If you have read or heard about traditional Japanese multi-dish meals, you may have come across the word, かいせき/kaiseki or かいせきりょうり/kaiseki_ryouri (りょうり/ryouri(料理) here means “cuisine”). I heard many people say that they’d like to experience かいせき/kaiseki  at least once during their stay in Japan. However, かいせき/kaiseki actually has 2 different ways of writing it, 懐石 and 会席, and they are somewhat different. As both 懐石 and 会席 are rather expensive, I’d like you to know the differences before you book a restaurant and choose the right one for you.

懐石: The kanji 懐 means “bosom” and 石 is a stone, so 懐石 literally means “stones in the bosom.” Apparently monks used to put stones in their garment near their belly to keep it warm, so that they could keep hunger at bay. So, 懐石 was originally a very humble but thoughtful meal the host of a tea ceremony prepared for his guests to eat BEFORE having tea. For that reason, the meal is supposed to be light and the food is prepared in a way guests can enjoy tea afterwards rather than enjoy alcohol with the meal. This original style 懐石 can be called 茶懐石(ちゃかいせき/chakaisekicha means “tea”)these days to avoid confusion with 会席.
会席: 会席料理 was developed based on 懐石 but the kanji 会 means a “meeting” and 席 is a “seat,” so 会席料理 is defined as “a set meal served on individual trays at a traditional Japanese dinner party.” It usually has 8 to 9 courses and the food is prepared to enhance the appreciation of 日本酒 (Japanese rice wine).
So in short, 懐石 is a “light” meal (though I have never left 懐石 feeling hungry) to enjoy “tea” aftewards and 会席 is a “full” meal to enjoy “sake” while eating. This difference practically gets demonstrated in the timing when “rice” is served. In 懐石, a small amount of rice is served at the beginning of the course while rice is served towards the end of the course in 会席料理.
These days, the word 懐石 can sometimes be used to suggest a smaller serving size of a course meal. So if you see something like イタリア料理の懐石コース (Italian Kaiseki Course) or フレンチ懐石 (French Kaiseki), that indicates the serving size of each dish is rather small (but hopefully with more dishes).
So if your main purpose is to enjoy sake with the meal or if you are super hungry, I suggest you choose 会席 place rather than 懐石. On the other hand, 懐石 is often prepared in a meticulous manner and the setting is also very authentic, so if you are after quality rather than quantity, 懐石 may suit you better.

Either way, I hope you will enjoy かいせき/kaiseki in Japan at least once!

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2 thoughts on “Kaiseki

  1. Reply
    席 | EasyJapaneseE
    26 January 2022 at 8:01 am

    […] room; a place, a room, an occasion席上(セキジョウ)で: at the meeting, on the occasion会席(カイセキ): a meeting place; a set meal served on individual trays at a traditional Japanese […]

  2. Reply
    12 May 2021 at 1:14 am

    Thank you so much. What great information!

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