Scampering through a break in the rain we’re fishing our way through another notably irregular lane in Kyoto looking for our dinner tonight, hidden behind yet another one of those discrete doors that offer promise and suggestion more than invitation. For a month we’ve had our eye irresistibly dragged towards these suggestions, these promises all over Japan but now we aren’t just wondering, we’re welcomed in to what seems to be a guarded secret held by millions yet no one has let it slip. We’re greeted at the door by a lady in full kimono dress who hands us a bamboo umbrella to guide us through the narrow gap between the two small buildings of this house. The final farewell meal of this adventure has just begun, the last supper fittingly held in a setting of sparse simplicity before our plunge back into complicated lives.
Past a compressed garden that boasts a calming water filled expanse to belie the space it does not have, we are in no time taking our shoes off to enter a room that feels like a grand hall, again reaching beyond its modest size. Our feet are in a cavity through the floor as we sit at ground level before an expanse of bamboo tatami mats. There’s nothing in this room, nothing that doesn’t feel like the room itself. A small nook at one end of the room houses a small wicker vase with just a few delicate flowers, a decoration swimming in too much space, filling just enough to make that space feel spacious enough for imagination to find a home. Clean timber slatted sliding doors and white paper walls surround us as we sit in this relatively small room that feels like an immense hall for the dining experience called kaiseki.The last supper is about to begin and we are, after this years adventure, the blank canvases that belong in this blank canvas of a room. We left our old lives on hold a year ago, we abandoned the clutter, the layers of stress, distraction and misplaced ego on a year to cleanse and renew. For a moment our minds search for some music, something to fill the space but that need passes into nothingness, the hint of trickling water from outside is all that is required in this exercise in simplicity. The sound of water gives way to the zipping whisk of fabric as our host enters the room, this cavern just for us, to serve our green tea and hand towels before bowing, hands pressed to the tatami mats and face lowered close to those hands in servitude. The formality is a little confronting at first, yet this is kaiseki, as much about the food as it is about the ceremony.
Sashimi is brought in to sit upon our personal tables, all polished black lacquer and gold detail to house our array of fish, sauces, and sake in fine cut crystal. Kaiseki might be as much about the environment here as the food but make no mistake, the food is outstanding. From a time of dense tradition, kaiseki cuisine persists still to bring Japanese formality and simplicity to life, a moment to live the philosophical tenets so easily spoken yet rarely lived. A cleansing soup with akou fish and noodles cleanses our mouths in an exercise of restraint that keeps us searching for more flavour and continuing to find just enough to search yet further.In this bank canvas of a room our minds do search out for the usual distractions we pass off as amusements only to be met with space, a type of forced mental expanse like thoughts forced to fill a vacuum. This house has stood for 400 years on the back of selling boiled eggs to travellers and although the fare has refined since then it’s these travellers who are now enjoying the tradition of the eggs as every visitor for 400 years has, oh the sumptuous eggs. On a platter with chestnut, ginko nut, salmon roe, abalone and tiny fried fish called gori, we are danced around tastes that are both nothing more than the raw ingredients and refined flavour all in one. Making this food seems painfully simple, imagining it seems impossible. Again our hosts engage in polite conversation enough to feel we know them but not enough to intrude; conversation is a trained art for geisha but these ladies are also adept at hosting formality to fill their role in this perfect space that is being created just for us.
In truth, kaiseki, is not our usual thing, it’s so quiet, so elegant that it’s easy to feel a little formal and stuffy, or it could if there was anything not carried out to exacting perfection. Our hosts introduce the next flavours only barely before we finish our previous dishes, a rolling sensation of taste is the journey we’re taken on, not a series of individual dishes. While the dining experience might not be our usual choice it’s this world, this parallel universe that is kaiseki that takes the idea of food and blows it up to a level that food alone cannot reach. No dish is powerful, no flavour lingers a moment beyond the next and all the while we are held, suspended somewhere between satisfaction and desire, contentment and eagerness, calm and excitement, restraint and indulgence. The food, the house and of course our hosts play their part in an illusion we do’t fully understand but willingly allow ourselves to fill the space of all the same.Green bean paste swims around eggplant, topped with eel as the layers of flavour don’t so much build up but dance together in a growing ensemble. No longer do we search for backdrop conversations of other diners, music to fill this space or decorations to colour this room. For the rest of this experience that now seems elevated beyond some of the best food we’ve ever had, the room is just the right size, the hosts are not overly subservient but make for perfect companions and in this blank canvas of a room the last supper continues for two boys only just now ready to return home to a life uncluttered.
Tea, egg ice cream and fruit round off our night before being presented with matcha tea for one final bow with faces right down to the tatami. For a year we have been wiping clear the clutter and scars of a modern world; as the last bowl is placed back to the table a shared glance to each other needs no words: we’re ready to go home. Our two hosts bow continually and wait at the door of this house that is no longer just promise and suggestion, they stand in wait to farewell us till after our taxi has turned the corner out of sight. Just when we thought that food could get no better than the dinner we had in Sapporo, kaiseki takes food and makes an experience that goes far beyond food, it creates a world open for anyone to fill with their own thoughts, their own needs whatever they might be. Before kaiseki we were preparing to go home; after kaiseki we aren’t so much going home, we’re enjoying the adventures we call the life that came after kaiseki. Christianity has it all wrong, the last supper doesn’t precede crucifixion, it’s a beginning, a beginning to whatever you want it to be; or maybe Jesus just never had kaiseki.