During its reign as the Imperial capital, delicacies from all over the country were brought to Kyoto to tantalize the palate of the Emperor and his court. That pride in fine dining is still visible today in the wide variety of Kyoto restaurants serving flavours from around the world. Exploring the fine cuisine here will be a highly rewarding part of your stay.
Types of Restaurant
Eating establishments range from cheap noodle bars and kisaten coffee shops where a satisfying meal costs just a few hundred yen to more extravagant places serving the most formal cuisine. There is a lot of fun to be had an izakaya bar where good food comes reasonably priced with the sake and beer. Equally there are familiar international fast food chains, casual diners called family restaurants and international ethnic eateries providing tastes of home. A phenomenon that is particular to Kyoto is the refurbishment of historic timber machiya town houses for use as bars and restaurants that cater to all from formal to chic to casual. Hot summers in Kyoto make yuka terraces over the Kamo River a refreshing way to enjoy the evening. Restaurants can be found throughout Kyoto city with the highest concentrations around Shijo-Kawaramachi, Teramachi Dori, Shinkyogoku, Kyoto Station and popular tourist areas. Most restaurants have pictorial menus, English explanations, replica models of food, or all of the above to help the international traveller enjoy their Kyoto culinary experience. For some suggestions on dining locations in Kyoto, please refer to the resources below. It is also worth asking your hotel and colleagues for recommendations as well as to consult local listings such as Kyoto Visitor's Guide (free at hotels).
Etiquette and dining customs
In general, Japanese diners share all dishes at a meal; therefore your order will likely be placed in the middle of the table for you to transfer to one of the number of small plates in front of you. If the bill is not placed on your table, you need to ask for it when you have finished your meal. However, you do not pay at the table; instead you take the bill to the cashier (usually located near the door) and pay there. Tipping is not practised in Japan, so you just need to pay the amount stated on the bill (service charge is included). If you see a tray near the cash register, this is an elegant way of handing over payment, not a request for a gratuity.
Dining is a great social occasion in Kyoto. The dining table is where friendships are made, business is conducted and family bonds strengthened. Dining customs reflect this and it is very rare that Kyoto people would order only for themselves or "go Dutch" when settling the bill. It is far more common to share dishes with everyone present and to split the total cost of the bill equally. When you go out to eat with your Japanese colleagues enjoy this aspect of dining culture and experiencing new flavours!
Types of Cuisine
Dining in Kyoto gives you the opportunity to experience formal Kyoto Kaiseki Ryori, a many-course meal made from seasonal dishes, famous Kyoto tofu, yuba (related to tofu), fu (wheat gluten), mizu-taki chicken, obanzai (Kyoto home-style cooking), and Shojin Zen vegetarian menus; as well as favourites such as tempura, sushi & sashimi, noodles, okonomiyaki & takoyaki, sukiyaki & shabushabu, yakiniku & teppan yaki dishes grilled on hot plates or over charcoal, eel dishes, and Japanese confectionaries. You might also like to try locally produced vegetables that all come with the Kyoto marque.
International foods are also plentiful due to a significant expatriate population. From Chinese to Mexican, Indian to French, there is certain to be a taste of whichever country you call home.
Kyoto Kaiseki Ryori
The word kaiseki is derived from the former practice of Buddhist monks who put a warm rock (seki) on their stomach to help them resist hunger pains. Accordingly kaiseki cuisine is designed to gently satisfy those with an appetite. The Buddhist roots influence a mostly vegetarian menu and the meticulous care of the presentation gives away its past inclusion in the Tea Ceremony. Each dish is served as one course, which means that a meal usually has more than ten courses. The chef and waiting staff make an art of serving each dish at the moment of perfection so that guests may enjoy the most delicious flavours, aromas and textures. A typical menu might include: raw fish sashimi, variously prepared Kyoto vegetables, marinated dishes, soup, grilled fish or chicken, light Japanese pickles, and a confection. The rice course is always served last signalling the end of the meal. You can experience Kyoto Kaiseki Ryori at traditional restaurants called Ryotei; ask your hotel for a recommendation.
Tofu is popular worldwide for its healthy properties of high protein and no fat. The key to delicious tofu is free-flowing pure water. Kyoto tofu makers draw crystal clear water from deep wells under their shop and their products are truly of the highest quality and remarkably flavoursome. Tofu is a likely ingredient in any restaurant menu and it is especially refreshing during the summer. A particular Kyoto delight is Yudofu simmered tofu, this can be enjoyed year-round in the Nanzenji and Sagano areas and is particularly warming in the winter.
Yuba is a close relative of tofu. In fact it is made from the soy milk whey that is pressed from the beans. This milk is heated and the 'leaf' that forms on the top can be skimmed and eaten there and then or dried for use in a number of dishes such as soup. Yuba is highly likely to be part of Kyoto Kaiseki Ryori especially where Yudofu is served.
Fu is an ingredient of many dishes and soups that is made from wheat gluten. It is often an ingredient in miso soup and its versatility stretches to confectionary as well. To enjoy it as it is, look out for fu-dengaku in which it is skewered, brushed with miso paste and charcoal grilled.
This chicken dish typifies the subtle flavours that mark Kyoto cooking. Bite-sized pieces of young chicken are cooked with vegetables in a salty broth before being dipped in a sour sauce and eaten.
Obanzai is the name Kyoto people give to home cooking therefore it can mean absolutely any food. It generally refers to simple wholesome dishes that are enjoyed together as a family and there are a number of restaurants that serve only obanzai dishes. You will be able to enjoy a balanced meal of vegetables, soups, rice, meats and tofu dishes for very reasonable prices at an obanzai restaurant.
Shojin Zen Cuisine
This type of cuisine was learned from Chinese Zen monks more than 700 years ago. Zen monks follow a strictly vegetarian diet and Shojin cooking ensures that they get a sufficient protein intake from pulses. In fact some of the concoctions have the texture and appearance of meat so satisfying the desires of carnivores. Shojin cuisine can be experienced by visitors at some Zen temples in the city.
Tempura is one of the best known Japanese dishes worldwide. Vegetables and seafood are deep fried in light vegetable oil and served hot in a dipping sauce or with salt. It can be enjoyed alone or as part of a larger meal.
Sushi & Sashimi
Sushi and sashimi have both become part of other languages. Sushi refers to morsels that are served with vinegar-seasoned rice; these can be raw or cooked. Sashimi refers to raw meats and fish. Both sashimi and sushi can be enjoyed as a full meal, a light snack and as part of Kyoto Kaiseki Ryori for example.
Noodles are a very versatile dish that can make a perfect lunch or snack, or can be part of a larger meal. Soba made of buckwheat, and udon made of wheat, are popular with Kyoto people because they complement the subtler flavours that appeal to the Kyoto palate. A particularly popular way to serve these noodles in Kyoto is with a grilled dried herring in the soup called nishin soba. Ramen noodles are an ever popular part of the lunchtime menu of salaried workers. Kansai people like to add a generous topping of chopped spring onions to their ramen. Noodle dishes are a popular part of eating-out culture because they cost just a few hundred yen and arrive almost at the same instant they are ordered!
Okonomiyaki & Takoyaki
Okonomiyaki and takoyaki are highly accessible tastes that can be found anywhere in Japan. Their roots however are firmly set in the Kansai region that surrounds Kyoto. Okonomiyaki means as-you-like-fried and any type of meat or seafood can be added to the basic ingredients of chopped cabbage and batter. Takoyaki is similar but the golf ball sized snacks are always flavoured with chopped octopus.
Sukiyaki & Shabushabu
These are both meat and vegetable hotpots cooked on the table for a group to share. The sukiyaki broth is soy sauce based and morsels of food are dipped in an egg sauce before eating. Wafer thin pieces of shabushabu meat are boiled in water and then dipped in your choice of sauce.
Yakiniku & Teppan Yaki
These grilled (yaki) meat (niku) and vegetables are a great social meal. Diners grill yakiniku over charcoal and teppan yaki on a hotplate at their table as the conversation flows.
Charcoal grilled eel in a sweet sauce served on a bowl of rice is a Japanese summer favourite that gives energy during the hot days. This dish can be enjoyed all year round in Kyoto.
Kyoto is located in a prime location for experiencing the best of Japanese beef. The most famous producers of Kobe, Tango, and Omi are all close by and the tender juicy cuts can be sampled in Kyoto.
Kyoto brand vegetables are prized throughout Japan and many well known plants have a distinct local variety. Kyoto vegetables are famed for their sweetness and are best enjoyed with minimal preparation. Since they are produced within the city limits these vegetables are strictly seasonal. Many are preserved for enjoyment year-round as light Japanese pickles called tsukemono. Things to look out for in your meals are: potatoes, aubergine (egg plant), turnips, burdock, daikon radish, red pepper, bamboo shoots, leaks, carrots. Many of these vegetables carry the name of an area or even street of the city.
Kyoto sake brewers are all gathered in the southern quarter of Fushimi where the pure water grows delicious rice and produces excellent sake. Kyoto sake is classed as the more sweet brews. The best sakes from across the nation can be sampled in Kyoto.
Green tea is said by some to be the secret to Japanese health and longevity. It is drunk on any occasion from business meeting to short break-time, or family gathering. Look out for green tea in your hotel room and vending machines. To sample the best try all the varieties on offer in a specialist tea dealer. The history of Japanese green tea begins in Uji, just a few minutes south of Kyoto.
Japanese people love sweets and the choices are varied and colourful: in fact each is a true work of art. Delicate kanmi (traditional Japanese confectionaries) can be enjoyed at a cafe' with tea or coffee and make wonderful souvenirs. If you visit popular temples you will probably be able to try out a great variety of tastes for free - especially the typical triangular Yatsuhashi envelopes. There is even a special variety of sweets that are sold at temple and shrine gates called monzengashi. These are rice dumplings grilled over charcoal and spread with a sweet sauce.
- Kyoto City Tourism & Culture Information
- Kyoto Restaurant Association
- Gekkeikan Sake Brewer
- Kyoto Official Travel Guide
- Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO)