Having been Japan’s capital for centuries, Kyoto is the birthplace of much of Japan’s traditions, beliefs, and culture. In particular, cooking has become an art in Kyoto, leading to the development of Kyoto’s distinct cuisine. In addition, styles of Japanese cooking has arrived at Kyoto from all over the country, resulting in the mix of Kyoto and generic Japanese fare on offer in the city today. Here’s some of our top picks for exploring the city’s culinary culture.
Hyotei is a three Michelin star establishment located on the grounds of the Nanzenji Temple since the 17th century, where it served pilgrims on the way to the shrine. This family run restaurant, which has been passed down to the current fourteenth generation owner and chef, serves Kaiseki meals. Founded in Kyoto, Kaiseki emphasises a balance in the taste, texture, appearance, and colour of the food. Hyotei uses local ingredients and adds almost no seasoning to them, in order to bring out their delicate flavours.
Situated in Gion, a district preserved in a historical style, this restaurant is housed in a traditional building. With the authentic Kaiseki fare and the historical setting around you, Gion Karyo is very atmospheric as well as perfect for experiencing Kyoto’s food culture. Unlike most traditional Japanese restaurants, an English menu is available and some staff speak English, making it more accessible and tourist friendly.
Tousuiro specializes in another food Kyoto is famous for, tofu. You might be wondering how a restaurant can base its entire menu around the humble bean curd, but you will be surprised by the variation. From deep fried tofu to tofu miso soup, Tousuiro explores the different ways of cooking tofu, using a variety of side ingredients but never detracting from the flavour of the beancurd itself.
If you want something a little more richly flavoured, try Gozanbo, the teppanyaki restaurant located on the 15th floor of the Hotel Granvia in Kyoto’s city centre. Gozanbo specializes in wagyu, Japan’s premium beef. Watch skilled chefs grill the fresh beef in front of you in the teppanyaki style. The restaurant also has a view over downtown Kyoto, which is especially dazzling at night when the Kyoto Tower is lit up.
Honke Owariya is a local favourite that specialises in soba noodles made from buckwheat. This family run restaurant has been in business for over five hundred years; during the Edo period they started specialising in soba noodles and the flavour and texture of their noodles has brought them success for centuries. Their noodles are made fresh on the premises every day, just as they have been for the past 14 generations. The seating in the restaurant is around low tables on cushions and tatami mats, making for an authentic experience.
Another one of Kyoto’s many Michelin starred restaurants, Ajiro is famed for its vegetarian Shojin cuisine, which is based on Buddhist beliefs and is typically the food eaten by Buddhist monks. The founder of Ajiro studied this way of cooking in the kitchen of a Buddhist temple before establishing the restaurant, therefore the food is authentic in its simplicity and delicate flavours. To accentuate the sense of tradition, the interior of the restaurant is decorated with Japanese elements such as a tatami style seating with low tables.
Ramen is one of the most iconic Japanese dishes, and Ippudo Ramen is one of the best ramen restaurants in Kyoto. This popular local restaurant, which has branches all over Japan and even overseas, has a well-deserved reputation, as its ramen is lightly flavoured and has a perfect texture, served in a rich broth of your choosing. Their fried gyoza (dumplings) are also amazing, order a plate of these to go with your ramen for the perfect local Japanese experience.
Sushi is undoubtedly the most iconic Japanese dish, and this ambient sushi bar in Kyoto is one of the best places in the city to sample authentic sushi. Den Shichi Sushi is decorated in the classic sushi bar style, where chefs make sushi at the long bar that extends down the middle of the restaurant. The sushi and sashimi is priced very reasonably, especially for its quality and freshness. The fact that this place is mostly frequented by locals, and by the line that forms outside it on weekends, is testament to its quality and authenticity.
Located in the main tourist area of Higashiyama, Asuka serves a variety of Japanese fare, from filling bowls of udon noodles, to snacks like tempura. The small restaurant has a warm and homely feel to it, letting you relax for what feels like an intimate family meal. This establishment is popular with tourists and locals, not only because of its convenient location and English menu, but also because of its reasonable prices and excellent food.
If you’re undecided on you want to eat, head to the Nishiki Market in downtown Kyoto. It is known by locals as Kyoto’s Pantry, and the name is well deserved, as this five-block-long street contains over a hundred food stalls, selling food of a huge variety.With choices ranging from snacks like croquettes to filling meals like udon noodles, there is sure to be something that will satisfy any craving for Japanese food.