In many ryokans you will be served a style of food known as kaiseki ryori for dinner. This is an extravagant multi-course meal with a focus on local and seasonal ingredients. There is often no menu to choose from so make sure you have notified the ryokan of any allergies or dietary needs you might have before arriving.
Kaiseki ryori typical dishes
The dishes will normally follow this pattern although certain elements may be skipped depending on the season or the style of the chef:
Appetizers – Small nibbles to start the meal. These are often very beautiful to look at as they set the standard for the rest of the meal.
Suimono (soup) – This is usually a clear broth type soup, with tofu, vegetables or seafood pieces inside. Use your chopsticks to eat the solid pieces and drink the soup directly from the bowl.
Otsukuri (sashimi) – This is thinly sliced raw fish served with daikon radish, soy sauce and wasabi. The delicate taste of the raw fish is the key element in this dish so it is polite to use soy sauce and wasabi sparingly. Toro (fatty tuna belly) is the most highly prized sashimi.
Nimono (boiled dish) – In this dish, vegetables, seafood and/or meat is stewed in a stock made from soy sauce, sake and sugar. Again you are encouraged to enjoy the delicate taste of the food contrasted against the strong flavour of the stock.
Yakimono (grilled dish) – Again, this could be seafood, meat or vegetables depending on the location, season and the chef. Ryokans inland will often use this dish to showcase local beef. Sometimes the grill will be brought to the table and you can cook the meat to your own liking.
Mushimono (steamed dish) – The most popular steamed dish is chawanmushi, a savoury egg custard flavoured with broth and containing pieces of seafood, chicken, mushrooms or vegetables. It is served in a small bowl and eaten with a spoon. This dish is probably the most unusual if you are used to Western food, as this type of texture is normally found in desserts such as creme caramel or pannacotta.
Sunomono (lightly pickled dish) – This consists of bite sized pieces of vegetables and fish doused in a strong vinegary dressing. The vinegar ‘cooks’ the food slightly and gives it a different flavour and consistency to the sashimi served at the start of the meal.
Shokuji – Rice, miso soup and pickles are served at the end of the meal. These are staples in Japan and you will encounter them at most meals. Some ryokan chefs may serve seasonal or local variations, such as rice mixed with other grains such as barley. There will often be far too much rice to eat, as a good Japanese host never lets a guest go hungry.
Dessert – The Japanese do not really eat dessert, preferring to eat sweets and cakes as a snack with tea instead. However the meal will usually end with fresh fruit or sorbet to cleanse the palette.
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The photos used on this page were taken during a kaiseki ryori dinner at Gora Hanaougi, a ryokan in Hakone.