If you visit Suizen-ji, Kumamoto’s famous stroll garden, you’ll find no shortage of attractive panoramas. But my favorite view of Suizen-ji isn’t from the garden itself – it’s from the private dining rooms of Senri, a kaiseki restaurant with an unforgettable view.
Senri is housed in an old wooden building that straddles the garden’s boundary line. During the day, you can pop straight from Suizen-ji’s stony paths into its cozy dining room for a set meal of grilled eel or a bowl of cold soba noodles. At night, however, you’ll need to enter by the street and the atmosphere changes considerably. Guests are led to private tatami rooms with low tables (chairs provided for those of us whose patellas can’t take the kneeling!) where a floor-to-ceiling picture window offers a stellar view of the garden’s lake and sculpted trees.
I’d hardly sat down before the steaming towels and cups of tea were brought in, followed closely by the first course. My favorite offering from the plate of appetizers was a black sesame seed encrusted chicken tender, though the milky tofu and seared beef certainly warranted no complaints. The dish was quickly followed by egg custard and a mushroom soup with a clear broth absolutely saturated with flavor.
I had a few extra minutes to savor the sunset before turning my attention to the fourth course of eggplant coated with a local miso paste. I still managed to find room in my stomach for the subsequent soba noodle course but it was a real stretch to polish off the final offering of the meal, a perfectly grilled filet of Kyushu eel presented in a rustic wooden box. Mercifully, there was another short lull before the hostess returned with the dessert plate, sesame mochi (pounded rice) with a dollop of fresh grape jelly.
Considering the quantity of food in the eight courses, I was quite satisfied to have ordered the smallest of the kaiseki options (¥5250). If your appetite is considerable, or you’re a real fan of Japanese cuisine, you could always spring for one of the pricier – and larger – sets at ¥7350 or ¥10500. I doubt you’d walk away disappointed!
Reservations are essential but if you're nervous to phone, you can always pop in during an afternoon garden visit and arrange for a time to come back for dinner.