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Jan 22, 2012 05:58 AM

Sushi, Kaiseki, High-end Dining (again...) [Tokyo, Kyoto, other...] - Beware, long post !

Here it is the dreadful post, the naive newbie post, the eager to suck up as much knowledge from the regular japan hounds post.
I've been posting quite regularly on the France board, and am now starting to plan my first trip to Japan in September 2012 (about one month where me and my girlfriend plan on staying mostly in Tokyo, visiting Kyoto and probably some other “nature-oriented” peaceful place). I've done a bunch of research and will probably continue to do so until the day I'm heading to the airport.
I'll come back later probably asking about Ramen, Yakitori, Nabe, Kobe beef etc. but I'm so full of questions I'd rather take things methodically and start with this post about Sushi, Kaiseki and High-end dining.

Now as I implied, I live in Paris France, meaning pretty much that all the sushi I ate here was bad. I could argue that even in the “bad” spectrum there still is some “not so bad” emerging, but since I ate in San Diego at Kaito Sushi ( I now know what I've been missing (or do I ?).

- Sushi:
I don't want to have a sushi overdose while in Japan because I'm well aware of all the other incredible food I'll be able to taste. So basically I want one great, life-altering, spirituality invoking omakase sushi experience (basically...), and one sushi breakfast at Tsukiji.

Right now I've settled on Sushi Saito, I was in between Saito and Sawada but apparently Sawada is more expensive, and at this level I doubt the difference is that obvious to the untrained sushi palate, please correct me if I'm wrong. Talking about price, I found a bunch of different sources about Sushi Saito with prices ranging from 20,000¥ to 40,000¥ per person... does the price vary depending on seasons/ingredients ? Or is one price right and the other wrong ? Planning my dining options will unfortunately have to take into consideration budget, so I really hope I can get a correct idea of the prices of the places I want to visit.
Is sushi traditionally eaten at lunch or dinner ? Will choosing one over the other influence the price/quality/diversity ? Is there a better time of the week to eat at Sushi Saito (I know, silly question, but sometimes places get different ingredients depending on the day...) ?

For the Tsukiji market, I'll go on a weekday and go to whichever has the shortest line between Sushi Dai, Daiwa Sushi, and Sushi Bun. I know I can have better or same quality sushi without a line if I go a bit further, but I've wanted to have a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji since long before I even actually considered really going to Japan.

- Kaiseki:
I understand kaiseki is a specialty of Kyoto. So of course I would like to have a full kaiseki/ryokan experience, maybe just staying one night at the ryokan and then a couple more nights in a cheaper place. Of course from what I can tell Gora Kadan is a dream place but it is too expensive for me... Hiiragiya and Hiiragiya annexe are still expensive but less so (especially the annexe), so I'm gearing towards this Ryokan right now... The annexe is cheaper with more modest rooms, but does anybody know if the food is any different between the two ? Also, I don't quite get the reservation system, as you don't choose the room, but the price you want to spend from 15,000 to 26,000 yen at the annexe and from 32,000 to 90,000 yen at the main building. Does that mean I can put whatever price I chose in-between those numbers ? And do they have a precise way of allocating the rooms based on the price or is it a sort of bidding system ? Can someone explain ?
I've also read interesting things about Nishiki as a mid-price great kaiseki, but from what I could tell you cannot spend the night there. Would Nishiki be interesting if I decide to stay at one of the Hiiragiya, or is it only interesting if I stay in a cheaper ryokan with not so great food ?

- High-end dining:
If I go to Sushi Saito AND stay one night at Hiiragiya, my budget would touch its limit (unless something unexpected happens job-wise, never know I work freelance). But taking into consideration the help I hope I'll get with my previous questions, I may decide otherwise.
In that case 2 restaurants have really rang my bell pretty hard, and that's Ryugin and Aronia, you see I'm very interested in modern (or modernist) gastronomy so those restaurants have really captured my attention. Now for the tricky question (because obviously everyone can have a different opinion on the subject): will the experience eating at one of these restaurants be more unique for me (french guy) than eating at a high-end sushi or kaiseki restaurant ?
Obviously having great sushi and kaiseki is unique to Japan, but do you think I should lower my budget for those two types of cuisine to be able to squeeze in one of the two contemporary ones ? Or do you think that the experience at Ryugin or Aronia would be closer to something I can have closer to home (Mugaritz, Noma, Fat duck...) and therefore I should stick with my choices for sushi and kaiseki ?

Wheeew... that was long, I'm sorry about this, I hope you had the courage to read it all and then maybe give me a few answers. I also hope I haven't asked questions already asked (I swear I've searched chowhound for hours before writing this post !).
Thank you all.

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  1. Not sure that an overdose on sushi is so easy to reach, but after a great high end sushi, it will rather be difficult to eat the basic ones, so better go at Tsukiji at first, then to the high end after...Sushi Saitou location will be a big surprise, as it is located in a parking lot. It might be fun feeling to go to a back alley, feels like a poker sushi..Diner on sushi is better. For lunch, sushi Saitou 'omakase' is with 'tsumami + nigiri' at 20,000.-yens. If you go for 40,000.-yens, just go to Sawada-san, sushi plays are different...
    Tempura is an Edo(Tokyo) specific, and is served with salt or 'tentsuyu(dipping sauce)' with grated radish... In Kyoto, it will be salt only.. For tempura, i recommend the counter Mikawa in Monzen Nakacho..Oh, and try steak, the soy sauce(japanese style sauce) matches very well beef.. By the way, I am french, and enjoy Japanese food better than French food even sometimes I want to have my 'pate de tete frit' at the French restaurant Nougat..
    Concerning your hotel in Kyoto, price is per person and difference can be founded usualky on the kaiseki meal and room..IMHO, it is too expensive, price range 18,000yens to 24,000yens with kaiseki served in the room will be more fair.
    The mountain Koya-san is 3hours by train from Kyoto, and a night stay on a Bouddhist temple will be your one spot 'frame' including garden, painting on paper sliding doors, shojin ryori(vegetarian dish), onsen(hot spring bath), ..,and they did speak English, one night stay cost me 15,000yens with diner/breakfast..,

    7 Replies
    1. re: Ninisix

      Thanks Ninisix for your answers!

      I will do what you say and go to Tsukiji before going to the other one. I didn't know Sushi Saito was in a parking lot, I guess it's not weirder than a sushi place in the subway! Good thing you told me, so I'll know where to look for it.
      You say it is 20.000 yen for lunch, but you recommend to go for dinner, is the price the same for lunch and dinner ?
      Unfortunately 40.000 yen for Sawada is too much for me...

      Thanks for your feedback on the Ryokan also, based on the prices, I'll probably settle for Hiiragiya annexe then (15.000 to 26.000). I'm counting on the fact that even though the prices are lower for a reason, if they do things right at Hiiragiya, they probably do them right at the annexe also... hopefully.

      I actually already considered going to Koya in a Buddhist temple, and just read your review of the meal you had in another post. Will definitely consider it!

      It's great to read also about the other types of food, I just didn't have the chance to start diving into all those posts, trying to take things step by step !

      Arigato Gozaimasu, merci beaucoup !

      1. re: Rio Yeti

        More exactly, Sushi Saitou is located in the entrance/exit of the parking lot of the Building 'Jidosha Kaikan(自動車会館)', i have had only lunch, but diner time is also sake, more time,.. 
        After have done some search, annex of the Ryokan Hiiragiya rooms 21&15 for 25,000.-yens or a more smaller room 11 for 20,000.-yens will have a vue focused on the garden, so if your choice is made, reserve..
        Fukuchi-in Monastery, in Koya-San just looked like that on December :

        1. re: Ninisix

          Wow thanks a lot for this precise search for Hiiragiya annexe. I'm still not 100% set on it (as I've heard it can be a bit noisy, and also I need to look a little more into the geography of Kyoto to see where I'd prefer to stay), however your information is priceless if we decide to go there, thanks again !

          Fukuchi-in looks great also... aïe... decisions decisions...

          1. re: Rio Yeti

            I just came to this board to research Kyoto and Tokyo since I am planning to return in a few months. I do not know much about Tokyo or Kyoto, but I did stay at Hiiragiya, the original, not the annex. I have not been to the annex, but I understand it is not a comparable experience.

            I would highly recommend spending one night in Hiiragiya or another ryokan. Staying at Hiiragiya was one of the most unique and profoundly enjoyable experiences I have had. To be honest, I did not love the kaiseki dinner there, though it is reputed to be among the best. (Then again, I had kaiseki at Kitcho (Tokyo) a few years and didn't love that either.). I would describe the dinner experience as very enjoyable and interesting and unique, but there were a few items that I just did not love. Japanese breakfast was great, and the overall experience was extraordinary.

            The prices are person, and they depend on the size of the room. When you consider the price, remember that the room includes a kaiseki dinner (worth approximately $200, give or take?) and formal japanese breakfast; taking this into account makes the price much more understandable.

            Do not pass up the opportunity to experience Hiiragiya, or a comparable ryokan.

            1. re: fishskis

              Hey fishskis, nice to see you on this side of the boards ;)

              Thanks for your feedback on Hiiragiya. Do you know for a fact that the experience at the annex is not comparable, or are you basing it on the high probability it's not because of the inferior price ?

              Also how soon in advance do you think I should make reservations ? Because if I decide to go to the original, I will have to wait a while to make sure I can afford it, but don't want to wait too much and then regret it because both are filled up...

              Thanks again !

              1. re: Rio Yeti

                I have no firsthand experience with the annex; I have never been there. I have had multiple knowledgable people tell me that the annex is a lesser experience, and not the same as the original.

                I am going through the same dilemma now: whether or not to re-book Hiiragiya (or maybe try Tawayara) for my upcoming trip. (Though my first experience was so special, I fear the second time will pale by comparison. This seems to be the case every time I love a restaurant, then re-visit it the next night or a couple of days later - the second time always seems to disappoint.). When you factor in the kaiseki dinner and the breakfast, as one person, you are really paying about what you would for a nice Kyoto hotel (around $300/night) plus a nice dinner ($100-$300). There are certainly other ryokans that are less expensive, and those that do not require you to have dinner (though I think this an important part of the experience, especially for the first time visitor). Frankly, one of the downsides for me as I think about returning is that with the kaiseki dinner, you can end up staying in the room a lot, so you "sacrifice" a night out trying other restaurants. It is also a rather structured environment, which I do not love; you have to tell them in advance when you want dinner, when you want the futon made up, when you want to wake up and have breakfast.

                This is not just another night at another hotel; it is a complete cultural experience, and something completely unique in terms of dining and sleeping. It is hard to say what the experience is "worth"; some would say the memories will be priceless. They are for me.

                1. re: fishskis

                  Thanks a lot for the insight.

                  I totally understand what you are going through, great moments or meals also happen because they are rare moments to be cherished. Going back to the same place may fade the uniqueness of your experience a little, and at the same time trying something new gives the risk that it will not be as good as what you know...

                  I don't mind sacrificing a day and night staying in the room. I will probably do the ryokan on my last day in Kyoto before returning to Tokyo, so I will take it as a relaxing last day.

                  I understand this is a unique cultural experience, and take it as is. This is why I told BaronDestructo below, that I want the kaiseki meal to be in the ryokan where I stay, because although some people on chowhound advise to stay in a ryokan and eat somewhere else for better kaiseki, I really want this day to be a whole experience.

                  I will definitely take into consideration everything you said. Thanks again.

    2. Hmmmm. With all due respect to Sushi Saito (which is excellent), if you're looking for a one of a kind sushi meal, it's got to be Sawada. I've been three times with three different first-timers and all declared it one of their best meals ever.

      Regarding kaiseki - Ishikawa is hard to beat.

      I like your choices of both Ryugin and Aronia de Takazawa. I enjoyed myself immensely at both and, while I agree that you might find places in North America with similar thematic approaches, I'm certain you'll be hard-pressed to find the same level of produce outside of Japan.

      Finally, any interest in checking out a great unagi restaurant? Nodaiwa blew me away the first time I went.

      5 Replies
      1. re: BaronDestructo

        Oh please don't do that... first Fishskis tells me I should spend more for the ryokan and now you tell me I should spend more for the sushi ... ;)

        If budget was not an issue, I would definitely choose Sawada based on the different reviews I read... but at 35,000Y against 20,000Y, it's almost twice as expensive...
        I'll keep that in mind and try to make a very precise estimate of what this trip will cost me, I saw that the yen went down recently compared to the euro, so who knows, maybe by September Sawada will be the same price for me as Saito is now.

        Thank you for the Ishikawa rec., but I'm nearly certain that I will have the kaiseki meal in the ryokan I end up choosing. I know it's not the best bet food-wise, but I'm fine with choosing the overall best experience over the overall best food (just for that particular case).

        Regarding the more modern dining, I have decided to stick with Ryugin. Obviously if I could do both I would. But if choosing, Ryugin seems a bit more "lively" than Aronia de Takazawa, and since I'll already be doing the intimate sushi-ya and the intimate kaiseki meal, I might as well go for a different ambiance for the third big dinner. (I know this decision seems arbitrary, but couldn't find another way of choosing)

        And finally, thanks for your unagi rec! I checked out Nodaiwa, and realized they have a restaurant in Paris as well (where I live), I understand the quality of ingredients will probably not be the same, but I'll look into it nonetheless, could be interesting to compare.

        Thanks again, you're all being very helpful !

        1. re: Rio Yeti

          I invite you to reconsider your ryugin/aronia choice for the following three reasons:

          1) while a Ryugin dinner will easily become one of the best meals of one's life even if one's life is spent in Paris, the experience in aronia will be life-altering, transcendental (if not transcendent), and illuminating in the sense of "I was blind, now I can see". You think this is exaggerated? well it is of course, but try for yourself to see why it draws such exaggeration from you.

          2) again, ryugin is truly great and unique in its own way and not really in the same category as a traditional kaiseki meal, but your kyoto kaiseki will give you a sense of what ryugin will be like, while nothing will even remotely resemble aronia, anywhere (yes, exaggerated, but see above!)

          3) based on my personal experience, ryugin is in no sense more lively than aronia except if you count the presence of more living souls towards liveliness. the personal serivce attention you will receive at aronia will be unsurpassed, and it will be different from the personal attention you will receive in a kyoto establishment.

          if I have made things even a little more difficult for you, then I am happy!!

          1. re: shekamoo

            Then you can be happy!

            Ok, I will take what you say into account and think about it (also will see what Miss Yeti thinks, as she helped me decide for Ryugin).

            Of course I will come back here once my "final" dining route has been designed... so I'll let you know.

        2. re: BaronDestructo

          As a hound who shared a meal with BaronDestructo both at Ryugin and Sawada, l would listen to him, his research is impeccable. Eel at a place such as Nodaiwa should not be missed either.
          l felt Sawada was otherworldly and even aside from the food, a most unusual and excellent experience.. While in Tokyo for three months, l went to Tsukiji at least 2-3 times a week, and for me best food part of Japan.

          1. re: Delucacheesemonger

            Grrr... thanks for chiming in. I fully understand that BaronDestructo should be trusted. However unlike shekamoo's advice which compares 2 similarly priced restaurants with different experiences, here Sawada and Saito are really not in the same price range. And I know (and trust, and abide by) Chowhound's motto that memories last forever and the different price tag is quickly forgotten. However, the planning I'm doing for this trip is getting to be really tight... and I would hate to have to skip a tempura and an unagi meal (two completely different experiences) so that I can put Sawada in place of Saito.

            That being said, I now understand fully that if I can I should go to Sawada, and the global budget for the trip is not closed yet, so if I can I will !