Kyoto Cuisine

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Kyoto Cuisine
In Kyoto, simple ingredients prepared with meticulous care are served as displays of art. From modest tea ceremonies and tofu dishes to multi-course dinners and ornate sweets, Kyoto cooking offers world-class refinement and taste.
By Erin Bogar, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by age fotostock
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    Japanese Tea Ceremony
    Chado (traditional Japanese tea ceremony) were originally held for the emperors and samurai, who valued the simplicity and lack of ornamentation of the ritual. Sen no Rikyu, one of the fathers of the Japanese tea ceremony, designed the teahouse at Kodai-ji temple in the 16th century. Attend a chado at En, a small teahouse near Gion, and learn more about the Japanese “Way of Tea” at the Urasenke Chado Research Center near the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
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    Temple and Shrine Fare
    Multicolored food stalls called yatai border many of Kyoto’s temples and shrines, selling traditional and modern Japanese finger foods. Outside Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine, visitors gather to sample Japanese favorites like okonomiyaki (savory pancakes with various ingredients) and taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes often filled with red bean paste). Near the entrance of Gion’s Yasaka Shrine, find yatai selling takoyaki (fried dough balls filled with octopus), green tea-flavored mochi (a kind of glutinous rice cake dessert), and ayu (grilled sweetfish on a stick). Kyoto’s temple and shrine fare is a necessary accompaniment to any journey through the city’s plentiful religious monuments.
    Photo by Erin Bogar
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    Kyoto's Culinary Markets
    Explore the food wonderland of Kyoto’s historic Nishiki Market, which is hundreds of years old and still supplies Kyoto’s restaurants. Look for Uchida, a shop filled with barrels of pickled vegetables, and try bite-sized onigiri (rice balls with various fillings) and yakitori (skewered chicken). A more modern food experience can be had at Japan’s depachika, which are elegant and expansive grocery markets situated in the basements of major department stores. Kyoto’s Daimaru depachika, located in downtown Kyoto on Shijo-dori, is a great place to assemble a picnic of prepared foods and to find souvenirs like wagashi (Japanese sweets) and sake.
    Photo by Rebecca Safley
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    Traditional Kyoto Cuisine
    Tofu, tempura, and green tea have all been refined for centuries in Kyoto’s fastidious food environment. Yudofu (a simmering hotpot of handmade tofu) can be found at the 350-year-old Kyoto eatery Okutan, and tofu doughnuts from Nishiki Market’s Konnamonja are a sweet take on the soy bean curd. Lightly battered and deep-fried sliced vegetables and seafood, known as kakiage, are expertly prepared at Tempura Yoshikawa in downtown Kyoto. Kichisen, near Shimogamo-jinja, has three Michelin stars and is dedicated to preserving and promoting traditional Kyoto cuisine. Sip matcha (finely powdered green tea) at outdoor temple teahouses, and purchase green tea souvenirs and sublime green tea ice cream at Ippodo Tea Co.
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    Traditional Japanese Sweets
    Traditional Japanese sweets, wagashi, were originally made for the Imperial family and the Imperial court. Toraya and Kagizen Yoshifusa are family-run sweet shops that have been providing Kyoto and the Imperial family with wagashi for centuries. Toraya produces impeccable yokan, sweet red bean paste formed into a block and sliced thin; it makes a great gift for friends. Kagizen Yoshifusa has cafés and shops in Gion and Kodai-ji, where you can enjoy the perfect pairing of sweet wagashi and bitter green tea. Nerikiri are colorful sweets with ornate designs and are as beautiful as they are tasty. Enjoy them at the Kinkaku-ji teahouse in the forest behind the temple.
    Photo by Chris DeRemer
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    Kyoto Food Tours
    Kyoto cuisine is a medley of simple ingredients selected and prepared with attention to detail. Learn the secrets of creating Kyoto dishes in the intimate setting of a small Japanese home with Uzuki cooking classes. Choose from courses on Japanese sweet making, sushi making, and traditional Kyoto meal preparation. JD Kai runs a food-tasting tour during which you meet local food shop owners in the Fushimi district, a cooking class where you learn to make obanzai ryori (home-style Kyoto cuisine), and a sake-tasting tour that shows you how sake is made.
    Photo by Erin Bogar
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    Gourmet Eating in Kyoto
    Urbane restaurants with enticing dishes and inspiring views are abundant in Kyoto. Near Gion, Pontocho Alley has restaurants offering traditional Kyoto cuisine and Japanese fusion along the Kamo River. In the warmer months, Pontocho restaurants build kawadoko (wooden dining platforms) along the river for open-air dining with stunning views. Dine on tatami mats and enjoy exquisitely prepared shojin ryori (Zen Buddhist cuisine) at the Michelin-starred Ajiro. Eat inside Kanga-an temple and sample more than 10 courses of fucha ryori (a version of Zen Buddhist cuisine). At Hyotei, which is around 400 years old, enjoy simple and elegant multi-course kaiseki haute cuisine in a private room with garden views.
    Photo courtesy of Kyoto Prefecture Tourism
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    Kyoto Nightlife
    Kyoto’s Gion district and the nearby Pontocho Alley have vibrant nightlife with exclusive restaurants, geisha houses, and intimate bars. Club Jittoku, located in the Nishijin district, is a former sake brewery that is now a dance club. The A-Bar izakaya (Japanese pub), in eastern Kyoto, has a fun and friendly vibe and a warm wood interior. Pair popular izakaya fare, like yakitori (grilled skewered chicken) and gyoza (potstickers), with Japanese lagers. Once a geisha house, Gion Finlandia Bar is now a Finnish-themed bar decorated with a combination of Finnish and Japanese decor. Sample Gion Finlandia’s flavored vodkas and large selection of foreign beers and spirits.
    Photo by Pietro Scozzari/age fotostock
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    Venues for a Romantic Meal
    The ambience of traditional Kyoto restaurants—stark decor with floor-level tables and tatami mats—is simple Japanese design at its best. Stroll along Shinbashi-dori beside the picturesque Shirakawa Canal and then watch chef Tsukada prepare teppanyaki (food cooked on an iron griddle) in the small, friendly environment of Teppan Kappo Sou. Dine in the quiet, intimate atmosphere of a private tatami room at the Michelin-starred Gion Nanba and, after dinner, stroll around the nearby Yasaka Shrine, crowned by hundreds of white paper lanterns. Watch maiko (geisha in training) perform traditional Japanese music and dancing while savoring kaiseki (multi-course Japanese dinner) at Gion Hatanaka.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Sake Tastings and Breweries
    Tour a sake brewery to appreciate the 1,300-year-old art of brewing rice wine, before visiting one of Kyoto’s many sake bars to sample a huge variety of nihonshu (the common Japanese term for sake). The region surrounding Fushimi Inari-taisha, the shrine to the god of sake and rice, is Kyoto’s sake-brewing district. The breweries in Fushimi-ku use the region’s natural springwater to make premium sake. The Fujioka Shuzo brewery has a sake-tasting bar, Sakagura Bar En, where you can try quality junmai sake (sake without added alcohol or sugar). Asakura and Yoramu are sake bars located near Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. Asakura offers more than 50 types of sake, and Yoramu specializes in koshu (aged sake).
    Photo by age fotostock