It refers to a series of small, artisan dishes served traditionally in formal banquets and high-class gatherings. Interestingly, there is an alternative definition (using a different set of characters) that refers to a simple, frugal meal preceding a tea ceremony to keep participants from starving.
Japan has a huge variety of cuisine, so it can get confusing when trying to pick out a restaurant that serves “real” Japanese food. Well, kaiseki is as real as it gets, if you are looking for traditional food once served to Japanese emperors. It traces its heritage back to Kyoto, Japan’s old capital, and any Japanese foodie will tell you that Kyoto is the place to go for a kaiseki meal.
Kaiseki isn’t so much about the type of food as it is a way of preparing and serving it. It is a multi-course (and when I say multi, I mean upwards of 10!) meal that is made with fresh ingredients and served in small, artistic little clumps of deliciousness. Kaiseki cooks train for years to understand how to best utilize foods at their freshest for a beautiful presentation of color, taste and atmosphere. Eating a kaiseki meal is not just for the taste buds, but intended as a full sensory delight. When you sit down for a kaiseki lunch or dinner, you can expect to receive, at some point in the meal: sake, a rice dish, a vegetable dish, a grilled dish, sashimi (pieces of raw meat, usually fish) and some other delights that your chef will whip up.
Being the traditional, high-class meal that it is, the kaiseki experience usually comes at a hefty cost. If you’re not careful (or you just really keen on emptying your wallet) you could end up paying up to 40,000 Yen for just one person! One way to go about getting the same traditional experience without the traditional price tag is to have a kaiseki lunch, and of course research your restaurant thoroughly before you go. Also, many ryokans (traditional Japanese-style hotels) serve a kaiseki meal as part of your stay. This might be a better option for budget travelers.