, a bird that frequently shows up, posing and preening on the clear shallow waters of the Shirakawa.
The restaurant has two floors and we were seated on the first, along a wooden counter where we looked straight at the chef and his staff working in the open kitchen. There is room for about 14 diners. I wished we had been seated right beside the huge picture window looking out on the illuminated sakura scene outside but then I would have had to contend with curious (and possibly envious) looks from the people outside, across the way.
We were started off with an amuse bouche or small appetiser of tender baby squid, fresh and sweet shrimp and lightly boiled greens. Kaiseki ryori showcases different styles and techniques of traditional Japanese cooking but every dish complements the other.
Next up was a small dish of a few choice pieces of sashimi -- tuna and snapper, nestled on a bed of ice. One of the chef's assistant's put a small dish of what looked to be a yellow creamy dip on my tray. This is Takuma's signature Awa Shoyu or whipped foam soy sauce -- utterly unique and so delicious. The chef came by and explained that it was made using soy sauce and egg whites.
I'm afraid I was completely inelegant and slathered it liberally on my sashimi.
Where is rice when you want and need it?
This clear soup had uniformly sized whitefish all clustered together. If I didn't peer close enough to see the tiny dots of their eyes, I would have thought they were just strands of silken smooth noodles.
A small pinkish white fish cake was placed on top and looked like one of the sakura blossoms I could see outside the window.
This slice of masu or trout was salt grilled and the skin was slightly charred and crisp. The pickled grilled leeks that came with it were crunchy, salty-sour and smoky.
Octopus tentacles, simmered in a sweetish sauce came with a thick part of a bamboo shoot,
and other small boiled vegetables like daikon, edamame and a bright red slice of tomato.
Contrasting flavours and textures in a fine porcelain bowl.
It was not at all intimidating to eat at Takuma Gion -- I was a bit nervous at first because I thought it would be formal and sophisticated and I might make some culinary and etiquette missteps.
My Nihongo is also almost non existent so how would we be able to communicate?
But the chef put us at completely at ease. He would come by my seat and explain the dish and what the ingredients were -- with the help of a pocket translator.
Each dish arrived, freshly made and cooked, one after another. Once you are finished, your tray is cleared and the next item placed in front of you. Some of us ate faster than the others, some ate slower but the chef and his staff noted everything and it was amazing that we all seemed to be eating in sync.
This small plate of kyo yasai or Kyoto vegetables, lightly battered and fried tempura style, made me wistful for my past vegetarian days.
I think the chef has a way with his sauces -- this dish of raw fish and clams was accompanied by a zesty, zingy dip that each diner assembled by himself. The sauce dish contained vinegar over which you poured a bit of honey and sprinkled with as much (or as little) of the freshly minced ginger as you liked. This synthesis of such strong basic flavours worked so well together.
Some of the dishes came in covered bowls -- it was always with anticipation that I lifted the lid to see what delightful morsels would be headed for my mouth. When I saw this pink mochi floating in a seemingly sweet sauce and topped with candy coloured garnish, I was sure it was dessert but the chef who was passing by laughed and said no -- but that I should bite into it and see.
It was a rice ball as I surmised but it was savoury and definitely not dessert -- at least, not yet.
Our kaiseki ryori meal was about to end. The last items placed on the tray included a small serving of gohan, a bowl of delicately flavoured miso soup with mushrooms, a few pieces of tiny, unbelievably tasty grilled dried anchovies and some bits of tart and salty tsukemono.
This is the time honoured and traditional way that signals the end of the meal.
Our trays were whisked away but wait -- there was dessert! My betsubara (or second stomach, only for dessert) would not be going home unhappy. A small soup spoon carried just a mouthful of a very creamy and delectable creme brûlée -- it was served with just two slices each of strawberries, pineapple and tiny segments of grapefruit. Again, sweet and creamy, juicy and tart -- with a touch of acidity. But, it was one of the cleanest and most satisfying desserts I had ever had.
It was the prime example of wa or harmony, masquerading as dessert.
Truly hospitable and very kind -- the chef saw us all the way out to the entrance. I am sorry I was not able to get his name but I hope to ask him next time I come back for another kaiseki experience at Takuma Gion Shirakawa.