A once in a lifetime encounter with magic.
Mizai embodies the original spirit of kaiseki and exists in an alternate universe, in an another era. You are walking about 30 minutes from Gion through parks and temples to arrive at this restaurant, where the staff is waiting outside for you. Although dinner starts at 6pm, guests can arrive up to 30 minutes in advance.
I arrived 20 minutes in advance and I was sat immediately in the middle of the counter. Candles were lit along the black wood counter in this slightly dark restaurant. Outside, a luscious garden with water vapour constantly falling from above, somewhere. A magical place like no other.
I was given some warm amazake with cooked rice in it, which I had never had together and created anticipation, created the feeling that I did not know what to expect. Eventually, after some time, the chef appeared through the kitchen door and bowed before he entered.
The entire meal unfolds over three hours. The meal starts with a very small bowl of rice and a small dish from the sea and land, in the cha-kaiseki tradition. The rice was very wet, yet had an incredible satisfying, chewy and al dente texture.
The 15 guests are served at the same time, the plates handed to each person, one after the other. The tableware was the most exquisite I have ever seen. Not only high quality, but also tasteful, original, and also playful at times. For one dish, we were given a plate in the shape of an ema with a different painting on each of them, and the mukozuke (sashimi course) somehow mirrored for each guest the shape of the painting. The level of tasteful creativity and attention to detail was second to none.
Eating a Mizai is an event, something you are grateful for and that you anticipate for more than a year. Although Mizai is also slow and contemplative, there is a lot of excitement. The chef will explain for several minutes each dish, say where every ingredient is from. From your chair, you can see the chefs working, but you cannot see what they are preparing, exacerbating the feeling of anticipation. In my opinion, this anticipation and contemplative atmosphere is in the spirit of the tea ceremony.
The meal itself is absorbing all of your attention, you can get lost in the beautiful dishes and the taste of each ingredient. The dishes are original. For example, the rice dish was white and red rice, with a kind of salty water that was shared among the guests. The food is creative and flawless, but the experience goes beyond that.
After many, many dishes, the chef prepares matcha one by one. The staff gives each guest one by one their bowl, and bows. Two or three desserts follow, comprising a total of 49 fruits. One by one, guests go to a small counter that reminds me very much of the counter where you would buy a ticket to visit a Zen temple.
Then, one group of guests at a time, you are escorted out. I was the last guest to exit, and I believe they very rarely have foreigners, given how difficult it is to be invited. The chef shook my hand and we took a picture together inside his restaurant. He thanked me for the macarons I brought him, and he gave me incense and a type of candy called rakugan. I suspect it was only for me, because it was not in a bag branded with the restaurant's name.
When you exit, the staff escorts you down towards the entrance of the park, holding a lantern on a wood stick, to shed a soft light just in front of where you are walking. I can never forget the beautiful movement of the lantern at night.
From the smallest detail to the chef’s entire philosophy, Mizai embodies kaiseki in a way that could not be copied, never mind how Hitoshi Ishihara has been able to imagine and create this experience. After working for 31 years and becoming the general head chef of Kitcho Honten, he created in 2003 Mizai (未在), meaning "no limits" or "not there yet."
Not there yet – the destination itself.
Reservations: Although they say that they take reservations on the first of the month, one year in advance, this is one of those white lies typical of Japanese culture. In reality, Mizai is introduction-only. Even among those, it is one of the most impossible, taking into account that Kyoto is a closed-knit community where building trust takes generations. When I was at the restaurant, at the end of the meal, they offered their regulars reservations 1 year and 4 months in advance. It would take years and years for you to arrange a regular customer to bring you to their reservation. Pictures are not allowed, and no one asked.
You may consider going to Miyasaka in Tokyo, whose chef Nobuhisa Miyasaka has trained for 10 years at Mizai. They accept reservations one month in advance.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
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