kaiseki and onsen in miyajima

the first island we spent time on was miyajima. just off hiroshima, it is famously home to the itsukushima shrine, a unesco world heritage site, whose vermilion tori gate which rises out of the sea is considered to be one of japan’s most beautiful views.  obviously this means it is a bit of a tourist trap! however, if you stay on the island you get a more peaceful experience (although the tame deer which roam the island will continue to pester you throughout, hoping you have a snack on hand for them).

here we stayed in our first ryokan – a traditional japanese guest house. when we arrived at ryokan iwaso our room was simply furnished with a low table, sitting on pale-coloured rice-straw tatami matting. this was where, after an afternoon exploring the island, we ate dinner and experienced our first kaiseki meal, served by a wonderfully friendly and informative kimono-clad hostess, who carefully explained the dishes to us.

kaiseki is viewed to be one of japan’s ultimate dining experiences and so i was very excited to experience it. kaiseki is a multi-course meal (between eight and fourteen is usual) which uses seasonal ingredients and seeks to showcase them in a manner that appeals to the spirit as well as the five senses.

to begin, the table was laid out for us with some cold dishes – in the picture above, the plate in front contains an appetizer of smoked chicken, salmon, a fiddlehead fern and a broad bean (yes, just one of each) and some pickled vegetables; the glass to the right contains a seaweed broth, which was very slimy but delicious (although david thought it was awful) plus there was also a plate of mixed sashimi (raw fish) with radish. there was also a small burner each, on which sat a bowl of broth, flavoured with a cherry leaf and blossom, in which we were instructed to cook the ingredients on the plate to the left (mushroom, tofu, fish, vegetables and some herbs).

these dishes were followed by some bbq’d oysters (the largest i have ever had!), a piece of mackerel sushi served wrapped in a marinated cherry blossom leaf (these edible leaves have a very strong perfumed flavour which i really wasn’t keen on so quickly learnt to leave aside); hiroshima beef with a sour soy sauce jelly and an egg pudding with shark fin soup and noodles (this was a very odd dish, a bit like a cold savoury custard which had pieces of noodle, crab sticks and mushrooms set within it and then topped with a gelatinous soup – david’s verdict was that it was “surprisingly not at all minging!”).

finally, another round of hot dishes, by which time we were feeling very full – rice with eel and japanese pickles plus clam soup. this was followed by green tea and a strawberry milk pudding with bean paste cake with lotus and garnished with cherry blossom. 

after finishing the meal the table was cleared and our futons laid out for the night. however, before we could go to bed we had to take advantage of the ryokan’s onsen.

onsen is a term which describes the hot communal baths which are often attached to a ryokan (there are also public onsen, sometimes based around hot springs – the outdoor ones look like an amazing experience in winter, although sometimes the local monkeys get there first!). segregated by gender, the baths at iwaso were a great place to have our first onsen experience.

inevitably this was tinged with a bit of fear – we knew we had to enter the bathing area nude but with a small towel and that we needed to wash thoroughly to ensure we were clean before entering the bath, but beyond that we were unsure of what to do. needless to say everything was fine and we both loved the mix of indoor and outdoor baths (we were in there c9pm at night and the night air was wonderfully cool in contrast to the hot water) and felt that an onsen experience, just before bed, was a very civilised way to end an indulgent evening.

breakfast the next day held a few more challenges for me – i chose the japanese version whereas david went for a western option. thankfully there were a couple of japanese ladies in the breakfast room who i could copy and i felt very smug when i mastered the art of placing a piece of dried seaweed on top of the rice and picking it up with my chopsticks to create an elegant a roll of seaweed-enclosed rice!