Kyoto’s cuisine boasts a rich history and distinctive character, attracting millions of visitors to its restaurants every year. Embark on a culinary journey and explore some of the best places to eat in Kyoto from tofu to wagyu beef and kaiseki course meals.
In this final post about our visit to Kyoto, we want to share our experience with Kyoto’s food scene. While walking around Kyoto and taking in the amazing scenery, we couldn’t resist trying some of the specialty foods that Kyoto had to offer. From world-renowned Kobe Steak to artistic kaiseki ryori, a traditional tofu shop founded 375 years ago to the city’s central food market. Eating in Kyoto offered a different insight into the city’s rich history and Japanese cuisine.
Kiraku: Exploring Okonomiyaki and Teppanyaki in Kyoto
Depending on where we travel in Japan, we decide whether to eat dinner in the hotel or explore what the city has to offer. If we are in a remote area then we would book ryokan with dinner, but in Kyoto we decided to try some of the city’s many food offerings. For the first meal, we grabbed a bite at Kiraku, a renowned restaurant that specializes in okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) and teppanyaki (鉄板焼き) cuisine. Sure we eat them at home, but it’s nice having someone else do the prep work and cooking as well. At Kiraku, we could see into the open kitchen where all the dishes were prepped and cooked.
Kiraku has two sizes for Okonomiyaki: one is gigantic and the other is the normal size. We ordered one of each which was more than enough for 2 adults and 2 children. Besides the okonomiyaki, our son couldn’t resist ordering one of his favorite dishes, grilled squid (bottom left), along with their house special omelet tonpeiyaki. Kiraku had such an inviting atmosphere and the food was delicious, perfect for a quick bite.
Yudofu at Okutan: Experiencing Kyoto’s Kaiseki Cuisine
Kyoto is renowned for Kyo-ryori (京料理), which translates to Kyoto’s Cuisine which encompasses the city’s culinary traditions. The heart and soul of Kyo-ryori is to:
- Celebrating the flavors and textures of fresh and seasonal ingredients.
- Use minimal seasoning to allow the natural flavors to shine.
- Artistic-like presentation.
- Utilizing all five senses to create a sensory experience.
One of Kyoto’s specialty food that embodies this culinary philosophy is yudofu (湯豆腐), or simply hot tofu. We enjoyed our tofu meal near Kiyomizu-dera at Okutan (総本家ゆどうふ奥丹清水), a tofu restaurant that was founded more than 375 years ago in 1635.
Situated in a beautiful, picturesque nature setting that changes with the seasons, Okutan was one of the most unforgettable dining experiences. Since it’s extremely popular, we recommend making a reservation beforehand or arriving around 11 AM to avoid a long wait. Okutan’s tofu is made in the basement of the restaurant fresh every morning to be served that day.
What makes their tofu so special? It’s made using natural groundwater from Shiga Prefecture and natural coagulant, resulting in a mild yet rich flavor with a velvety texture. Besides using the best of the best ingredients, their soybeans are pesticides free. Depending on the course you order, the set meal ranges from USD$32 to $43. Most courses include sesame tofu, grilled tofu with sweet miso, tororo (grated yam, here it’s soup), vegetable tempura, and of course yudofu.
Each dish was very enjoyable, with a careful balance of flavors to let the natural flavors sing. The combination of sweet miso with tofu had the perfect sweetness and complimented the delicate flavor of the tofu. As for the main course, you, the restaurant recommended eating a piece without any condiments to enjoy its authentic taste. After that, you can enjoy the rest by putting a little soy sauce on the tofu and garnish with green onion and Shichimi Togarashi. The tofu had amazing texture and flavor, and it was one of the best yudofu we’ve ever had.
Nishiki Market: A Gastronomic Delight in the City Center
After exploring Kiyomizu-Dera and other sites around the east side of Kyoto, head to Nishiki Market in the afternoon. This vibrant food arcade has been around since the 1600s and is one of the main tourist attractions in Kyoto. The market closes at 5 pm so give yourself a bit of time to fully explore.
The market runs for about 4 blocks, boasting over 130 stores offering various culinary treats. From tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and grilled unagi (eels), to fresh seafood vendors, Japanese pottery shops, and spice stalls. The shops vary in size from tiny stalls to large storefronts. It was fascinating for us as we strolled through the market checking out the various merchandise each merchant offers. Stop by and sample some flavors of Kyoto. You can find shops selling classic Japanese dishes and wagashi (Japanese sweets)! Green tea is also famous in Kytoto so perhaps bring home a souvenir or two to remember your trip to Japan.
Ponto – Cho: Where History Meets Gastronomy
As you finish browsing the market, head south 2 blocks and you’ll be on Shijo Dori (四条通), Kyoto’s luxury and high-end retail street. You’ll find department stores Daimaru and Takashimaya as well as global brands like Louis Vuitton. Browse around and then head east where you’ll find a small alley called Ponto-chō (先斗町), where history meets gastronomy. Don’t let the size of the alley deceive you, this area is one of the main geisha districts and has an extensive restaurant selection.
The buildings have a nostalgic charm, transporting you back in time. The restaurants on the right side of the alley offer seasonal outdoor patio seating with a view of the Kamogawa River.
Itoh Dining Kyoto: A Teppanyaki Experience to Remember
For our second dinner, we ate at a restaurant known for its award-winning Kobe beef teppanyaki. It’s such a treat to enjoy expertly prepared wagyu grilled on the sizzling metal plate
The teppanyaki restaurant we decided to go to was called Itoh Dining Kyoto and it is located in a small alley in Gion (祇園) district. We were seated at the back of the restaurant right next to the beautiful river (Shirakawa), making it the perfect setting to indulge in our dinner.
As we were waiting to be seated, there were autographs from numerous celebrities including Michael Bay and the Transformers cast, Michael Schumacher, and Yankee’s Masahiro Tanaka. Our expectations were raised pretty high and couldn’t wait to get stuck into our meal.
The course meal came with katsuo (bonito) sashimi with ponzu and garlic flakes, cold kabocha (pumpkin) soup with crispy Parmesan cheese, fatty tender pork belly with potato and tomato sauce, sea bass with truffle sauce, foie gras with daikon simmered in orange juice, grilled beef, and dessert.
Among the courses, one of the highlights was the sea bass; it was crispy on the outside while the flesh melted in your mouth. The daikon simmered in orange juice paired well with the foie gras, cutting through the fattiness and soft root texture contrasted well with the crispy bread. The Kobe beef steak lived up to its expectation, full of juice and flavor while slightly crisp on the outside. The only disappointing part was the garlic chips they used as it tasted like they were from a pre-made package.
Nishiki Restaurant: A Kaiseki Cuisine Experience
Finally, the highlight of our meals in Kyoto. While in Arashiyama (嵐山), we made a reservation at Nishiki restaurant (京嵐山 錦), which served kaiseki ryori. In Kyoto, kaiseki ryori can range anywhere from USD$50 to USD$300 per person. We selected a restaurant that offers a variety of set courses from 7,000 to 12,500 yen (as of July 2023). After doing a bit of research Nishiki’s pricing was in our range and received good reviews. The restaurant sits on the small island off the Togetsukyo Bridge (渡月橋) and was the perfect setting for our meal. We were provided a large private room with a view of the river from the window.
Elements Of A Kaiseki Meal
The kaiseki meal was a stunning 10-course meal, and some of the courses contained multiple elements. What do we mean by elements? If you look at the sashimi dish, it is not just sashimi served on a plate. It’s decorated with cucumber and other ingredients which made the course a delight to look at like a piece of art, and, of course, just as enjoyable to eat. We loved how each dish was exquisitely presented and the best part was that not only are the dishes pretty, everything was edible.
The chef’s attention to detail was admirable, from the plating to the taste and customer experience. Some of the dishes are interactive as well, such as small foods hidden inside the small wooden basket (bottom left), representing the night fireflies alongside the nearby river. It added a playful and entertaining element to the entire dining experience.
We finished the meal with 4 different kinds of desserts and our entire family was very satisfied. As you can see from the images, kaiseki ryori doesn’t just focus on the quantity of food, but rather the delicate preparation and presentation creating harmony for all five senses. Nishiki Restaurant exceeded all our expectations and was a highlight during our trip to Kyoto.
We hope you enjoyed my brief Kyoto food guide as well as the flavors we experienced. Aside from this, there is so much more to explore, from matcha and tea ceremony to Kyoto-style sushi and more traditional Japanese sweets for all the sweet tooth people out there! Kyoto is an amazing city full of culinary delights that we hope you get to explore!