What the Japanese feel inclined to boast to the world regarding the gastronomical attractions of their country consists as much in the manner of serving food as in the quality of food. In this respect, perhaps no other nation approaches Japan in the exquisite delicacy of taste, or in the luxury and grandeur of the utensils employed. The culinary art, as practised in the olden court of the Shōgun or of the Mikado, had attained a plane of perfection comparable in its elaborate technique and art to any other art or craft.
It is possible to find even in an ordinary restaurant, at all mindful of its reputation as is a typical Japanese restaurant, that a five dollar meal is served upon plates worth fifty dollars or more. To speak of the vessels in which the Japanese food is served as plates is, to put it mildly, inaccurate. The plates, so-called, are generally white, of no particular value, always classed as crockery, which one would not regret very much, if they were broken. Of the Japanese vessels, however, there is a great variety of all conceivable shapes, materials, sizes, designs, and coloring. No two things of the same kind are allowed on the table for one person. Even about the sara (plates), we always speak of "So and So" sara, such as a plate for sashimi, a plate for vegetable, for shell-fish, for fried fish, etc., every one of them being of different shape, design and size, and adapted to its peculiar contents.
The soup is served either in a lacquered wooden bowl, used for keeping the contents warm, or in a porcelain bowl, as when it contains much fish or fowl, served hot, as the porcelain vessel can bear greater heat. Hot-boiled vegetables are placed in a porcelain bowl with a lid on, and the vegetables with vinegar, served cold, are placed in a small deep vessel, called "jar," perhaps of unglazed pottery. The elaborate kuchitori (relish) may be served on a plate of pleasing colors, probably Kutani ware, and raw fish is served on a cool light-colored plate, perhaps the color of the sea, often with a glass cushion between the plate and the sliced fish. Long slender fish such as ayu are served in long slender plates, exactly suited to them.
Nor is the arrangement of each dish done in a haphazard way; there are rules and traditions about the way each dish should be prepared that are absolutely binding. And the whole show, that is, a set of plates, jars, bowls, etc., on a tray or the table, are subject to equally inviolable rules of good taste. Each dish is a picture to please the eye as well as food to eat; it is presented sometimes in the design of a landscape garden, or a sea-and-island scene. The whole feast, apparently irregular, is none the less picturesque and artistic, if you view it closely. Indeed, it is part of a Japanese dinner to appeal to the sense of beauty as well as to the inner man.
Can this be a ceremonial banquet served on a special occasion? No, it is just an ordinary meal which may be served at the first Japanese restaurant you drop in about Kyōbashi or Nihonbashi in Tokyo. So ingrained is the sense of artistic beauty connected with the Japanese cuisine that both cook and waiter are probably unconscious of anything particularly elaborate or ceremonious about the utensils or the way of serving food. Just as the Europeans are unconsciously particular in using a coffee-cup for coffee, a tea-cup for tea, a wine-glass for wine, liqueur-glass for liqueur, etc., though one kind of largish glass may serve for all sorts of beverages; so the Japanese sense of discrimination with regard to the appropriate vessels for different kinds of food has been unconsciously inculcated. It is unthinkable that we should use the same cheap, colorless plates for all sorts of Japanese food, both hot and cold.