Follow Me Foodie to Kyoto, Japan! (Where to eat in Kyoto?)

Follow Me Foodie to Kyoto, Japan!

Follow Me Foodie to Japan – Part 1/Intro

Follow Me Foodie to Tokyo

When you think of Japan you think of visiting Tokyo, which should no doubt be on the list. It’s a huge city with a population of 13.23 million and enough restaurants to keep up, so you could spend a lifetime in Tokyo alone. While Tokyo is the “centre” of Japan, the heart of it is spread out and it would be a shame to miss out on one of its most beautiful cities. Welcome to Kyoto, once capital of Japan and home of the emperor from 794 to 1868.

As I mentioned in Follow Me Foodie to Tokyo, Tokyo’s food scene will give you a little bit of everything, but it is not necessarily the “food city” of Japan. It has the most selection, world-renowned chefs and Michelin Stars in Japan, but every region in Japan has a specialty. For example, Northern Japan is known for seafood, so Hokkaido is a prime destination for sashimi aficionados, although much of the top quality fish still gets shipped to Tokyo first.

Tokyo is a fantastic food city with bright lights, high energy and top quality restaurants, but if you’re looking for a more traditional and ancient side of Japan (like what you would see in movies) then I highly recommend taking the bullet train (3 hours from Tokyo) to Kyoto. It’s a nice escape from the big city, although it is still the seventh largest city in Japan with 1.5 million people.

Hong Kong & Japan 2013 738Home to thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, Kyoto is deeply rooted with culture, history and Japanese traditions.

Kyoto, Japan 28I visited in autumn (early-mid November 2013) which is peak season in Japan, along with cherry blossom festival in spring. The autumn is when all the leaves start changing colours and Kyoto is where people go to witness it, also because of religious seasonal rituals. Another two or so weeks and it would have been painted with red and gold leaves.

Japan prides itself on its four distinct seasons believing it is more distinct than other cities and countries. Four seasons exist in other parts of the world with similar climate so I didn’t quite understand, albeit it is particularly defined here. The seasons are important in Japanese culture and part of it is due to religion and belief. Seasonal cycles symbolize death and rebirth, hence why spring and autumn are considered peak seasons.

Kyoto, Japan 119Shinto is one of Japan’s oldest ‘religions’ along with Buddhism, but it is approached as a spiritual thought and practice more so than a formal “religion”. Shinto beliefs are inherent in Japanese people and seen in many of their activities, philosophies, and even cuisine. To understand their cuisine is to look at their chefs and people who make it.

Kyoto, Japan 50Shinto believes that sacred spirits called kami exist in nature (rocks, trees, leaves and mountains) and the seasonal cycle is important. Seasonal ingredients depict the menu and presentation of a dish, and food must be in harmony with nature and the body. The food should show the beauty of the seasons and the emphasis should be strong enough to be appreciated visually and felt by the diner. Eating seasonally is also healthy.

As much as seasonality is a global food movement, the Japanese have been doing it for centuries, unlike much of North America who jumped on the “eat local” movement a bit later. The Japanese really celebrate their seasons and certain foods representing specific seasons are used immensely, like ginkgo nuts in the autumn and fresh bamboo shoots in the spring.

Kyoto, Japan 126Since Japanese cuisine is based on simplicity and natural flavours, the highest quality ingredient at its peak of freshness and/or ripeness, is rarely jeopardized. I wrote more about this mentality and cooking philosophy in Follow Me Foodie to Japan: about Japanese People, Culture & Food.

In the same article, I mentioned the idea of Japanese food in Vancouver. Unfortunately it does not really go beyond sushi, izakaya, ramen, teriyaki and tempura, and Vancouver is already known for a pretty decent and good Japanese food scene in North America. Many people visiting Japan may seek these items, which is natural, expected and great, but there is so much more to Japanese cuisine than the listed.

Not every city in Japan is known for sushi, just like how not every city in Italy is known for pizza; and sushi, just like pizza, varies from region to region. For example, in Kyoto there is Kyoto style sushi which is different than Edo style sushi. There are many more examples, but knowing the specialties of each city maximizes the food experience. Here is a great chart to follow.

What to eat in Kyoto?

I had limited time in Kyoto, so let this be a rough guideline and general idea of what to eat. There are more regional specialties than what is listed, but these are either significant to Kyoto’s food scene or considered “must tries”.

1) Kyoto-style Sushi – I didn’t even know it existed prior to this trip.

2) Tofu & Vegetables (Shojin Ryori) – Buddhist cuisine and/or Japanese style vegetarian cooking. Since it is the home to so many temples and shrines, much of the cuisine is catered for and sometimes by Buddhist followers and monks.

3) Kaiseki Ryori – a traditional Japanese multi-course dinner. In a Western context, it is similar to a tasting menu from a fine dining restaurant. There is an emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients and artistic presentation. It is often garnished with fresh flowers, real leaves and seasonal objects found in nature. Ryokans (Japanese style hotels) are where tourists typically enjoy them, but there are other options for it. 

4) Maiko Dinner Show – Kyoto is known for Maikos (apprentice Geishas), so a maiko dinner show is worth experiencing. The interactive dining experience typically includes unlimited alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, dinner, and entertainment such as music and dancing performances and drinking games.

See more Kyoto styles of dining.

Where to eat in Kyoto?

Being that it was my first time in Kyoto, there could be better for the following. They are not necessarily “the best” (which is too personal) and this is not a “holy grail”, but they were recommended by Japanese chefs, trusted sources, and friends who either spent time in Japan exploring food, or were/are born and raised there. I tried a lot more food from each restaurant than the photos I’m showing, but this is just a glimpse.

Food/Restaurant Highlights in Kyoto: 

Japan - Kyoto style sushi at Izuju 1 Kyoto, Japan 190Izuu is most known for Saba-sugata-zushi, a Kyoto-style of pressed sushi. The saba (mackerel) is fermented in sushi vinegar, packed with sushi rice, and then wrapped with pickled kombu (kelp). 

Kyoto, Japan 200The pickled kelp on the Saba-sugata-zushi is thicker than on the Tai-zushi, so it is meant to be removed and eaten separately and after.

Izuu
367 Kiyomotocho, Higashiyamaku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0084, Japan | +81 75-561-0751
Cuisine: Japanese/sushi
Price: About $30-40+USD/per person
Notes: There are two well known restaurants specializing in Kyoto style sushi and specifically mackerel sushi (delicacy in Kyoto). Izuju is one of the most popular and known to locals and tourists, and the chef actually trained at Izuu (where I went). Izuu is a hidden gem and it is equally as good if not better (from what I hear) than Izuju. Izuu actually offers a more sophisticated ambiance whereas Izuju is a bit more casual. Both are well respected for Kyoto style sushi. Izuu is harder to find and known to Japanese locals more so than tourists, and it’s also open later.

Traditional Kyoto style sushi | considered “best Kyoto style sushi” | try the Sabasugata-zushi and Tai-zushi | local favourite | 100+ years old | institution | causal, but pricey | vegetarian/vegan friendly | Japanese & English menu | 11:00-23:00 | closed Tuesdays | dine in or take out
♦♦♦♦ – Excellent, make a trip out for it. (90-100%)

Gogyo ramen in tokyo kyoto japan burnt miso ramenGogyo Burnt Miso Ramen in Tokyo & Kyoto Japan 07Gogyo
Yanaginobamba nishiki agaru, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan | +81 75-254-5567
Cuisine: Japanese/ramen
Price: About $10-15USD/per person
Notes: Try the signature Burnt Miso Ramen | closes for break at 4:30pm | local favourite | causal | quick | budget-friendly | Japanese and English menu
♦♦♦♦ – Excellent, make a trip out for it. (90-100%)

Follow Me Foodie Tofu Kyoto JapanTofu Kyoto Japan 2013 721Follow Me Foodie Kyoto TofuNanzenji Junsei
Nanzenjikusagawacho, Sakyoku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 606-8437, Japan | +81 75-761-2311
Cuisine: Japanese/Tofu/Tempura/Vegetarian
Price: About $20-30+USD/per person
Notes: Near Nanzen-ji temple | local/tourist favourite | line up at peak hours | very busy | famous for tofu | variety of tofu | traditional Japanese | vegetarian only | good quality home made tofu | good for groups | family friendly | casual | Japanese and English menu | sake selection
♦♦♦♦ – Excellent, make a trip out for it. (90-100%)

Kyoto, Japan 266A visit to Nishiki Market is a must. It is a nice introduction to Kyoto specialties and a great place for edible gift shopping, ingredient sourcing, or a quick and casual meal. It’s five blocks of restaurants, food stalls and retailers. There are some artisan food shops, Japanese knife stores, and clothing retailers, and there is something to suit every budget.

Kyoto, Japan 268Nukazuke (Japanese rice bran pickles) – Fermenting Kyoto vegetables in rice bran (nuka)

Kyoto Japan Nishiki Market 4Kyoto Japan Tamago Nishiki MarketThere are a few stalls specializing in tamago (Japanese style layered omelet) and they are good, but not necessarily “the best“. A good tamago is compact and you can barely see the layers and folds. I squished mine to show the texture a bit more. It can be seasoned with dashi, sake, and/or sugar so it can be savoury or slightly sweet. It is commonly enjoyed for breakfast, in sushi, or as a last course at a sushi restaurant. It sounds basic, but traditionally one judges a sushi chef’s skills on his tamago and chefs can spend a lifetime mastering the art of making it.

Kyoto Japan Nishiki Market Sesame MochiThis artisan sesame shop (top photos) made me fall in love with sesame all over again. I came back three times over two days to stock up on sesame specialties. It was some of the most fragrant and high quality sesame I’ve had, but I don’t visit sesame shops often enough to say that coming from an “expert” level. Here, I was taught to pound sesame seeds instead of grind them.

The artisan mochi and warabi-mochi shop (bottom photos) is also worth visiting. They specialize in mochi and warabi-mochi which is different than traditional mochi made from glutinous rice flour. Warabi-mochi is a specialty sweet of Kyoto and the Kansai region. It is softer and more jelly-like than mochi. It is made with bracken starch and coated with sweet roasted soybean flour (Kinako), and the one here was matcha kinako. Imitation Warabimochi is made with cheaper potato or tapioca starch, and in Northern Japan this sweet is eaten differently and a bit deconstructed. The warabimochi is dipped in warm brown sugar syrup and then in kinako, as if it were fondue. Warabimochi is almost like Japanese Turkish delight.

Nishiki Market (Undercover street market in downtown Kyoto)
Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan
Cuisine: Japanese/Marketplace
Price: Varies, but for lunch you could spend $10-20+USD/per person
Notes: Opens in early morning | very busy at lunch | 100+ restaurants/stalls | 5 blocks of shopping/eating | Japanese marketplace | some artisan stalls | lots of selection | sashimi | sushi | fried street food | meat | fresh/dried seafood | vegetarian options | dessert options | gift/souvenir shopping | affordable | budget friendly
♦♦♦♦♦ – Follow Me Foodie Must Try/Visit! (Bonus marks! 100%+)

Kyoto, Japan OkonomoyakiKyoto, Japan 262Kiraku (Okonomiyaki)
208 Nakano-cho, Sanjo Shirakawabashi, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan | +81 75-761-5780
Cuisine: Japanese/Okonomiyaki
Price: About $10-20/per person
Notes: Okonomiyaki is famous in Osaka, so if you have time, take a 30 minute ride on the bullet train to Osaka from Kyoto. However if you don’t have the time, you can try it in Kyoto too. This is not “the best“, but it’s very good, recommended by locals, and they specialize in it.

Casual | quick | open late | family friendly | budget friendly | friendly service | Japanese and English menu | photo menu | sake/beer | vegetarian friendly | local/tourist favourite | lunch/dinner
♦♦♦ – Very good, dining itinerary worthy. (70-89%)

Kyoto Japan ParfaitTsujiri Tea House (Tsujiri Honten)
573-3 Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0074, Japan | +81 75-561-2257
Cuisine: Japanese/Desserts/Sweets/Tea
Price: $10-20+USD/per person
Notes: This is perhaps the most famous matcha tea shop and parfait cafe in Kyoto. The Japanese are obsessed with parfaits and they put their own twist to them with Japanese ingredients. The signature Tokusen Tsujiri parfait ($13USD) featured agar jelly, matcha syrup, vanilla ice cream, matcha sherbet, rice dumplings (mochi), azuki bean paste (red bean), matcha ice cream, matcha jelly, chestnuts, matcha castella (Japanese sponge cake), and matcha whipped cream.

They also offer house made matcha flavoured warabi-mochi (bottom right photo) which is a sweet famous in Kyoto. I wrote more about finding it at Nikishi Market above.

Tea house chain | locations in Taiwan and Singapore | casual | long line ups at all times (minimum 30 minute wait on average) | family friendly | limited hot food | famous for matcha/parfait/tea | 2 floors | gift shop downstairs | high quality matcha | desserts/sweets | open 10am – 10pm
♦♦♦ – Very good, dining itinerary worthy. (70-89%)Kyoto Japan Konpeito Japanese Hard Candy CandiesRyokujuan Shimizu
 38-2 Yoshida Izumiden-cho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto City | 075-771-0755
Cuisine: Japanese/Sweets/Gift Shop
Price: $10-20
Notes: This is an institution in Kyoto for konpeito (Japanese rock sugar candy). It is found all over Japan, but Kyoto is known for it. The factory-made mass produced konpeito is very cheap, just like American candy. 

Ryokujuan Shimizu is one of the few remaining artisan konpeito shops in Kyoto, if not the only one. The flavours are unique like Jersey milk, and shiso, and you can sample before you buy. It is a tiny shop with a usual line up, but it was very quiet when I visited. 

Traditional Japanese sweets | institution | famous candy maker | 150+ years | artisan flavours | high quality | Kyoto specialty | local favourite | no seating | gift shop only | quite pricey | open 10am – 5pm | closed Wednesdays
♦♦♦ – Very good, dining itinerary worthy. (70-89%)

Kyoto, Japan 05Kyoto, Japan 98Gion Hatanaka’s “Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko Evening” was one of the highlights in Follow Me Foodie to Japan. The interactive dinner show includes entertainment, all you can drink alcohol/non-alcholic beverages and a multi course Kaiseki Ryori style dinner. The intimate show is translated in Japanese and English. It is popular with tourists, but locals come for special occasions or if they are hosting guests/entertaining clients.

Kyoto Japan Meiko Show Gion HatanakaThis high brow cultural experience is unique to Kyoto since the city is known for Maikos (apprentice Geishas). The job of a Maiko/Geisha is to entertain guests while dinner with traditional Japanese dancing, drinking games, conversation and traditional Japanese arts.

Throughout the show there are about 2-3 drinking games and dinner guests are invited to play them with the maiko. All games are explained in Japanese and English and prior to that there is singing, dancing and music. It is informal, but traditionally a maiko or geisha evening would be formal.

It is 18,000 yen per person (limited to 40 seats, one table seats 2-4 persons) which is about $176USD. It sounds pricey, but it is more than worth it especially since it would be $500USD+ if you hired a geisha and that would not include the dinner. The dinner is excellent and expertly prepared by their highly trained chef who is known in Kyoto for haute cuisine. It is also all you can drink and the show is 2 hours, so pace yourself. It is time and money well spent and I would highly recommend this to anyone.

Gion Hatanaka Maiko Show Dinner Kyoto JapanGion Hatanaka Maiko Dinner Show Kyoto Japan 2Gion Hatanaka – Maiko Dinner Show
 505 Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0074, Japan | +81 75-541-5315
Cuisine: Japanese/Kaiseki Ryori style dinner
Price: $50+USD/per person
Notes: Special occasions | tourist attraction | traditional Japanese food | standard set menu | drinking games involved | English and Japanese show/translations | reservations recommended/required | show starts at 6pm sharp
♦♦♦♦♦ – Follow Me Foodie Must Try! (Bonus marks! 100%+)

Kyoto, Japan 35If I had the power to give a Michelin Star to a non-Michelin rated restaurant I visited in Follow Me Foodie to Japan, I would have given it here.

Without a recommendation or research it is near impossible to come across it on your own. It’s tricky to find and “hidden gem” does not do it justice. It is more than a gem and on par with my experience at Gion Hatanaka’s “Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko Evening”. It’s not surprising either since this is Gion Hatanaka’s sister business and extension of their Japanese style boutique hotel (ryokan). I wish they had vacancy while I was visiting or I would have stayed with them too.

Hong Kong & Japan 2013 799This 12 seat fine dining restaurant is operated by the same chef as the Maiko dinner, Chef Yoshihiko Yano. He specializes in traditional Kyoto style cuisine (Kaiseki Ryori).

Kamikura Kyoto Japan Gion Hatanaka 1Kyoto, Japan 50Gion Hatanaka - Kamikura - Kyoto JapanGion Hatanaka - Kamikura Kyoto Japan 2Ishibekoji Kamikura
463-12 Shimokawaracho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0825, Japan | +81 75-748-1841
Cuisine: Japanese/Kaiseki Ryori style dinner
Price: $50+USD/per person (About $150-200+USD/per person for chef’s tasting menu)
Notes: Special occasions | traditional Kyoto style cuisine (Kaiseki Ryori) | Japanese fine dining | excellent service | quality/local ingredients | seasonal menu | English & Japanese menus | wine/sake/beer list | intimate | romantic | sophisticated | elegant
♦♦♦♦♦ – Follow Me Foodie Must Try! (Bonus marks! 100%+)

Follow Me Foodie’s Travellers’ Tips:

  • Learn basic Japanese or have a translator. Hire one or download one.
  • Learn basic Japanese etiquette.
  • Learn how to eat sushi.
  • Know the regional specialities. (I’ll discuss this in a future post)
  • Free wi-fi is extremely rare, so rent a portable wi-fi device at the airport or buy a data plan.
  • Purchase your Japan Rail Pass before getting to Japan if you plan to travel to many cities. If you’re only in Tokyo, there is no need.
  • Experience 1-2 nights in a ryokan (Japanese style hotel).
  • There is no tipping, even at nice places.

See – Follow Me Foodie to Japan – Part 1/Intro

See – Follow Me Foodie to Tokyo

19 Comments

  • Dexter says:

    Oh man! I’m in Hong Kong right now and going to Osaka next week with my family, so your posts have been extremely relevant lately. I kinda wish that we’d go to Tokyo/Kyoto instead, but Osaka and its street food seems a bit more affordable. Was wondering if you have any particular advice or recommendations before me and my foodie family head back to Richmond 🙂

  • Justin says:

    Kyoto’s a stone’s throw from Osaka. You can definitely make a day of it, but Kyoto actually warrants a multi-day trip 🙂

  • Mijune says:

    @Justin – totally agree! I was there for a few days 🙂 I mentioned going to Osaka in the okonomoyaki section! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  • Mijune says:

    @Dexter – Damn!! I missed Osaka, but you should be trying okonomoyaki and takoyaki there. It’s their specialty! Did you see my HK posts??

    Try Mizuno or Kuro-Chan for okonomoyaki because I hear it is good there. There is also an Osaka Takoyaki Museum.

  • Dexter says:

    @Mijune – I have seen them! Been following my relatives for dinner mostly, so unlikely to try Bo Innovation even though I’m a fan of molecular gastronomy. So far my favourite place has been Sushi Mori on Caroline Hill Road. I got to try a 15 piece set course with amazingly high quality seafood, pictures here: http://i.imgur.com/cZJ1CDN.jpg Might get to try out Island Shangri-la’s buffet too.

    @Justin – As for Japan, we’re definitely considering a day trip to Kyoto. I’m looking up the train fares right now!

  • GMO says:

    In Kyoto for the first time and found your blog. What a life saver! 😉 Thank you Mijune for making some spot on recommendations! I will be sure to read the rest of your blog.
    – G

  • Mijune says:

    @GMO – Thank you for taking the time to leave a note!! 🙂 Happy! Enjoy your trip.

  • Paul says:

    There is so much great food in Kyoto. I love the regional specific food especially. I’ve never seen so much matcha inspired food before. I’m also a big fan of the focus on seasonality and freshness.

  • Julius says:

    Mijune,
    Your critiques, descriptions and photos are making my mouth water!! Thank you so much for such clear, helpful recommendations. We head for Tokyo, then Kyoto on 26Dec and I will be reporting back. So excited!!!

  • Mijune says:

    @Julius – thank you for taking the time to leave a comment!!! YAY!! So excited for your trip! Hope this helps you with the food section 🙂 Happy Holidays Julius!

  • A perfect post as we leave for Japan in two days! Thank you…will be taking all your suggestions with us (also from your Tokyo lists too)…Happy New Year. X

  • Harry Madigan says:

    Hi, Love this blog ! such a great help

    however, i was just wondering what the place of the Artisan sesame shop was with the photos on the top ?

    thank you

  • Mijune says:

    @Harry – aw thanks!! I don’t know the name, it was in Japanese, but it’s in Nishiki Market. Just show locals/shop owners the outside and they’ll point you in right direction 🙂

  • khwan says:

    Hi, MIJUNE
    Thank you for your blog! I can’t wait to go to Kyoto.

  • Lizzie says:

    HI Mijune – so glad to have found this blog! Going to Kyoto end of this month with a 3.5 year old (the crowds!) Would you by any chance know if Izuu/Izuju, Gogyo and Ishi Bekoji Kamikura allow children? I dearly hope so as the food looks mouth watering…..

  • Max says:

    @Lizzie,

    Just went to Gogyo, there were kids there. It was really good.

  • Great article, it gave us loads of ideas for when we went to Kyoto. Loved Nishiki market. We even referenced your article in our latest post about non sushi Japanese food:
    http://whatwaytoday.com/food-in-japan-is-not-just-about-sushi-japanese-food-adventure/

  • Phil says:

    Ate in Izuu last night. It was sublime. Best sushi we have tried. Thanks for the tip

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