August 12

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The Most Expensive Bonito Guts I Ever Ate

The first course of kaiseki at Hamada-ya

The first course of kaiseki at Hamada-ya

In case you didn’t immediately recognize the gourmet tidbits in the lovely dishes above, the one on the left is “Shrimp and udo plants dressed with salted and fermented bonito guts” and the one in the center is “Hairy crab and butterbur dressed with egg yolk and vinegar.

This was the auspicious first course in the 8-course lunch my friend Michiko and I ate today at the Michelin 3-star ryōtei Hamada-ya.

We were seated in a private room, hushfully carpeted in tatami mats with a serene view of the garden, a scroll painting of a parasol-toting courtesan, and our own kimono-clad server attending to our every need. Fortunately – since lunch at Hamada-ya is a 2-hour affair – although we sat on floor cushions, there was a well under the table for our feet, with bliss-inducing radiant heat.

Hamada-ya used to be a famous teahouse where the geisha Saddayako entertained her clients, but now it specializes in kaiseki, the formal multi-tiered meal made of appetizer-sized portions. Each course in the progression of dishes contrasts artfully with the previous one in flavor and cooking method: vinegared, clear soup, raw (usually sashimi), fried, steamed, grilled and  simmered, followed by rice and dessert. It’s still one of the few restaurants where you can arrange to be entertained by truly professional geisha in the old style…for a price, of course. Even without geisha, lunch will run you ¥15,000 per person; dinner starts at ¥25,000.

So in order to wring maximum enjoyment from the experience, I decided I would wait to read about what I was eating until after it was safely in my stomach. (The bonito guts were, in fact, quite tasty, despite the translation.)

Read a novel set in Tokyo

A young woman dressed as a Gothic Lolita is found dead in a car with two strangers. But the more Yumi Hata learns about her friend’s death, the more she’s convinced it was murder…read more