Kyoto, the spiritual heart of Japan, is known as a city of artisans, and that’s no less true when you begin to explore its unique foodie scene. Being landlocked, and away from the sea, the city has its own distinct cuisine.
People throughout Japan and the world come to the city to enjoy the refined and unique takes on traditional and non-traditional fare at both fine restaurants and on non-descript street corners. As the former capital and one of the oldest cities in the country, it has a long tradition of culinary delights.
So, what to eat in Kyoto?
The city has a diverse range of tasty options. Mostly known for its exquisite tofu dishes, Kyoto also offers mouth-watering vegetarian meals, sweets, and multi-course haute cuisine. Along with the local flavours, Kyoto puts its own stamp on Japanese classics including sushi, soba, and ramen.
Not feeling hungry yet? You will be by the time you finish this complete Kyoto food guide…
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Kyoto food guide: Eight must-eat dishes
Tofu is almost synonymous with Kyoto cuisine. Pretty much every restaurant and kitchen throughout the city 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 2000 years. It’s made from coagulated soy milk that’s pressed into white blocks.
The residents of Kyoto seem obsessed with tofu, as it appears in a wide variety of dishes.
It’s sometimes soft or firm. Some dishes may require deep-fried tofu, steamed tofu, or cold tofu. It really is one of the most versatile ingredients.
For the best-tasting tofu, always choose a location that serves it fresh. An artisanal shop called Kinki even gives you the opportunity to watch the tofu-making process.
During your stay in Kyoto, you need to have at least one kaiseki meal. The traditional multi-course meal is the epitome of fine dining in Japan.
Kaiseki cuisine was originally only an option for the aristocrats of the city. It’s still considered a high-class meal featuring multiple courses with prices ranging between 10,000 and 30,000 yen.
Chefs prepare a variety of dishes using local seasonal ingredients so you never know what to expect until you arrive.
To enjoy traditional kaiseki, visit Hyotei. The outside of the Michelin three-star restaurant is unassuming but the interior features elegant furnishings and décor. This makes it the perfect setting for a refined meal.
While kaiseki is originally a meal for the upper crust of Kyoto, Buddhist monks developed shojin cuisine. The monks couldn’t kill living creatures so they prepared vegetarian dishes.
Instead of 10,000 yen or more for a meal, you may pay as little as 1500 yen 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, helping to bring out the natural flavours of the various plant-based ingredients.
Several Buddhist temples serve up shojin, including the 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 includes a variety of ingredients but tends to include lots 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, ensuring that they waste no food. Restaurants tend to use seasonal items and freshly caught seafood.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, 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 to help 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 the meals discussed at fancy restaurants throughout the city, but what about Kyoto street food? Start with Taiyaki. Made to resemble a fish, the doughy sweet treat comes stuffed with a filling.
Traditional taiyaki has a red bean paste filling but you can find it with a variety of fillings including whipped cream, chocolate, and sweet potatoes.
You’ll find this throughout the city, often served fresh or sold in packages. While cities across Japan offer this sweet food, Kyoto has its own preparation method. Bakers blend high-quality wheat and allow the dough to set overnight, resulting in a light and fluffy pastry.
Where to stay in Kyoto: The best hotels for foodies
Since the 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. As per usual, I would recommend staying somewhere in the city centre including the areas of Gion and Higashiyama.
- Guest House Oumi: A traditional Japanese ryokan located less than a kilometre from Nijo Castle. You’ll love relaxing on the calming outdoor terrace!
- Mugen: Set in a quiet residential area, this ryokan offers both Western- and Japanese-style rooms for your comfort.
- The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto: If you’ve got the budget for it, this 5-star hotel 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.