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The Japanese Table

Kappo: Fine Cuisine at a Counter

by Isao Kumakura

Eating out in Japan offers a broad spectrum of options, from grabbing a quick donburi rice bowl to dining on exclusive kaiseki cuisine. In this new series of four articles, Food Forum introduces some different styles of dining in Japan, beginning with the unique kappo-style counter restaurant.

Among the many types of Japanese restaurants is kappo, fine cuisine served "in the kitchen," as it were, with the chef and customers facing each other across a counter. Behind the counter, the chef prepares the dishes before the customers' very eyes, slicing sashimi, roasting fish, ladling simmered foods from pot to dish—and so adding to the appreciation of the meal.

One of the attractions of kappo is its immediacy: as each dish is completed, it is served directly across the counter table from the hand of the chef, steaming hot, fresh and glistening, perfectly arranged. No matter how exquisite the cuisine, any delay in serving results in some loss of fine flavor and aroma. Restaurants that serve over a counter virtually eliminate this delay, and the special pleasures of kappo dining include the chance to enjoy food that is served the moment it has been prepared.

The other attraction is intimacy: customer and chef are face to face throughout the meal, and conversation flows naturally between them. The chef talks about the qualities of the day's ingredients and recommends a menu to suit each diner. Customers, for their part, share their immediate appreciation with the chef and swap questions and culinary knowledge across the counter. This interchange increases the pleasures of dining and can inspire elaboration and innovation. A customer need not be left to dine alone in a kappo restaurant, where the pleasures of good conversation go well with satisfying discriminating appetites.

Ancient Traditions

There are not many instances in Western cuisine where food is prepared before the customer, but in Japan the tradition goes back to antiquity. It is said that there were many among the ancient aristocracy and the medieval samurai class who excelled in the culinary arts, and there were often occasions when they would display their skills before others. Examining documents that record the accomplishments expected of members of the medieval samurai elite, we find that cultivation of the culinary arts is listed alongside mastery of scholarship and mathematics. Apparently the ability to display one's skills in food preparation before guests was an important part of a man's training as one of the samurai class.

One tradition of preparing food before guests developed into a kind of ritual that has been passed down today, in what is known as the shiki-bocho. Following the procedures and patterns passed down through twenty-nine generations by the Ikama school in Kyoto, the head of this school skillfully carves and fillets a carp on a two meter-long cutting board using a special knife and manabashi (cooking chopsticks) without once touching the fish with his hands. Manabashi are made of steel and have sharpened points and wooden handles. In the shiki-bocho ceremony, the performer dons the traditional attire of the ancient court, complete with eboshi headgear.

Give and Take

We may surmise that the kappo style of Japanese cuisine traces its inspiration to these traditions. A chef takes pleasure in the awareness that the guests are appreciating the process of preparation, and the guests enjoy watching the process by which their dishes take shape. A sushi shop might be considered a type of kappo restaurant, inasmuch as food is prepared in front of the customer; but strictly speaking, since kappo involves many kinds of Japanese dishes, sushi restaurants are considered apart.

It is believed that kappo restaurants first became popular in Osaka, beginning in the nineteenth century. While the facts are difficult to corroborate, it seems that kappo began to spread beyond the western Kansai region into eastern Kanto in the latter part of the twentieth century. The kappo counter arrangement was once considered somewhat common, but today many exclusive restaurants have incorporated it into their serving style.

Japanese cuisine served over a counter is thus distinguished partly by a tradition of performance for the guest and by the convenience of serving dishes directly, the moment they are made. But the congenial give and take between customer and chef is perhaps the greatest enhancement towards the enjoyment of this distinctive dining experience.

Author's Profile

Isao Kumakura was born in Tokyo in 1943. He taught at Tsukuba University from 1978 to 1992, and then held the position of Professor of Japanese Culture at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka. Since 2004, he has been director of the Hayashibara Museum of Art, Okayama. Among his many publications are Tea in Japan and The History of Japanese Food.