When in Japan, go crazy on the Japanese food — you’ll never get enough. No matter where you are in the country, the food will most likely be awesome. I’ve honestly never met anyone who’s been to Japan and didn’t enjoy what it has to offer (unless of course, you don’t like Japanese food). I mean, what’s not to love about fresh sashimi, melt-in-your-mouth wagyu and pretty dainty desserts?
I was exploring the city of Kyoto with my mum for about 5 days during the tail-end of summer, and we fell in love with the city. Located on the Japanese island of Honshu, Kyoto is the capital of the Kyoto prefecture in the Kansai region. Just like the nearby metropolitan cities of Osaka and Kobe, it is a popular tourist destination; and is known for its beautiful temples, and being the Japanese Geisha central. Read about my Geisha experience here.
For me, being in Japan meant that I get to savor all the delicious Japanese food — and Kyoto had so much to offer. So here’s sharing with you my top 10 food experiences in Kyoto, and I think you should definitely try them all when you’re in the city!
1. Tofu, Yuba and Yudofu
Kyoto is famous for its Tofu. So when in Kyoto, eat tofu — all kinds of it, from pure tofu, tofu simmered in hot broth (yudofu), to skimmed tofu skin (yuba). Made from soybeans, a good tofu is one that has a clean, creamy soy flavor that is almost tasteless; with a silky firm presence — and Kyoto’s freshly made ones just hits the right tofu spots.
We had our tofu dish at Yodofu Sagano in Arashiyama. The restaurant serves yudo, a Buddhist specialty (Kyoto is famous for its Buddhist vegetarian cuisine too — it’s called shojin ryori) of tofu chunks simmered in clear broth, with a ponzu sauce dip that brings out its light flavors. It was delicious; and we enjoyed our meal overlooking the beautiful garden courtyard of the tatami-style restaurant. The set lunch is a little pricey at JP¥4,000 (US$38); but because it was a big set (and mum is a small eater), they allowed us to share.
Another cuisine that Kyoto is famous for is Kaiseki — it is in this very city that this dining style first came about. Kaiseki is a multi-course set meal of small dishes served individually, and enjoyed with either tea or sake. Each dish is prepared to balance the taste, look and texture of the food; and they are often garnished and plated beautifully, using fresh local ingredients to enhance the essence of each dish.
We had our 8-course kaiseki dinner at the ryokan we were staying at, Izuyasu (read about my experience here). The chef made most of our food in front of us — and we were served an array of dishes that were raw, simmered, boiled, grilled, baked and steamed; with mostly seafood and fish like yellow jack, red snapper, grouper and trout. It was a fun (and long) eating experience. Kaiseki dinners are known to be expensive, costing at least JP¥10,000 (US$95) per person (ours was included in our ryokan stay).
3. Nagashi Somen (Kawadoko Dining)
If you’re in Kyoto during summer, do not miss out on a chance to dine over the river. Known as kawadoko dining — diners eat on platforms over water to combat the summer heat with the refreshing water breeze as they dine. We had our experience in the mountain-side village of Kibune (read about it here); and we had Nagashi Somen, which are white somen noodles that slide down bamboo pipes with streams of cold flowing water (only during summer too). Can’t get any more special than this!
The restaurant, Hirobun, is extremely popular, and wait time can get as long as 2 hours. It was fun facing the bamboo pipes for our bite-sized servings of noodles to come streaming down at intervals — we then fish it out, dip it in soba sauce, and eat it. The simple meal of 10 servings takes approximately 10-15 minutes to complete; and costs JP¥1300 (US$11.5) per person.
4. Kyoto Style Sushi
You definitely can’t be in Japan and not have its most iconic dish — Sushi! There are tons of conveyor belt sushi bars around the city; but since we were in Kyoto, I thought that we should try the Kyoto style sushi (kyozushi). Kyoto rolls their sushi a little different from the rest of Japan — they are pressed into a wooden box to mould it, and are sometimes made with cured fish (for lack of fresh ones during those days).
The most famous Kyoto style sushi restaurant in Kyoto is Izuju Sushi in Gion. With over 100 years of experience, the quaint restaurant has an interior of wooden panels and paper walls — it felt like walking into a Japanese home. We ordered the 2-person sushi selection for JP¥3186 (US$30) per set; and it had most of the restaurant’s most popular dishes — the Sabazushi (with big chunks of mackerel), the Makizushi (a traditional omelette sushi) and the Deluxe Hakozushi (perfectly boxed-shaped sushi with prawns, sea bream and eel). Definitely the freshest sushi I’ve had.
5. Kyo Wagashi
Time for some sweet desserts! Kyoto is famous for its traditional Japanese sweets (known as Kyo Wagashi), served with thick green tea in Kyoto tea rooms. These sweets are usually mochi-like and filled with red bean paste to help balance off the bitter taste of the green tea. With a 300-year history, Kagizen Yoshifusa is said to be the best traditional sweet shop in the city for some green tea, kyo wagashi, and the popular summer dessert, kuzukiri.
Kagizen Yoshifusa has a sweet shop up front; and a tea room at the back that was abuzz with light chatter during my visit (like a typical tea room). We were mainly there for the kuzukiri, which is a noodle dish made of starch powder from the root of a kudzu plant. The dessert is served cold (with ice) — and because the transparent noodles does not have any taste, it is dipped in light sugar syrup (either brown or clear). Not exactly my type of dessert, but I can see why its light and cooling taste helps beat the summer heat. A bowl costs JP¥900 (US$8.5).
Japan is famous for everything matcha, and it is popular in Kyoto too. When we were in Kyoto, we had matcha desserts everyday; and it was hard deciding which matcha dessert shop we wanted to go to — almost every single one we went to had a queue outside. From ice creams and shakes, to sweets and tea; there’s a whole range of matcha delights to satisfy your taste buds.
My favorite matcha dessert has got to be the parfait; and after visiting many a matcha dessert shop, my favorite place to have it is at Tsujiri. I just can’t get enough of that heavenly glass of green goodness with pure love at every bite (you get the picture!) — and I especially loved (loved, loved) the matcha cake on top. We have Tsujiri branches in Malaysia (and many other worldwide locations) — but it first started in Kyoto, and it seems (judging from that parfait), nothing beats the original.
Seafood! Surrounded by the sea, Japan is famous for its fresh seafood — and in Kyoto, the place to get a taste of it is at the traditional food market, Nishiki Market. The huge market runs a couple of blocks; and is also surrounded by food stalls, souvenir shops, and boutique stores. The market is known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, and is a great place to explore all things ‘food’ that Kyoto has to offer.
Walking along Nishiki Market, it was hard to resist all the seafood that was on offer — I probably stopped at every single shop. From baby octopus stuffed with quails egg and tiger prawns, to fresh seafood like oysters and sashimi; I wanted to try everything. And so I did. With all these small sticks of seafood costing about JP¥500 (US$5) a piece, I probably spent an entire day’s budget at the market!
8. Wagyu and Kyoto Pork
During my visit to Kyoto (and because I was in Japan), I wanted to try some premium Wagyu Beef. We came across Kotoshi while walking along the city’s popular dining alley, Pontocho — and because the restaurant offered both wagyu beef and Kyoto pork at affordable prices, we decided to give the place a try. The restaurant serves their meat in various styles, which includes shabu-shabu (dipped in a hot pot), sukiyaki (cooked in a pot), sumibiyaki (charcoal grill) and iwayaki (grilled on an oven baked stone).
At Kotoshi (like many restaurants along the Pontocho alley), we had the option to dine outdoors on the verandah during summer. However, we decided to have our meals indoor in the common area — a large oval table that can seat several people. We ordered the wagyu sirloin (iwayaki) and the Kyoto pork (sukiyaki), and our absolutely sublime dinner cost us about JP¥8,000 (US$75) altogether.
If you love your eggs, you’ll love the Omurice. It really is just a Japanese twist of a Western dish — fried rice topped with a fluffy omelette that flows over the rice once sliced, and then topped with either ketchup or a demi-glaced sauce. There is an extremely popular restaurant in Kyoto that serves the Omurice — it’s called Kishi Kishi Omurice and because it only seats a limited number of people, it gets booked out weeks in advance.
We couldn’t get a place at Kishi Kishi; and because I was craving for Omurice, we decided to drop by another joint in town, Kyoto-Omurice Luf. Their omurice version is one that wraps the rice inside the omelette — not quite as wonderful to look at, but it was still pretty good. The next time I’m in Kyoto though; I’ll definitely try to get to Kishi Kishi!
10. Ramen and Soba
And last but not least…. when in Japan, make sure you have as many bowls of ramen and soba as you can! Just like many cities throughout the country, Kyoto has its own version of the ramen — and we got our taste at Masutani at the Kyoto Ramen Koji (Street) on the 10th floor of the Kyoto Station. The entire floor has 8 small ramen shops with versions from different places in Japan, so if you have a preference, you can find it here.
Another signature Kyoto bowl of noodles that can be found at the Kyoto Station is Matsuba Nishin-Soba. This dish of soba noodles is topped with a sweet stewed mackerel, and was first created in Kyoto — in 1882. We had ours at the original Matsuba branch near Gion, and a bowl cost about JP¥1,300 (US$12). Delish!