One of the first questions I’m always asked about living in Japan is, “Do you like Japanese food?” My answer isn’t so simple.
Japanese food celebrates ingredients in their purest form as much as possible. This cuisine isn’t heavy on spices (i.e. chilies) or sauces, necessarily, but that doesn’t mean it’s bland. Japanese cooking utilizes a range of techniques to enhance the natural flavor of foods and make them taste a good as possible. That being said, if you’re someone who doesn’t care for or just isn’t used to the taste of a certain protein or vegetable, Japanese food can be unexpectedly intense.
As someone who likes spices and grew up on American food which is, sadly, loaded with sugar, salt and fat, traditional Japanese food took some getting used to. There are certain tastes and textures I still can’t get into (natto, no thank you), but above all, I have immense respect for Japanese cuisine and it’s ability to be both incredibly simple (the number of ingredients used) and incredibly complex (the flavor) at the same time. I’ve become a sticky rice snob and would gladly take nigiri over a California roll any day. I’ve had some ramen-eating moments that were down right religious, my friends.
Nowhere is traditional Japanese food better on display than during kaiseki, which is a multi-course meal. These meals have an ebb and flow that showcase the best local ingredients in a variety of cooking styles. I had the pleasure of enjoying kaiseki at Hotel Sakurai during my visit to Kusatsu Onsen and every course was more dazzling than the last. The immense care put into the presentation of each course was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It was like an intricately choreographed dance. I just wish I hadn’t eaten lunch.
If you want to learn more about kaiseki, I recommend checking out the episode of Netflix’s documentary series Chef’s Table featuring Chef Niki Nakayama of n/naka (that restaurant is now at the top of my food bucket list). And if you have the chance to enjoy kaiseki, don’t pass up the opportunity for this truly unique culinary experience.