Ever wondered what to eat in Kyoto? Prepare your tastebuds for an Japanese food experience like no other!
Landlocked and away from the sea, Kyoto has a culinary scene unlike any other city in Japan. We already know Kyoto is the spiritual heart of Japan. But for foodies, eating might be one of the biggest surprises on a trip to the former imperial capital.
People throughout Japan and the world come to Kyoto to enjoy its haute Japanese cuisine. The city offers refined & unique takes on traditional and non-traditional Japanese fare. Its culinary delights span everything between fine-dining restaurants and non-descript street corners.
Kyoto has a diverse range of tasty food options. Although most known for its exquisite tofu dishes, Kyoto has plenty more in store. In Kyoto, you’ll enjoy mouth-watering vegetarian meals, sweets, and multi-course haute cuisine (kaiseki). Along with its local flavours, Kyoto also puts its own stamp on Japanese classics like sushi, soba, and ramen.
Hungry for the best food in Kyoto? Start planning your culinary adventure with this complete Kyoto food guide.
Kyoto food guide: 8 must-eat dishes
Tofu is almost synonymous with Kyoto cuisine. Pretty much every restaurant and kitchen throughout Kyoto serves up this protein alternative.
In North America, tofu isn’t the most popular ingredient but it’s been a staple of Asian cuisine for over 2,000 years. Tofu is made from coagulated soy milk pressed into white blocks.
The residents of Kyoto seem obsessed with tofu. It appears in a wide variety of local dishes. Sometimes it’s soft; sometimes it’s firm. Some dishes may need deep-fried tofu, steamed tofu, or cold tofu. It’s one of the most versatile ingredients in Kyoto’s cuisine.
For the best-tasting tofu, always choose a location that serves it fresh. An artisanal shop called Kinki even lets you watch the tofu-making process.
As you search for what to eat in Kyoto, plan for at least one kaiseki meal. A traditional multi-course kaiseki meal is the epitome of fine dining in Japan.
Kaiseki cuisine was originally only an option for the aristocrats of Kyoto. It’s still considered a high-class meal. Kaiseki features multiple courses with prices ranging between ¥10,000 and ¥30,000.
Chefs prepare a variety of dishes using local seasonal ingredients; you never know what to expect from a kaiseki meal until you arrive.
To enjoy traditional kaiseki in Kyoto, visit Hyotei. The outside of the Michelin three-star restaurant is unassuming. The interior changes the tune with its elegant furnishings and décor. It’s the perfect setting for a refined meal.
While kaiseki was a meal for the upper crust of Kyoto, Buddhist monks developed shojin cuisine. The monks couldn’t kill living creatures. Instead, they prepared vegetarian dishes. Delicious ones.
Instead of ¥10,000 or more for a meal, you may pay as little as ¥1,500 for shojin. The meals typically include tofu and a selection of veggies simmered in a hot broth.
The dishes are often simple with limited seasonings and ingredients. Of course, chefs in Kyoto tend to get creative with shojin. It helps to bring out the natural flavours of the various plant-based ingredients.
Several Buddhist temples in Kyoto serve up shojin, including Tenryu-Ji Temple. The temple also specializes in a selection of other Buddhist dishes.
Obanzai rounds out the three main styles of cuisine in Kyoto. As with kaiseki, obanzai features multiple small dishes with locally sourced foods. Instead of making a spectacle of the presentation, obanzai meals are often simple.
Obanzai is the Japanese version of home-style cooking, often served at family restaurants. It spans a variety of ingredients but tends to include plenty of vegetables and fish.
For it to be true obanzai, at least half of the ingredients need to come from Kyoto.
In homes throughout the city, residents often prepare obanzai dishes using leftover ingredients. It ensures that they waste no food. Restaurants tend to use seasonal items and freshly caught seafood.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth while checking out the best foods in Kyoto, try wagashi.
Looking at wagashi, you may assume that you’re about to eat a sugary snack. These traditional Japanese treats include plant-based ingredients, typically served with tea.
Wagashi come in a variety of sizes and shapes, often with intricate designs. They reflect the culinary sophistication of the Kyoto region.
Bean paste is the main ingredient in most wagashi. Chefs boil the beans and mash them to create a smooth paste. It may also include rice flour, rice cakes, chestnuts, and sesame. You may also find these confections made with cubes of fruit.
Dozens of types of wagashi exist from small, solid sweet cakes to rice balls wrapped with bean paste.
Matcha is the preferred choice for a traditional Kyoto tea ceremony. Instead of steeping the powder, you whisk it into hot water, creating a frothy green drink.
Matcha originated in China before the practice of steeping tea. The Chinese mostly abandoned the whisking process but it gained popularity in Japan.
It’s got about the same amount of caffeine found in basic green tea or black tea but less caffeine compared to brewed coffee. It should help wake you up a bit while also aiding in digestion so you can try more Kyoto dishes.
Besides preparing Matcha for tea, some restaurants use it as an ingredient. You can find Matcha ice cream, cakes, and various baked goods.
Sushi isn’t native to Kyoto, but the locals have their own methods for preparing the rolls of rice and raw fish.
Kyoto is further from the sea, so fresh fish wasn’t always an option. Locals lightly season the fish and add a little vinegar. It helps preserve the food while also giving it a slightly different flavour.
Traditional sushi includes rice and raw fish wrapped in a type of seaweed called nori. Instead of nori, Kyoto-style sushi comes wrapped in a type of kelp called kombu.
For authentic Kyoto sushi, take a trip to Izuju. The restaurant first opened in 1912 and serves a wide assortment of sushi toppings. They even have sushi wrapped in tofu skins.
You’ll find most of these meals at fancy restaurants throughout the city. But what about Kyoto street food? Start with Taiyaki. This sweet doughy Japanese treat is made to resemble a fish and comes stuffed with a filling.
Traditional taiyaki has a red bean paste filling. You can also find it with a variety of other fillings. Look out for versions filled with whipped cream, chocolate, and sweet potatoes.
You’ll find taiyaki throughout Kyoto, often served fresh but also sold in packages.
While cities across Japan offer this sweet food, Kyoto has its own preparation method. Bakers blend high-quality wheat. They allow the dough to set overnight, resulting in a light and fluffy pastry.
Where to stay in Kyoto for foodies
The Kyoto food scene is spread throughout the city. There’s no neighbourhood that stands out as the single best choice for where to stay in Kyoto. I’d recommend staying somewhere in the city centre. You can’t go wrong with the Gion or Higashiyama areas.
- Guest House Oumi is a traditional Japanese ryokan located less than a kilometre from Nijo Castle. You’ll love relaxing on the calming outdoor terrace of this guesthouse.
- Mugen is set in a quiet residential area not far from all the action. This ryokan offers both Western- and Japanese-style rooms for your comfort.
- The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto is a 5-star hotel that offers the finest luxury experience in Kyoto. From the spacious modern rooms with classic Oriental touches to the zen-like garden, you’ll never forget your stay here.