Kyoto is often hailed as the cultural heart of Japan, leading many to flock and visit its myriad of temples and shrines. Once serving as the capital of ancient Japan, its status in the hearts of the Japanese is unshakeable.
Food is an inherent and incredibly important part of the culture and Kyoto’s foodscape is anchored by two natural aspects. The first is largely being enclosed in a mountain range, leading to a lack of access to fresh seafood in the past. This resulted in the creation of preservation cooking methods that have since been passed down today. The second is good, quality water which explains why many of its famous dishes (tofu and soba) are dishes where the quality is predicated on the quality of water.
Here are 6 of the most famous dishes in Kyoto, as well as our recommendations for where to sample their lip-smacking deliciousness.
1. Nishin Soba
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A dish with its origins in Kyoto itself, Nishin Soba is a dish that features both elements above. The dried herring highlights the preservation cooking techniques of Kyoto where cooking herring in soy sauce and sugar was a popular choice to include some protein in the diet back in the 19th century.
The preparation has mostly remained the same, with the addition of mirin (sweet cooking rice wine) coupled with buckwheat noodles. Nishin Soba today is a staple of Kyoto food culture.
Where to go for Nishin Soba
Matsuba (Gion) is currently the oldest Nishin Soba joint, first opened in 1861 by the Matsuno family. If you can only afford to head to one place, Matsuba offers a truly traditional and authentic experience.
192 Kawabatacho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto 605-0076, Kyoto Prefecture
Daily from 10 AM – 830 PM
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Yudofu is a Kyoto specialty that features soft, silky tofu simmered in a broth that is naturally sweetened with seasonal vegetables.
The dish is deceptively simple with its purpose often to highlight the quality of tofu which is renowned for having a smooth and creamy texture.
Where to go for Yudofu
Yudofu Sagano in the Arashiyama district is a famous Yudofu establishment that owes its heritage to the many zen Buddhist temples and monks around the area. And if anything, the large number of condiments on the table will leave you floored.
45 Sagatenryuji Susukinobabacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8385, Japan
Daily: 11 AM – 430 PM
3. Kaiseki Ryori
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Kaiseki Ryori would perhaps best represent the haute cuisine of Kyoto with most places costing you north of 10,000 yen for dinner. Originally a meal consisting of small dishes created for Japanese tea ceremonies,
Kaiseki today is a high-class, elegant affair that features a tasting course which sees each dish meticulously planned and executed with an exquisite touch.
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Where to go for Kaiseki Ryori
Kiyamachi Sakuragawa is a 1-Michelin star Kaiseki restaurant that will leave you wishing for more on each plate with the freshest ingredients heightened with the utmost skill by the chef. If you are planning to spend on having the Kaiseki experience, why not go for one of the best out there?
1F, 491 Kamikoriki-cho, Nijo sagaru, Kiyamachi-dori, Nakagyo-ku
Daily from 12 PM – 2 PM (Lunch) 6 PM – 10 PM (Dinner)
4. Obanzai Ryori
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Obanzai Ryori is perhaps best explained as a scaled-down, home-cooked, affordable version of Kaiseki. Think more Spanish tapas than French haute cuisine.
Also featuring a plethora of small dishes, Obanzai is a traditional Kyoto home-style cooking that focuses on the fresh seasonal vegetables that are available in Kyoto such as eggplants in the summer and daikon radish during wintertime.
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Where to go for Obanzai Ryori
Oryori Menami has been serving up their version of Obanzai Ryori for close to 75 years now. Their Obanzai platter changes every day, so every time you go, you know you’ll be in for a surprise. We’d definitely recommend reserving a table before heading down!
Japan, 〒604-8004 Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, Nakajimacho, 96 木屋町通三条上ル
Mon-Sun: 3 PM – 10 PM
Closed on Wednesday
5. Shojin Ryori
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As you probably already know, Buddhism (especially the branch of zen Buddhism) occupies a significant place in Japan and more so in Kyoto. The influence of Buddhism, manifested by the numerous temples and shrines, extends to its food culture as well.
If Obanzai Ryori is a variation of Kaiseiki, then Shojin Ryori would probably be the opposite of it. The Buddhist Shojin Ryori is strictly vegetarian and eschews complexity for simple and wholesome flavours such as fresh mountain vegetables, natto (fermented soybeans), and tofu.
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Where to go for Shojin Ryori
You can find Shojin Ryori at the many temples across Kyoto but Shigetsu at the famed Tenryu-ji temple offers one of the best iterations of it. The atmosphere is tranquil and serene, overall an excellent place to try traditional Buddhist Shojin Ryori. Do note that they are open for lunch!
68 Sagatenryuji Susukinobabacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8385, Japan
Daily from 11 AM – 2 PM
Photo by japan_food_diary via Instagram.
Just like Tokyo’s Tokyo Banana and Hokkaido’s Shiroi Kobito biscuits, Yatsuhashi is possibly the quintessential Kyoto sweet confectionary.
Typically made of glutinous rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon, Yatsuhashi comes in two versions. The baked version usually resembles a cookie, while its unbaked counterpart – also known as Nama Yatsuhashi – is chewy and commonly comes with red bean paste in the middle.
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Where to go for Yatsuhashi:
Izutsu Yatsuhashi Honkan has been making Yatsuhashi since 1805, so there’s a certain level of assurance and quality you know you’re getting from an establishment that has been running for 214 years.
If you happen to be in the Gion area, paying a visit will prove to be a good idea.
Japan, 〒605-0079 Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, 四条上ル 北座 川端通り
Daily from 1030 AM – 630 PM
The article was originally published on 21 June 2019. Last updated on 20 November 2022 by Kellin Chew.