Foodie hotspots: Kyoto city, Uji city, the Japan Sea coast, Kurama and Kibune hot springs, Kyo Tanba. Within the city, key foodie zones are: Gion and Higashiyama; Shijo-Kawaramachi; Shijo-Karasuma; Kiyamachi; Nishiki Market; Shijo-Omiya, Arashiyama; Kyoto Station; Nanzenji, The Philosopher's Path and Ginkakuji; Sanjo-dori; Demachiyanagi and Sanjo Shotengai covered arcades; Uji and Wazuka; the Japan Sea coastline.
Foodies Look Out For: Kyo-ryori Kyoto cuisine; tofu; Kyo-yasai vegetables; hamo pike-conger; wagashi sweets; Nishiki Market (Nishikikoji Ichiba); Kyoto-style ramen; Kaiseki cuisine and Cha-kaiseki formal cuisine; Shojin-ryori vegetarian temple cuisine; Nishin soba buckwheat noodles; inexpensive student fare; Kyo-oden; cool Izakaya; Tanba kuromame black beans; Matsutake mushrooms; Fushimi sake.
The Basics: Japan's cultural heartland possesses 17 Unesco World Heritage sites, over 2000 temples and shrines, more than 174 Michelin-starred restaurants and attracts 57 million tourists annually, with figures rising every year as more international visitors discover its charms. Kyoto's food culture is one of its main draws. If you are a foodie bound for Japan, you have to visit Kyoto.
Foodies Go Kyoto: Moving the capital to Edo in 1868 had devastatingly profound effects on Kyoto. In one fell swoop it lost its Emperor and the huge administrative and financial support system that came with the imperial household, its livelihood, its artisans, and a good percentage of its population. All that remained was its temples, its bruised pride, and Kyoto kaiseki cuisine, Kyo-ryori.
Even today, Kyoto retains its aristocratic, slightly haughty, slightly miffed demeanour, and this is reflected in its culinary tastes. It eschews upstart Tokyo’s blunt, no-nonsense directness, for an altogether more elegant, cultured grace. Kyo-ryori is restrained, subtle and endlessly refined.
At the heart of all this cultured sophistication is the Gion district, with its geisha in all their powdered, deliberate beauty, its exclusive ryotei high-class restaurants and its traditional unforgiving mantra ichigen-san okotowari – ‘guests by introduction only’.
Fortunately a combination of economic necessity and a grudging nod to the values of the 21st century means that many of the top Gion restaurants open their doors to those with the sole introductory power of a bulging wallet. Kaiseki ryokan Kinmata and Minoko, specialists in cha-kaiseki tea ceremony cuisine and kaiseki restaurants Hamasaku Honten, Kitcho, Kikunoi Honten, Hyotei and Nakagawa are some of the big names that open to the public. Ichiriki still remains stubbornly closed to the mere passer-by. Lesser-known gems are Touzentei, Dainingu no Harimaya, Ryozanpaku and the great fish specialist Shogoin Ranmaru. For fresh fish heaven, ask for their sashimi moriawase.
If you do manage to get beyond the doors of a top Kyoto restaurant, you’ll find either the Zen-inspired, frugal and unadorned cha-kaiseki, or full restaurant-style (read banquet) kaiseki. On the simplest level, a kaiseki meal is made up of one soup and three side dishes, served with rice and pickles yet often the number of courses run into double figures, their content determined by season and the whim of the top chef.
As many dishes originated in Kyoto’s temples, expect Buddhist staples tofu, fu gluten, and yuba soy milk skin to be in evidence, along with bamboo shoots, and Kyo-yasai (vegetables that originate in Kyoto): Kyo-nasu eggplant, Shogoin daikon, and Kujo-negi leek. Kyoto pickles include takuan daikon, senmai-zuke and suguki turnips, mibuna-zuke greens, nanohana-zuke rape shoots and, most famously, shiba-zuke cucumber, eggplant and Japanese ginger pickled with akajiso red beefsteak plant, adorn many menus.
Ironically, Kyo-ryori, famously so aristocratic and exclusive, evolved from a paucity of raw materials. Kyoto’s distance from the sea, and the mountainous barrier that encloses its west, north and east sides, meant that Kyoto chefs had to devise new ways to eat the stuff no one else wanted. Thus, while the rest of the nation scoffed at nishin herring and tara cod as ‘cat stride’ fish – even the cat would stride over them – Kyotoites actively embraced these ‘inferior’ species. They turned herring, by partly drying it, into its best-known dish, nishin soba. Similarly, mackerel was widely discredited as a fish that soon rots, but in Kyoto it became a delicacy in saba-zushi mackerel sushi.
The Kyoto chefs possessed such originality and innovative flair that they could even dish up less-than-pristine bone-filled hamo pike-conger, which was long-considered the culinary lowest of the low not least as it took two days to get to Kyoto from Awajishima in the Inland Sea, as haute cuisine. They patiently deboned it, boiled it, plunged it thereafter into ice-cold water, and served it with sour plum as bainiku-ae. It is still one of the city’s greatest summer and autumn dishes.
In the nation’s collective imagination, Kyoto is temple-town, and its Buddhist vegetarian cuisine is unmissable. Try the yudofu tofu boiled in a konbu broth in restaurants surrounding Nanzen-ji temple (Junsei and Okutan are best known) in the east, Sagano and Arashiyama in the west (try Yudofu Sagano or the lovely Shoraian), or Gion’s Yasaka-jinja shrine. For shojin-ryori head to Kodaiji Temple, or Arashiyama’s Tenryu-ji and Daitoku-ji, and for its Chinese-Zen equivalent, fucha-ryori, get over to Manpuku-ji in Obaku south-east of the city.
Yet Kyoto today is equally secular. It is a thriving university town, which might account for its unusually large concentration of ramen shops, shokudo canteens, izakaya (great one here) and other inexpensive eateries (great udon here!). Of late, a whole industry of tachi-gui (literally 'standing up to eat') has sprung up in the Nishiki-koji market, catering to the international tourist crowd. Some of it is actually quite good. The hamo pike-conger tempura at Uoriki is good value at ￥500 a skewer.
Kyoto loves its soba buckwheat and udon wheat noodles too. Nishin soba and nishin udon, using cured mackerel, are specialties. Honke Owariya, Kawamichiya, and Matsuba Honten are famous, and rightly so, but we generally head to Honke Tagoto or Okakita for buckwheat noodles, and the wonderful Hinode Udon or humble Tengu (see below) for our buckwheat noodles. Kyo-oden is the local hotpot, often created with a fabulous konbu and katsuobushi broth. Takocho, at Donguribashi, is the master craftsman.
Wagashi Japanese sweets reach their finest in Kyoto, in no small part thanks to the famous tea-ceremony schools: Urasenke, Omotosenke and Mushanokojisenke. The local specialities, known as Kyo-wagashi (Kyoto wagashi) include Shogoin's Yatsuhashi, mitarashi dango, yokan and nama-gashi at Toraya, ohagi and aburimochi. Kagizen Yoshifusa Honten and Sasaya Iori are two of the most famous outlets.
Finally, make sure you don’t leave Kyoto without sampling some of its famous sake, made in the Fushimi district several kilometres south of the main train station. Several breweries, including Gekkeikan and Kizakura, offer tours and tastings.
Further afield, Uji and neighboring Wazuka, are important centers for green tea cultivation, whilst Kyo-Tanba specializes in kuromame black soy beans and matsutake mushrooms. A short train ride from Kyoto's Demachiyanagi station leads you to the hot spring villages of Kibune (somen noodles) and Kurama (Kurama shigure 'pickles'). Nearby Ohara is a center for shibazuke pickle making. The northern coastline is a great location for fine seafood, especially crab and torigai cockles.
The Kyoto Budget Gourmet
Rondonyaki manju, aburimochi, unagi kinshidon rice bowl, Mr Gyoza (Nishioji), Hayaokitei udon by Taniguchi Seimeisho (4am to 1pm), mitarashi dango, Issen Yoshoku okonomiyaki, Takoyasu Okazaki-ten takoyaki, Tengu shokudo (great noodles in Moto-Tanaka).
The Ramen Professor Recommends: ‘Kyoto style ramen’ appears to mean different things to different people, though the common thread seems to be a chicken (and likely tonkotsu pork) broth with a shoyu soy flavor-base. The pleasantly no-frills old skool Masutani, at Kitashirakawa-Imadegawa claims to have created the first 'Kyoto Ramen' in 1949. We've been going there for nearly three decades, and the taste remains the same. It's still a bit smelly too! There's a branch in the Ramen Koji complex on the 10th floor of the Kyoto station building.
Nationwide big names such as Daiichi Asahi Honke (Takabashi, since 1947) and Tenkaipin (Kitashirakawa, serving thick kotteri-style ramen) originated in Kyoto, while Shinpuku-saikan Honten (Takabashi), Yonakiya (Yamashina), Kyoichi (Shijo-Omiya), Kin-chan (next to Daitoku-ji temple) and Chinyu (Ichijoji Honten) all command many Kyoto devotees. Menya Gokkei with its thick toridaku ramen, and Chuka Soba Takayasu, all located on Ichijoji's 'Ramen Kaido' street are current favorites. In this part of town we like the old skool Chinyu.
The ‘dark horse’ votes must go to Teramachi-dori’s sublime, almost unpublicised Kyohei and Tashichi Ramen. The latter's kizaminiku ramen in which the pork is finely chopped, is great. If you really want something special, we rate Chuka Soba Asano as the finest of the lot. It's down on Kujo-dori, east of Nishioji and is run by a lovely old couple, the Asanos. Just quite how do they make that broth?!
FGL Favorite Tipple: Shotoku Tokubetsu Honjozo is typical Fushimi-style sake, easy on the palate, soft, mellow, classy. John Gaunter describes Tomio Ginrei Junmai Daiginjo thus: "Light and fairly lively, this gentle and somewhat feminine sake never fails to satisfy, and it's all to easy to go through a bottle quickly. Generally better if served cool, but adventurous souls might try it served warm".
An excellent place to try a range of Kyoto sakes (any many others from around Japan) is at SAKE Bar/Jam Hostel on Kawabata-dori in Gion. The friendly owners speak good English and know their sake inside out.
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