Kyoto, the so-called City of Ten Thousand Shrines, has probably made your list of must-visit destinations for a number of reasons (maybe even ten thousand). You probably want to see the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji Temple, which is practically dripping in gold, an extravagant declaration of more-is-more. Maybe you’re hoping to spot maikoin the historic geisha district of Gion or immerse yourself in the lush bamboo forest of Arashiyama. But don’t overlook Kyoto’s food culture, which boasts super high-quality dishes and distinct local specialties.
Food culture in Kyoto is influenced by environmental factors, like the city’s geographic location, topography, and access to abundant freshwater wells. And its long history and culture as Japan's capital up until the Meiji Restoration, has seeped into the local food culture as well, making Kyoto the best destination to experience traditional Japanese culture.
On a health kick? No problem. The food scene in Kyoto is abundant with local vegetables and superfoods, and the city is home to some of the healthiest Japanese cuisines, including the vegetarian Buddhist cuisine. But if you’re hoping to indulge yourself, take relief in the fact that there is no end to the delicious Kyoto specialties, both traditional and innovative. In case you're not sure what to eat in Kyoto, we've compiled some of the must-eat foods in Kyoto.
Kyo Ryori (Kyoto Cuisine)
Kyoto, the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, is the birthplace of many types of Japanese cuisines. Kyo ryori encompasses the five styles of Japanese cuisine which got their starts in this historic city: kaiseki ryori, shojin ryori, honzen ryori, daikyo ryori, and obanzai. Kyo ryori is distinct for its use of seasonal ingredients, creative plating on handmade lacquerware and ceramics, and attention to details like texture and color. These elements combine harmoniously to represent the current season.
1. Kaiseki Ryori: Traditional Multi-Course Meal
Kyoto is the birthplace of kaiseki ryori (also simply called “kaiseki”), a traditional Japanese multi-course meal in which seasonal ingredients, traditional techniques, and gorgeous presentation are merged into a mindblowing culinary experience. The first version of kaiseki in Kyoto was cha kaiseki("tea" kaiseki) a course meal served prior to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Since then, kaiseki ryori has evolved independently of the tea ceremony. To enjoy this traditional Japanese meal and admire the prowess of some of the most skilled Japanese chefs, Kyoto is the go-to city.
2. Shojin Ryori: Vegetarian Buddhist Cuisine
Shojin ryori is a Japanese Buddhist cuisine made entirely without meat or animal products. It is a vegetarian (and sometimes, vegan) cuisine, eaten at Buddhist temples across Japan, utilizing fresh and simple ingredients. Like other types of kyo ryori, the focus is on textures, flavors, and presentation. Originally, this Buddhist cuisine came to Kyoto from China. One of the first establishments to adopt the shojin cuisine was Manpuku Temple, or Manpuku-ji, in Kyoto. Given the abundance of sites of worship in Kyoto, there is no shortage of Buddhist temples and restaurants to try this Japanese Buddhist cuisine.
3. Obanzai: Kyoto Home-cooking
Obanzai is Kyoto-style home-cooking which follows the traditional Japanese meal layout, ichiju-sansai(consisting of rice, soup, and 3 side dishes). The comforting and familiar aspects of Japanese home-cooking is elevated at obanzai restaurants, where experienced chefs coax out those deep umami flavors the Japanese cuisine is so well-known for. Using fresh ingredients local to Kyoto, obanzai highlights the very best regional specialties. And unlike kaiseki ryori, which is usually reserved for special occasions, obanzai is a very accessible, everyday kind of Japanese cuisine.
Kyoto Specialty Dishes
Within Kyo ryori, or Kyoto cuisine, are a variety of local specialty dishes. Here are some Kyoto specialties you might find included in your kaiseki meal, as well as some of the best local foods in Kyoto you'll definitely want to seek out.
Japan’s reputation for having one of the healthiest cuisines in the world isn’t for nothing. Not only is Kyoto the go-to city for shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine), but Kyoto is also home to a little-known superfood called yuba. A tofu-like product also made from soybeans, yuba is a nutritious delicacy that forms on top of heated soymilk. These sheets of yuba can be wrapped up in a multi-layered morsel, enjoyed in soup, or even fried to make yuba chips. Yuba is popularly used in Kyoto cuisines like kaiseki and shojin ryori. With antioxidants, anti-aging properties, and lots of protein, all wrapped up in a little low-calorie packet, yuba is a must-try Kyoto specialty.
2. Kyoto Sake
Undoubtedly, if you’re dining in Kyoto, you’ll want to sip some sake alongside your main dishes. Kyoto, specifically Fushimi, is known for sake production. The springs of Fushimi, a name meaning “underground water,” are responsible for the refreshing and mild taste which is characteristic of Kyoto sake. In fact, the “soft” water of Kyoto is considered to be the highest quality, allowing the natural flavors of soba, tofu, and (of course) sake to shine through.
There’s a spiritual element to Kyoto’s production of sake as well. Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Kyoto’s top attraction recognizable by its labyrinth of vermillion torii gates, is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. Perhaps Kyoto’s reverence for the sake’s basic components, water and rice, are all part of the recipe for great tasting sake.
3. Kyoto Soba (Buckwheat Noodles)
Another Kyoto food whose high quality is attributed to Kyoto’s soft, mellow groundwater, is soba, or Japanese buckwheat noodles. But these aren’t just your regular buckwheat noodles. Kyoto has several soba specialties, including cha soba, nishin soba, and kamo namban soba, all made with and local Kyoto water.
Nishin soba is topped with a sweet and salty braised-and-dried pacific herring, while kamo namban soba consists of soba noodles in a broth made with leeks or scallions and duck. Cha soba noodles, or green tea soba noodles, are made with buckwheat flour and green tea powder. High-quality tea from Uji, a city just south of Kyoto, is responsible for the vibrant green tea color and flavor.
4. Kyoto Sushi: Saba-Zushi (Mackerel Sushi)
Saba-zushiis a traditional type of Kyoto sushi. Not to be confused with the typical Edo-style nigirisushi you’ll find in Tokyo, this mackerel sushi is prepared using pickling methods intended to maximize its shelf life. As Kyoto is landlocked, historically, fresh fish was hard to come by. The raw mackerel had to be heavily salted and wrapped in a dried bamboo sheath so that it could keep during the long journey from the sea to Japan’s ancient capital. This type of lightly pickled mackerel sushi is a specialty of the Kyoto sushi scene, with a flavor unlike that of its Edo-style cousin.
5. Tsukemono (Pickled Vegetables)
Another specialty preserved food of Kyoto is tsukemono, or pickled vegetables. Back in the days before refrigeration, pickled vegetables could literally be lifesavers. The three types of pickles Kyoto is known for are shibazuke(eggplant pickled with red perilla leaves), senmaizuke (large, round, super-thin slices of pickled Shogoin turnip), and sugukizuke(a type of very sour pickled turnip). Kyoto’s lively Nishiki Market, nicknamed “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” is the best place to find a variety of colorful Japanese tsukemono, as well as Japanese sweets and seafood.
6. Hamo (Conger Eel)
The Gion Festival, Kyoto's most important festival, is also known as the “Hamo Festival,” which should be a tip-off about what to eat in Kyoto to beat the summer heat. Hamo, a type of sea eel or conger eel, is a Kyoto delicacy with the price tag to match. The tender white flesh of hamo can be prepared in numerous ways: boiled, grilled, deep-fried, as sashimi, or served in hotpots like shabu-shabuand nabe. But in the summer, boiled hamo is often served cold with umeplum sauce. The conger eel is a tough guy, able to survive the journey to landlocked Kyoto, and it is equally difficult to prepare with numerous tiny little bones for chefs to work around.
7. Matcha Green Tea Desserts
It’s undeniable, Japanese desserts and green tea are a matchamade in heaven. And Kyoto offers some of the most delectable green tea-flavored desserts, from matcha ice cream to green tea tiramisu, and even something called “matcha fondue.” Tea-lovers, Kyoto is calling, with abundant matcha desserts made with high-quality Uji matcha. There’s no better place to indulge in matcha green tea desserts than Kyoto, the city where the Japanese tea ceremony was born.
8. Yatsuhashi: Japanese Sweets
Yatsuhashi are the iconic Kyotoomiyage, or souvenir. A traditional Japanese dessert, there are three types of yatsuhashi. The classic type is a hard, cookie-like treat that packs a cinnamon-like punch and a satisfying crunch. Named after Yatsuhashi Kengyo, the koto harp and shamisen musician who composed many famous Kyoto songs, the baked style of yatsuhashi are made in a curved shape resembling the koto harp.
Nama yatsuhashior “raw” yatsuhashi, is a newer version; a flat, rectangular piece of steamed mochi, which comes in flavors like cinnamon, chocolate, and matcha. The last type is the anko-filled nama yatsuhashi, a neat little triangular packet of mochi containing sweet red bean paste. Before leaving Kyoto, be sure to pick up some yatsuhashi, the classic Kyoto omiyage.
From sake made with pure Kyoto water to saba-zushi (the traditional Kyoto sushi) to matcha soba and desserts, Kyoto's food scene offers a wide variety of local specialty dishes unique to Japan's ancient capital. Now, with the knowledge about what to eat in Kyoto and tidbits of info about the local food culture, you can fully savor your journey to this striking city of shrines.