Since Kyoto is far from the sea, it is not a city that has traditionally been synonymous with sushi. Yet, thanks to the high demand for the cuisine, there are now numerous excellent sushi restaurants in Kyoto, from Michelin-star sushi bars serving fish brought in fresh from all over Japan to kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi shops serving wallet-friendly yet delicious rolls.
Kyoto is farther from the sea than any other major Japanese city, meaning that in the past sabazushi (preserved mackerel sushi) became its sushi specialty. During the Heian period (AD 794-1185), mackerel caught in the Sea of Japan north of Kyoto was preserved with vinegared rice, wrapped in konbu (kelp) and transported by foot to Kyoto. You can still find this delicacy in traditional Kyoto sushi restaurants.
However, at Kyoto’s high-end sushi restaurants, edomae sushi, imported from Tokyo, is the star of the show. Edomae means ‘in front of Edo’, and refers to Tokyo Bay, where fish was widely caught in early 1800s Tokyo, the period when sushi first became popular in Japan. The fish used in edomae sushi is marinated and preserved with soy sauce, vinegar, or salt for a few days, as it was before refrigerators were invented. Kyoto-based writer Martha Knauf picks the best sushi restaurants in Kyoto.
This affordable shop arguably offers the highest quality kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi in Kyoto. Opened in 1977, it has two restaurants, both of which are in very convenient locales: one in central Kyoto, just four minutes from Sanjo Station, and the other is in the Asty Road basement shopping area of Kyoto Station. There are more than 50 kinds of sushi on offer, most for only ¥146 (£1) a plate. If you want to try something other than what’s available on the conveyor belt, you can also order from the menu. While their menu mostly consists of nigiri sushi, more ‘Western-style’ sushi such as California rolls – rare in Japan – are sold here too. Thanks to the high-quality sushi at an affordable price in a central location, there is often a line outside. Takeout is available and there’s an English menu.
A five-minute walk from Gion-Shijo Station, this one-Michelin-star sushi restaurant is one of Kyoto’s best – and most expensive. The owner studied how to make edomae sushi in Tokyo, and the menu changes daily, according to which fresh fish are available. The fish are sourced from Toyosu (formerly Tsukiji) fish market in Tokyo as well as Kyoto’s famed Nishiki Market. The chef recommends his famous caviar sushi, but the tamago (egg) sushi is also well-known, as the chef uses a special technique that makes the egg fluffier than usual. Choose from three courses, all omakase (chef’s choice): nigiri sushi with two seasonal dishes, which is all kosher; two sashimi dishes and 10 pieces of sushi; or 14–16 pieces of sushi. Prices range from ¥18,500 to ¥25,000 (£134 to £182). The intimate interior seats just seven people at a long wooden counter, so it’s best to make a reservation. There’s a smart-casual dress code, and no phones or strong perfumes are permitted.
Just a four-minute walk from Nijo Castle and 10 minutes from the Imperial Palace, this restaurant is particularly popular in Kyoto. Sushi chefs have a reputation for being aloof, but the family that runs Kikyo is a major exception. The son of the owner and head chef speaks English and takes the time to explain the menu with a tablet to foreign customers. He’s also a kikisake-shi (sake sommelier) so ask him for the best sake/sushi pairings or try a sake flight. The sushi is reasonably priced – generous lunch sets of nigiri and maki sushi start at ¥1,000 (£7.25). Interestingly, one of the most popular items isn’t sushi at all – it’s the seared bonito cooked in a special ponzu sauce with ginger and garlic and covered with green onions. An assortment of grilled seafood and tempura is also available.
Sushi Testu is located in Pontocho, the lively street across from Sanjo Station that’s known for its nightlife. The popular restaurant has a traditional long wooden counter where you can sit and watch the sushi chefs at their craft. The quality is high but the prices are kept low, starting at only ¥220 (£1.60) for two pieces of sushi. Some non-traditional sushi rolls, such as the Boston Roll with eel and cream cheese, are available, while a selection of salads and carpaccios, soups, grilled fish and tempura complete the menu. Located on the banks of the Kamogawa River, the large windows offer a scenic view of the river and beyond. Some private rooms are available with horigotatsu – low tables with recessed spaces beneath, enabling customers to stretch their legs while sitting on the tatami floor.
Awomb, located in the busy Shijo-Karasuma shopping district, is the answer for those looking for a unique, hands-on dining experience in Kyoto. This somewhat experimental restaurant serves teori sushi, which can be translated as ‘hand-woven sushi’, and could only be described as deconstructed sushi. Each guest receives one large square platter with many small ingredients artfully arranged in satisfying grids: Kyoto-grown vegetables, sashimi, rice, nori and various sauces, toppings and seasonings. It is up to the customer to decide on the combinations of the ingredients – some of which are unusual, such as walnuts or watermelon – and to create a hand roll from them. The menu includes a visual guide to all of the ingredients so you know exactly what you’re eating. Plates change monthly to ensure that the ingredients are seasonal. It’s best to reserve a table in advance, or come prepared to wait as there is often a line. There are four Awomb locations in all in the city: three restaurants and one café, where you can make small cakes and sweets by hand. The café also features a lifestyle shop selling Japanese goods. All locations have sleek, modern interiors inspired by traditional Japanese architecture. Ask for yasai nomi when making a reservation to receive an all-vegetarian menu.
This article is an updated version of a story originally created by Carrie Chan.