How to Read a Japanese Kaiseki Menu

During our first visit to Japan, we were overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the traditions of the local culture. The culture of food, especially, had so many rules, courses, and new types of dishes to experiment with that we can see how first-time travelers may be overwhelmed. We attempt to demystify Japanese food, specifically a traditional kaiseki meal that you will likely encounter in ryokans (Japanese inns) when traveling throughout the country.  Here are the many courses you will encounter as part of any kaiseki experience:

  • Shokuzen-shu – to start off your meal, you may be offered a small glass of alcohol — this aperitif may consist of sweet wine or a local alcoholic beverage.
  • Sakiduke – these hors d-oeuvres are typically beautifully prepared, bite-sized tastes that serve to whet the appetite of the diner.
  • Wanmori (or suimono) – this is a very light soup that is served before the main dish.
  • Tsukuri – this course consists of sashimi-style (no rice) raw fish, thinly sliced and usually accompanied by soya sauce and a small amount of wasabi paste.
Tsukuri (Shashimi) - Traditional Kaiseki Meal

Tsukuri (Sashimi)

  • There is some flexibility as to what comes next in the traditional kaiseki meal. In our first ryokan, we had hanmushi (steamed fish) and kuchitori (another small appetizer consisting of various ingredients); however in another place we ate nimoro, a selection of delicately simmered vegetables.
  • Yakimono – this is a grilled dish that can consist of either a local fish or meat (typically wagyu beef).
  • Meibutsu – this is the piece de resistance of the ryokan – their own famed original dish.
  • Sunomono – this dish usually consists of vegetables (seafood is also common) dressed in a vinegar-based sauce.
One course of a traditional kaiseki meal

One course of a traditional kaiseki meal

  • Takiawase – a mixture of vegetables (typically firmer vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and eggplants) and flavored with a light soya sauce.
  • Miso soup – a delicious soup that is made by mixing miso paste in fish stock and adding ingredients such as seaweed and tofu.
  • Rice – rice is always served with a traditional Japanese meal.
  • Konomono (also known as tsukemono) – deliciously tangy, pickled vegetables.
  • Dessert – this may consist of in-season, local fruits, sorbet or other local dessert.

If you want to eat your meal with a knife and fork, you will find the Japanese very accommodating, however it is worth trying to eat your food with chopsticks (hashi), like the locals.

Some related tips:

  • We strongly recommend booking a reservation at a ryokan on Japanese Guest Houses.  The website offers a comprehensive listing of ryokans throughout the country, offers valuable advice on protocol, and books the reservation for you.

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Guide to Sushi and Sake in Tokyo, Japan
A quick-reference guide to eating and ordering sushi and sake while traveling in Japan.