Kyoto is the kind of place that will haunt you and follow you around, days later after having visited. Unlike Tokyo which is sometimes pegged as wild, absurd, intimidating, irreverent, and confounding, Kyoto feels like its bashful stepsister. It is the type of place not quite crowded with bucket-listers.
Burrowing in a relatively quiet corner of the world, especially in the winter when it is cold and damp, Kyoto is as quiet as the hushed footsteps of the endangered geishas in their elegant, expensive kimonos. Tucked away in the bellybutton of Japan is a slice of where time seems to have left untouched. Beyond the temple hop and the geisha stalk, like all of Japan’s regions must be, Kyoto is a marvelous place for food.
If, like me, one of your resolutions for the New Year indubitably consists of traveling to new places and eating your way around them, here is an ambitious piece of travel inspiration. This is not an absolute list of the food experiences one will run into in Kyoto – but this sampler, I hope, would spark a little wanderlust, in case you’ve never given Kyoto a second glance. A caveat, however – due to the explosive over-exposure of ramen, that topic, although tempting, will not be covered here.
Nishiki Food Market
If this is all you do to get a taste of Kyoto food, exotic and mainstream alike, you will discover a new take on Japanese food outside of sushi and ramen. Nishiki Market is five covered blocks of food stalls selling authentic, Kyoto food. Here you will find a gastronomical gamut of Kyoto street food, fish (fresh and dried alike), tsukemono (Japanese pickled vegetables), seasonal fruits and vegetables, sweets, as well as some dry Japanese goods.
Come hungry. You can sample all these foreign foods as you traverse the length of the market, although a fair warning, there will hardly be English translations of anything, but don’t let that deter you from trying the samples shoved your way.
Sashimi, Oysters and the Like
Kyoto is landlocked so I am afraid the sushi scene here will perhaps not be as pervasive as in other parts of Japan such as Tokyo. But fret not. Find your way to on one end of the Nishiki Market and seat yourself at the bar. They serve fresh fish and oysters that are sublime. The plus of sitting at the bar is easy access to sake.
Kaiseki is an intimate traditional multi-course Japanese dinner showcasing seasonal ingredients deftly prepared by a chef in front of you. All courses are artfully prepared and carefully arranged on a plate. For an elegant experience of Kyoto cuisine, a kaiseki is imperative. The Gion district of Kyoto will be teeming with these restaurants serving this slice of Kyoto haute cuisine.
If you’ve had Kobe or Wagyu beef in your life, you will agree that its flavor is one you are not bound to forget. Japanese beef is topnotch and as such is very expensive. It is served in very thin fatty slices, which is all you really need to appreciate its intense beef flavors. Japanese beef is found in teppanyaki places where a chef sears the beef right in front of you.
You can also have it shabu shabu style where you cook beef and vegetables yourself in a hotpot, or sukiyaki style where you sear the beef in a sauce of sake, sugar and soy sauce. Japanese beef is very expensive and to have a taste on a budget, try a steam bun with Kobe beef filling. Not to be overly simplistic, but it is simply a gourmet siopao filled with the most tender, flavorful beef strips. Try it to believe it.
If Paris has macarons, Kyoto has nama-yatsuhashi. Nama-yatsuhashi is a traditional confectionery found all over Kyoto. It looks like a triangle dumpling filled with sweet paste inside. Inside a nama-yatsuhashi shop that has been making these since 1689, I realized I have been missing out on red bean paste all my life. An addiction thus ensued (I must make up for lost time!) that I did not resist the urge to pop in shops all over Kyoto and have my fill at the free tastings. Don’t judge!
Kyoto cuisine is intriguing. Contrary to Western interpretation of Japanese food, it is delicate and subtle. I find that what makes authentic Japanese cuisine stand out is its honesty and integrity. They are masters in making a dish extraordinary without overcompensating with seasoning and accoutrement that only mask what is already excellent on its own.
Making seasonal ingredients and fresh fish taste exactly how it tastes naturally is art in its own right. And that’s why I have come to respect Japanese food. In many ways, food purveyors are still artisans operating on a small scale offering on a plate all the years of homogeneous (for the most part) culture and tradition that no other country in Asia could match.
If you go: Kyoto is about an hour train ride from Osaka. Gion is the historic district of Kyoto and is the ideal neighborhood for exploring cultural Kyoto.