KYOTO, Sept 21 — What are the real flavours of Kyoto? Some will say it’s subtle and refined, as reflected by gourmet green tea and kaiseki-ryori, a highly-crafted haute cuisine. Others argue Kyoto has a rougher (though no less tasty) side, coloured by no-nonsense treats such as ramen and octopus skewers that salarymen and students alike clamour for.
Here’s how to fit a full day of dining out in Kyoto, with a healthy dose of culture along the way!
The kitchen of Kyoto
Enjoy a “walking breakfast” by wandering around Nishiki Market, a narrow street spanning five blocks and housing more than one hundred shops and restaurants. The market is dedicated to everything food related from fresh produce and seafood to Japanese knives and earthen cookware. Seasonal specialties include a wide assortment of pickles, “catch-of-the-month” sashimi and festive candy.
No prizes, then, for guessing why Nishiki Market is also called The Kitchen of Kyoto.
Unlike other famous markets in Japan (Tsukiji’s notoriously busy fish market comes to mind), the stores remain inviting even while the vendors race around handling their wares.
The first shop opened in 1310 and many stores are still operated by the same families over generations. Most of the items sold are regionally produced (meibutsu) so those who are carbon-footprint sensitive would be pleased.
Sample some of Kyoto’s finest culinary delicacies from skewers of grilled squid to simple rice balls. During autumn, chestnuts are in season and you can find baskets of freshly roasted ones here.
The highlight of the market for me has got to be Stall No. 50, Konnamonjya. This shop not only sells tofu but doughnuts and soft-serve ice-cream made from soymilk. Sold by the dozen, these tiny doughnuts are some of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Fluffy and rich with a nice crunch on the outside, they aren’t overly sweet, unlike their Western cousins. The natural taste is considered typical of traditional Kyoto flavours.
Temptations on “Temple Street”
Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto’s most revered temples. Who knew its surrounding streets could be so filled with temptations? That is, if you are one to shop and snack. The Kiyomizu-zaka Street down the steep slope from the temple (from which it derives its name) is a haven for souvenirs and some mid-morning nibbles.
Don’t worry about the hilly path; take your time to peruse the small lanes and busy shops. Where pilgrims once trekked, now tourists hunt traditional painted fans and elegant kimonos. One worthy purchase could be a piece of Kiyomizu-yaki pottery ware, famed for their elegant shapes and intense colours.
Still feeling peckish? You must try yatsuhashi, a local specialty made from glutinous rice flour, sugar and cinnamon. This baked confectionery is usually triangular in shape and filled with flavoured jelly. Cherry blossom and peach are two popular flavours; every bite is slightly chewy, not unlike mochi. For real mochi, there are restaurants that specialise in dishes made exclusively from this sticky ingredient. (A word of warning: it can get a tad cloying after a while.)
Another must-try is Kyoto-style cream puffs. Freshly-made choux pastry is paired with not-to-rich cream. Typical flavours include a robust, mildly bitter matcha and vanilla custard. This being Japan, every season brings a different limited edition flavour: expect delicate cherry blossom in spring and smoky chestnut in autumn.
Geishas and grand cuisine
For lunch, head to Hanami-koji Street in Gion where there are many inns (ryokan) and fine restaurants (ryotei) serving kaiseki meals. Kaiseki-ryori is the pinnacle of multi-course Japanese aristocratic cuisine and the Kyoto style (kyo-kaiseki) is considered the most refined with its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients from the region and delicate flavours.
Every kaiseki meal has a prescribed order of elaborate courses, depending on the cooking method. Usually you start with an aperitif (shokuzen-shu) such as a local sweet wine followed by bite-sized appetizers served on a narrow platter called hassun. A light soup (suimono) is offered next, then seasonal sashimi (otsukuri) and a boiled dish (nimono), often simmered in soy sauce and sake.
A grilled dish (yakimono) follows, either fish or wagyu beef. The next few dishes arrive deep-fried (agemono), steamed (mushimono) and vinegared (sunomono). The final warm course is shokuji, a set of rice, miso soup and pickles (tsukemono), before dessert is artfully presented.
Modern kaiseki chefs may opt to depart from this traditional order and add or omit some courses to best showcase specific ingredients or their personal style. Old-school or otherwise, prices are generally high, ranging from 10,000 yen (RM315) to 30,000 yen (RM945) per person. This is why lunch can be a less expensive option, going as low as 6,000 yen (RM190).
While every course is small, the sheer number adds up so burn off some calories by strolling around the neighbourhood. If you’re lucky, you might spot a geisha or two travelling from one appointment to their next as this area is famous for these graceful entertainers skilled in various arts including dance, tea ceremony and flower arrangement.
The art of tea
Time for tea. And there’s no place better than Kyoto for the highest quality Japanese green tea. The leader in this area is the nearly 300-year-old Ippodo Tea Co. From procuring the finest leaves cultivated in regional tea fields (famed for its perfect balance of mild climate, sufficient sun and rain, and mineral-rich soil) to carefully blending the teas, this tea purveyor does it all.
Ippodo’s flagship shop in the heart of the city doesn’t just sell tea but also offers education in the form of a tearoom ceremony. Indeed, what could be more relaxing than sipping slowly on a well-brewed cup of tea and learning about the different varieties of tea available?
Discover how sharper-tasting sencha makes it ideal for refreshing the palate between meals, while the shade-cultivated gyokuro offers a smoother and full-bodied sweetness. Children prefer drinking hojicha, which is lighter in caffeine and easier to drink. Matcha, the popular powdered green tea, isn’t just meant to flavour desserts and non-coffee lattes; in Japan, it’s used in ceremonies and special tea parties.
Oodles of noodles
Night falls. After all those light and delicate flavours earlier in the day, you might be hankering for something less sophisticated. Look no further than a supper of ramen at the Kyoto Ramen Koji (or “Ramen Street”), conveniently located inside the JR Kyoto Station. Here you have eight regional styles of ramen shops under one roof.
No one would confuse Kyoto-style ramen with the more elegant kaiseki-ryori. The broth is usually made from chicken bones (torikotsu) and is actually richer than the more common pork bone broth (tonkotsu). This makes it very kotteri, meaning a thicker, heavier soup. The noodles tend to be thin and straight, cooked to a softness in the Chinese fashion (good news for those who are unused to al dente ramen).
If you’re looking for something different, try the miso ramen at Sumire, one of the most popular shops here. The miso broth is salty and savoury, and clings beautifully to the thin, springy noodles. Whichever style of ramen you prefer, there are plenty of toppings – seaweed (nori), slices of roasted pork (chashu), fermented bamboo shoots (menma) and seasoned egg (ajitsuke tamago) – to ensure you end your day full and satisfied.
Nishiki Koji-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Market open daily 9am-5pm; hours for individual shops vary
Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Teramachi-dori Nijo, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Open Mon-Sat 9am-7pm; Sun
Kyoto Ramen Koji
10F Kyoto Station Building, Higashi Shiokoji-cho, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily 11am-10pm