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At one pinnacle of ‘traditional’ Japanese cuisine is the ‘Kaiseki’ style course menu, typically consisting of multiple rounds of small-but-exquisite dishes often utilizing the freshest of regional ingredients. However, lost in translation is the subtle difference implied by its two differing notations, respectively “Kaiseki懐石” and “Kaiseki会席”. While the distinction may seem minor, and indeed even your average Japanese would readily admit a lack of knowledge on the matter, there is in actuality much history underlying this innocent contrast.

Contents
1.What is “Kaiseki懐石” Cuisine?
2. What is “Kaiseki会席” Cuisine?
3.Explaining the Double Notation of ‘Kaiseki’
4.‘Kaiseki’ in the Modern Day

What is “Kaiseki懐石” Cuisine?


The origins of Kaiseki懐石 cuisine can be traced back to the well-known traditional Japanese art of “cha/sado”, or the ‘tea ceremony’. In fact, Kaiseki懐石 at its origin was the light meal eaten prior to the main event of the ceremony, the tea itself.
Owing to this origin, the goal of Kaiseki懐石 as a cuisine is to express the in the form of consumables the spirit of the tea ceremony, the essence of ‘wabi-sabi’. A concept well intertwined in Japanese culture, ‘wabi-sabi’ has connotations of transience and imperfection, a sort of rustic elegance that is channeled into the 3 pillars of Kaiseki懐石; “utilization of seasonal ingredients”, “maximization of ingredient flavors”, and “omotenashi; service with humility and mindfulness”.
In terms of format, Kaiseki懐石 is decidedly simple, adhering to the traditional Japanese meal format of ‘1 soup, 3 main/side dishes’ in addition to a bowl of rice. The rice and soup, unlike in a course meal, are served from the beginning alongside other dishes. The basics of common modern day Japanese dining manners can be said to be found here in this style.

What is “Kaiseki会席” Cuisine?


Kaiseki会席 cuisine is quite literally ‘banquet-meal’; although in format this style also adheres to the ‘1 soup, 3 dishes’ model, unlike in Kaiseki懐石, with Kaiseki会席 the dishes tend to be successive as per a course meal, and the rice and soup are served at the end of the meal. Furthermore, it should be noted that whilst Kaiseki懐石 evolved from a form of meal to be served to enjoy with tea, Kaiseki会席 is a type of cuisine that tends to be had with alcoholic drinks such as ‘sake’.
Being a style of cuisine commonly associated with celebration, as the more formal ‘Honzen’ style of cuisine presentation gradually fell out of favor, the Kaiseki会席 style has become the mainstream form of menu served at symbolic or ritualistic events in the modern day.

Explaining the Double Notation of ‘Kaiseki’

So why do Kaiseki懐石 and Kaiseki会席, two styles with starkly contrasting connotations, sound so similar?
The truth lies in the origins of the Kaiseki懐石 style, with some slight wordplay also involved; originally, the Kaiseki懐石 style of cuisine, in its original tea ceremony context, was also written Kaiseki会席. However, the un-‘wabi-sabi’ like notes implied by the word led to a gradual change in expression. The current day spelling of Kaiseki懐石 derives itself from the connection to the tea ceremony and its spirit, which is then related to the ‘Zen Buddhism’ philosophy. The practice of ‘Onjyaku (literally ‘warm-stone’)’, where during the strict ascetic training required of Zen priests one would place a stone within their clothes to temporarily forget the cold or starvation, translated to the word Kaiseki懐石, which literally can mean ‘bosom-stone’.
Although in the modern day the dishes served in either style may seem compatible with the other, one major difference worth noting is that staying in-line with its origin of being a pre-tea light meal, Kaiseki懐石 cuisine tends to be modest in portion, especially compared to the banquet-based Kaiseki会席.

‘Kaiseki’ in the Modern Day

Today, unlike in the late Warring-States and Edo eras of pre-westernized Japan, Kaiseki懐石 has a less significant position as the meal served during tea ceremonies. While this original form has been diminished and is now sporadically called ‘cha (tea)-kaiseki’, its values have lived on; ‘kaiseki’ has evolved to become a generic terminology for course meals with modest portions, with recent fusions originating ‘western kaiseki’ menus as well.
To sum up, it is quite intriguing to see how two similar and oft-confused cuisines in the modern day share traits and origins, but also possess major contrasts especially in historical and cultural connotation, to the point where the notation of one gradually changed to what it is now.
Having said this, Pocket-Concierge has over 600 famous and reputable restaurants available to book through our exclusive English service, including the very best of ‘kaiseki’ both ways that Tokyo has to offer!For more information, click here!

 

“Kaiseki懐石”
Ebisu Kyoshizuku(Tokyo)

At this Kyo-style ‘Kaiseki’ (traditional Japanese course-based meal) restaurant, the quaint surroundings that you encounter upon arrival will make you feel as if you have stepped into Kyoto.

 

“Kaiseki会席”
Ryotei Kiyoshi(Tokyo)

You could come in contact with the deep culture of ‘Ryotei’ (a traditional Japanese high-class restaurant) through Japanese culture with food, clothing, and shelter.

 

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