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Kaiseki Meal

The Kaiseki Ryori

Text & Images - Copyright © 2009 Kevin Hulsey

The Kaiseki meal has its origins in Zen Buddhism, and was traditionally a light afternoon meal that was served during a sado tea ceremony, called a Cha Kaiseki, or "tea kaiseki." Most kaiseki is served 'omakase,' or as a chef's selection.

The literal meaning of the work "kaiseki" has been lost to time, but its origin describes a rock called an onjaku that was heated by an open fire, then used to keep warm. It is the spirit of 'giving' one's humble offerings to another, that is infused in the concept of making much out of little. The kaiseki meal makes the most out of simple and basic food-products by hyper-accentuating presentation.

Although kaiseki cuisine was strictly vegetarian due to its Zen Buddhist roots, modern variations of this cuisine have added in the use of animal products such as fish or chicken. Traditional Japanese style seating for kaiseki is the low zaseki seating at a low table, as shown in the photo below. Historically, the meal and/or tea ceremony was done while kneeling on mats, or directly on a tatami floor.

Shojin Ryori - Zen Buddhist Cuisine

Buddhist Cuisine is a strict interpretation of kaiseki cuisine that is tailored to the teachings and dictates of Zen Buddhism, originating from Ohbaku Zen Buddhist temples. This type of Zen Buddhist food preparation is known in Japan as 'shojin ryori' or "devotion cuisine," with its fundamental principle being to not kill any living 'beings' to obtain sustenance. Shojin Ryori is a strict vegetarian cuisine of Zen Buddhist monks living throughout China and Japan.

Zen Buddhist Kaiseki Ryori
Bon Fucha Zen Buddhist Ryori (restaurant) in Tokyo

There are two schools of Zen Buddhist cuisine; Sotoh and Fucha. Fucha ryori is a distinctive tradition within Shojin Ryori, that began about 300 years ago when it was introduced by cooks who came from China with the Zen monk Ingen, who was the founder of Manpukuji, a Chinese style temple at Uji near Kyoto.

Fucha, meaning "drinking tea together with all people," is heavily influenced by the Chinese method of cooking, though its elaborate presentation is in the Japanese Zen style. In Fucha, each dish begins and ends with tea, to create friendship and peace among those eating together.

Zen Buddhist Kaiseki Meal

In kaiseki tradition, each dish is elaborately arranged and garnished, using edible flowers, or leaves and twigs. Vegetarian tofu preparations are often designed to emulate the texture and appearance meat or fish.

Zen Buddhist Kaiseki Meal
Fucha Zen Buddhist 'shojin ryori' cuisine at Bon Ryori

Since the basic concept vegetarian kaiseki cuisine is to make very little go a long way, there is great emphasis on freshness, texture, and flavor. This makes the kaiseki meal an aesthetic experience, as much as a culinary experience.

Zen Buddhist Kaiseki Meal

Dishware is also a fundamentally important aspect of the kaiseki experience, and marrying the seasonal cuisine with seasonally decorated porcelain or urushi lacquered ware heightens the aesthetic experience. The seasonal presentation at Shofukuro shows just how far this art-form can be taken.

Zen Buddhist Kaiseki Meal
Sakurada Kyo-ryori Restaurant in Karasuma Kyoto

Kyoto is known for its Kyo-ryori Kaiseki meal, and there are several notable Kaiseki Ryori to chose from, such as Daitokuji Ikkyu, Daitokujimonmae, Kyoto Sanjo, Sakurada, and Tsujitome.

Even the airline industry has gotten into the act, with Japan Airlines serving a full seven coarse kaiseki meal in JAL First-Class, and a shorthand version in JAL's business class.

JAL First-Class Kaiseki Meal
Kaiseki Meal in JAL's First-Class


Although a traditional multi-coarse Kaiseki Meal can be quite expensive by American standards (or even by Japanese standards), this is an extremely labor-intensive meal to prepare. Kaiseki is as much about the 'experience' as it is about the food.

Prices can be anywhere from $100 US per person to an astronomical $550 per person for the 'omakase' chef's selection, depending on the location, number of dishes, etc. Restaurants close early in Kyoto, and most stop serving by usually by 9:00 PM. Reservations are a must.

Books on Traditional Japanese Cuisine

The Essentials of Japanese Cooking by Tokiko Suzuki

Japanese Food and Cooking: A Timeless Cuisine: The Traditions, Techniques by Emi Kasuko

Authentic Japanese Cuisine by Sabi Shinojima

Kaiseki Ryori Restaurants in Kyoto

Daitokuji Ikkyu




Zen Vegetarian Kaiseki Ryori Restaurants in Tokyo

Bon Fucha


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Books on Japanese Cuisine
Tea & Tea Ceremony Books