As Japan’s former imperial capital, Kyoto is one of the country’s most popular travel destinations. Famed for its picturesque temples, shrines, manicured gardens and its quaint streets lined with traditional Japanese-style buildings, Kyoto is full of Instagram-worthy sights. But the city isn’t just rewarding for sightseers, it’s also a place that has plenty of surprises for food lovers.
Kyoto’s cuisine is known for its elegance and refinement both in taste and presentation. Because the city lies in a basin embraced by mountains, it has clean, soft, fresh groundwater that’s ideal for making high-quality tofu products, soba noodles, matcha tea and sake.
Though you can find dishes from most parts of Japan in Kyoto – such as udon, ramen and tempura – there are certain types of cuisines and foods that are typical to the city, which should not be missed. Here are eight that best capture Kyoto’s unique culinary character.
Kyoto’s sophisticated approach to dining is best exemplified by kaseiki ryori – multi-course haute cuisine that’s served in many of the restaurants and inns in the city’s famous former geisha district, Gion. Originating from the thoughtfully crafted celebratory banquets prepared for Japan’s upper class during the Edo period from 1603 to 1868, kaseiki ryori is served degustation-style and pays homage to seasonal ingredients with beautifully plated and delicately portioned dishes handcrafted by skilled chefs and their apprentices. From the counter seats of Kyoto’s Michelin-star Gion Karyo you can watch a team of chefs prepare the following kaseiki ryori courses from the open kitchen: sakizuke (appetizer), nimono (a soup or simmered dish), mukozuke (a sashimi dish), hassun (a dish made with seasonal ingredients), yakimono (a grilled dish), hanmono (a rice dish) and, finally, a dessert. For a more homely kaiseki experience, book a seat at Gion Nanba, where two chefs working in a compact kitchen serve creative seasonal dishes such as sea eel with winter melon in okra soup in a small, relaxed dining room.
Because Kyoto is far from the coast, historically the city did not have easy access to fresh seafood, so fish was often preserved to make it last longer. One such popular preserved fish is Pacific herring, which is known as nishin. In the 19th century, Pacific herring was cooked in soy sauce and sugar to extend its shelf life. In 1882, Yosakichi, the sous-chef of Matsuba restaurant invented nishin soba, a warm and light noodle soup dish made with nishin and soba (buckwheat noodles). Another place to try this nutritious comfort food is Takehana, a modest little noodle café that also serves a good selection of local beers.
Nigiri sushi, which is made with fresh, raw fish, is common in many Japanese cities, but because of the lack of fresh fish in the past, Kyoto developed a unique local variation of sushi known as kyozushi – or Kyoto-sushi – made with fish cured with salt or vinegar. One of the most popular types of kyozushi is sabazushi, a cured mackerel sushi that’s available at Izuju, an establishment that’s more than 100 years old and which almost always has a long line of customers waiting for a table. Another good option for kyozushi is Hisago Zushi, where you can watch the chef at work through the shopfront window before grabbing some handmade sushi for a picnic at the nearby Kamo River.
Vegetarians will be well looked after in Kyoto because they can get their fill of delicious vegetarian food at Kyoto’s many Buddhist shojin ryori eateries. Buddhism came to Japan in the sixth century by way of India and China and today Kyoto is home to more than 1,600 Buddhist temples. One of the tenets of Buddhism is ahimsa (compassion for all sentient beings), which stipulates that Buddhists should not harm any living thing. This gave rise to shojin ryori – also known as Buddhist devotional cuisine – a type of cuisine that doesn’t include meat or meat products. A shojin ryori meal usually includes foods of five colours – red, green, white, black and yellow, which represent the five elements of Japanese Buddhism – fire, wood, metal, water and earth. Ingredients often include tofu, sesame seeds, and vegetables such as daikon radish and eggplant. Nourish your body and spirit with a shojin ryori meal at Ajiro, which serves items such as pistachio tofu and wheat gluten wrapped in bamboo, or Hale, a humble café in Nishiki Market that does affordable, well balanced and tasty shojin ryori set lunches.
Kyoto’s pure water enables the production of some of the finest soybean foods, such as yudofu (cubes of creamy boiled tofu) and yuba (soybean sheets).
In popular yudofu restaurants such as Tousuiro, a heated wooden pot with a simple kelp broth is placed in front of guests. Once the broth boils, the chef will drop as many pieces of fresh yudofu as you can eat into it. When the tofu is nice and warm, you take it out of the pot and dip it in a citrusy ponzu sauce.
Sometimes referred to as hatake no niku, meaning ‘meat from the fields’ in Japanese, yuba is derived from the skimmed layer that forms when soybean milk is heated. The technique for making yuba was first invented in China then brought to Japan by Buddhist monks, where it became a popular local food. A good restaurant to sample this high protein, low-calorie, savoury treat is Toyouka Jaya, which does a delicious dish of yuba stew over rice. You can also buy dried yuba as gifts from Senmaruya, a shop that has been making it since 1804.
Throughout Kyoto, you’ll see plenty of shops selling a variety of colourful pickled vegetables that make great snacks and souvenirs. This is because the city’s kyo-tsukemono – or Kyoto pickles – are regarded as some of the best in Japan. Before refrigeration was available, locally grown vegetables spoiled easily in Kyoto’s hot and humid summers, so they were pickled to extend their usability. Established in 1940, Uchida Tsukemono is a shop in Nishiki Market that sells some of the best senmaizuke – a quintessential Kyoto radish pickle that’s most commonly eaten in winter. If you desire a pickle feast, head to Akoyachaya for their all-you-can-eat pickle buffet with 20 types of pickles that can be enjoyed with rice or porridge.
Used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, matcha consists of processed green tea leaves that have been ground into a fine bittersweet powder. To the south of Kyoto is Uji, a small city that’s famous for its matcha, much of which is used in Kyoto’s numerous Uji matcha dessert shops. These stores make decadent and delicious sweet treats such as matcha parfaits, matcha soft-serve ice cream, matcha cookies and matcha jellies. Nishiki Ichiyo is a popular Uji matcha shop that serves matcha pancakes and matcha-flavoured popcorn, and at Tsujiri Tea House you can pick up boxes of matcha financiers or hard candies, or raw matcha chocolate.
A term first used by Kyoto essayist Shige Ōmura in a 1964 newspaper article to describe traditional home-style Kyoto cooking, obanzai cuisine consists of dishes made primarily with ingredients sourced or produced in Kyoto. There are a few key ideas behind the philosophy of obanzai – dishes should be made using only authentic, quality ingredients; they should compliment the mood or constitution of the persons eating it; the chef making the dishes should value the relationships they have with the farmers or market vendors who they procure their ingredients from, and they should use all parts of the ingredient so nothing is wasted. Locally sourced vegetables and dried foods such as bonito (a fish from the same family as tuna) and kombu (umami-flavoured kelp) are commonly used in obanzai. Good places to sample this style of cooking include Nakashimaya, a lively eatery in a renovated townhouse, and Oryori Menami, a family-run establishment that’s been around for more than 70 years.