Eating well in Kyoto doesn’t mean you have to break the bank; there are tons of options for the money-conscious traveller, from a range of Japanese cooking styles to international cuisines. Here are 11 of the city’s best restaurants that will satisfy both your appetite and your budget.
Compared to other Asian countries, Japan isn’t well known for its street food or cheap eats, with sit-down meals the more popular choice. However, that doesn’t mean you have to drop all of your yen going out to eat in Kyoto – you just need to know where to go.
Areas surrounding universities are often packed with cheap restaurants, especially the neighbourhood around Kyoto University in northern Higashiyama. Noodle shops – especially ramen and udon spots – are usually a safe bet, serving generous and filling portions at budget-friendly prices. Otherwise, for an affordable to-go meal, conbinis (convenience stores) sell a wide array of snacks, drinks and tasty pre-made food. Elsewhere, teishoku (lunch sets) are the best way to try a variety of Japanese food on a budget; they usually include a main dish, salad, miso soup and a few small side dishes. Also, consider eating out for lunch rather than dinner; even at high-end restaurants, lunch is a fraction of the price of dinner.
Here, Kyoto-based writer Martha Knauf shares the best cheap places to eat in Japan’s former capital.
Although it’s in the middle of Kyoto’s somewhat touristy Gion neighbourhood, this shop keeps prices low and quality high. It specialises in abura soba – noodles cooked in oil, not broth, and topped with chunks of char siu (Chinese barbecued pork), bamboo shoots, kamaboko (fish cakes) and seaweed. You can also add an onsen tamago (soft-cooked egg). Noodles are prepared separately for each customer to ensure their texture is perfectly smooth and chewy, and each bowl starts at ¥800 (£6.11). It also serves the more common soy sauce ramen (with broth) for the same price and other popular dishes such as crispy chicken tempura. The shop is cosy, with only a few counter seats and tables, and is open for lunch only.
Soto specialises in teishoku for both lunch and dinner. In the centre of town, one block west of Karasuma Oike Station, it’s conveniently located for both city workers and tourists. However, its basement location is easy to miss, so look for the sandwich board with its name outside the door. Inside, customers can choose from a selection of set menus – the mackerel simmered in miso is especially popular – which come with rice, miso soup and a few small side dishes, such as chilled tofu or hijiki salad. The daily special starts at ¥730 (£5.58). The atmosphere is quiet, relaxed and intimate – except at lunch when it’s busy.
Among the most popular Thai restaurants in Kyoto, Siam is a short walk from Emmachi Station. The Japanese chef-owner trained in French and Italian cuisine before discovering Thai food while travelling in Southeast Asia. To keep flavours authentic, he uses ingredients from Thailand, such as lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, and makes his curry paste in-house each week. The menu allows you to mix-and-match according to your tastes – choose a curry, protein and rice – with prices starting at ¥1,000 (£7.65). There are also side dishes, salads and soups, plus unique desserts, including coconut pudding. Drinks include juices and beers from Thailand. The homely interior seats 11 people, so expect a line at lunch.
This national chain specialises in gyoza (fried dumplings) and has two central locations in Kyoto: one a block from Sanjō Station and the other a block from Kawaramachi Station. The latter has a separate vegan menu that includes gyoza made with yuba (tofu skin). At either location, 16 pork gyozas will cost you only ¥600 (£4.59). The variety of gyoza fillings at this shop is unparalleled and includes egg yolk and cheese, curry, and sweet options like chocolate and banana. The best deal, however, is the okigaru set: 16 gyoza, one side dish and a draft beer for just ¥1,200 (£9.18). Cocktails are cheap, too, and since Chao Chao Gyoza is open until 11pm, it’s a good spot for late-night eats.
This cosy restaurant near Gion’s Yasaka Shrine has been pleasing customers with its homestyle cuisine since 1969. Mimikou specialises in curry udon – thick wheat noodles served in equally thick brown-curry broth. It also serves regular udon in a dashi broth and vegan options. You can customise your soup by choosing a protein, spice level and noodle thickness. Prices are reasonable, starting from ¥850 (£6.50). Its selection of home-made spice blends with those used in Kyoto since ancient times. Mimikou also has another location in the Porta basement dining area of Kyoto Station.
Nishiki Warai is a small chain with restaurants all over Japan, including nine in Kyoto; its original store is right by Nishiki Market. It specialises in delicious and reasonably priced okonomiyaki, a savoury Japanese pancake made from a mixture of flour, eggs, cabbage and any fillings that strike your fancy, including meat, seafood, vegetables, cheese and even mochi. One portion is substantial, with prices starting at ¥700 (£5.36). The tables here have built-in grills, allowing you to cut and season it yourself with savoury brown sauce, mayonnaise and bonito flakes. Nishiki’s particular speciality is waraiyaki (okonomiyaki with soba noodles). It also serves yakisoba (noodles grilled with cabbage and pork) and teppanyaki (grilled dishes).
Fukakusa Ramen Toriton lies in an alleyway close to the popular Fushimi Inari Shrine in southern Kyoto. It prides itself on serving local vegetables and all-natural food with no additives. The ramen here is delicious and cheaper than average; at ¥700 (£5.36) for a generous bowl, the chicken and pork-bone ramen is the most affordable option. There’s also tsukemen (ramen served with dipping sauce instead of broth) plus sides, including karaage (fried chicken), gyoza, chahan (fried rice) and chicken wings. This restaurant also offers Taiwanese items, such as lu rou fan (minced Taiwanese soy-stewed pork served on rice), bubble tea made with home-made brown-sugar syrup, and cold noodles with peanut sauce. It’s open until it sells out.
There are many kaiten (conveyor-belt) sushi options in Kyoto; Chojiro is a popular small chain that delivers good-quality sushi at a low cost. It has six locations in the city, with the most central being a block from Kawaramachi Station. It’s a great choice for travellers with little knowledge of Japanese, as you can order from the tablet menu or pick sushi off the conveyor belt as it rolls past. As is the case for most kaiten sushi restaurants, the plates are coloured according to price (prices start from ¥120 or £0.92) and include tuna mayo rolls, inari (fried bean curd) sushi, and tuna and salmon nigiri. The regular menu offers plates of fresh sashimi, udon, tempura, salad and more.
Located just minutes from the Philosopher’s Path in northern Higashiyama, Aoonigiri is the perfect pit stop for those craving real Japanese home cooking. This shop’s speciality is onigiri – rice balls stuffed with various fillings and wrapped in seaweed – offering about 20 different kinds, enough to satisfy all tastes and dietary requirements. Among the more unique choices are seaweed wasabi, green onion miso, salmon roe and sweet soy sauce chicken. The rest of the menu is simple, with miso soup, dashimaki (rolled omelette) and tsukemono (Japanese pickles). A lunch set of all three will cost you only ¥320 (£2.45), while onigiris start at ¥150 (£1.15). The interior is intimate, with counter seating, and takeaway is available.
Down a narrow alley a block away from both Karasuma and Shijō Stations, Kara-Kusa Curry is in central Kyoto. The restaurant specialises in kare raisu (curry rice), a Japanese take on Indian curry. Kara-Kusa’s tomato-based red chicken curry is just ¥800 (£6.12) for a large portion, and it also offers a spicier black beef curry seasoned with cumin and cloves and topped with cream. For those who can’t choose between the two, go for the half-red, half-black curry. As well as the kare raisu options, there are two Indian curries: keema and butter chicken. It’s a small restaurant with counter seating for 10, so expect a wait at lunchtime.
Just a block away from Gion-Shijō Station in central Kyoto is Menjui Kinya – an udon shop that has perfected Japanese comfort food. While the noodles served here are made in-house, they’re not expensive – prices start from ¥350 (£2.68) for a bowl of hot or cold udon topped with green onions. A number of different lunch sets – various kinds of udon served with tempura and rice – are also available. Try the starch broth, which owes its rich taste and texture to scrambled eggs, or the special vegan broth made from seaweed and mushrooms. The space is small and intimate, with counter seating only.