Of all the must-visit places in Japan, Kyoto makes everyone’s bucket lists. These days, Tokyo is the center of modernism, but the former capital still represents the heart of Japanese culture. From the stunning temples and shrines to the charming alleyways, history seeps into every corner of the city. For Japanese people, Kyoto holds a special place in their souls—and stomachs.
If you plan to eat your way from Hokkaido to Okinawa, Kyoto deserves your full attention. There are over 100 Michelin-starred restaurants across the city, and the pristine farmlands in the prefecture grow incredibly delicious ingredients. As you explore Kyoto’s dynamic dishes, make sure you add these meals to your menu!
This isn’t your local grocery store’s tofu. The gelatinous masses that flood the North American and European markets pale in comparison to the genuine article. Quality tofu needs superior soybeans and water, and Kyoto has both in abundance. When made well, tofu has a creamy consistency and a distinct soy flavor.
Tofu comes from pressed soy milk curds, and the skin that forms during the boiling process makes yuba. It’s slightly sweet and has a silky texture. Both tofu and yuba are light in taste and might seem bland to the uninitiated. To get the most flavor, try to get fresh yuba and tofu or eat them right after cleansing your palate.
You’ll often receive tofu or yuba as a side dish, which is a fantastic way to acquaint yourself. But did you know that tofu and yuba are such delicacies that there are shops dedicated to them? Tofu-specialty stores are a dying breed, but you can still find them in Kyoto while you’re sightseeing. Ryoanji Yodofu on Ryoanji Temple’s grounds offers a yodofu set meal that you can savor while taking in the view of the garden.
In the past few years, matcha green tea and snacks have become a global sensation. Large retailers like Starbucks and Kit Kat have helped popularize the flavor, but there’s nothing like the genuine article. Matcha originated in Uji City, just outside of Kyoto. Although the tradition of drinking powdered green tea comes from China, the labor-intensive procedure of creating matcha comes from this area.
Making matcha requires several processes of rinsing, steaming, and grinding. The resulting powder doesn’t make a light brew, but a bitter and creamy beverage with a similar consistency to a cappuccino. Teahouses serve small cakes to eat before you sip to offset the astringency.
Although you can find many places to drink matcha, combine your tasting tour with a lesson in traditional Japanese arts. Along with the development of matcha came tea parties that the upper crust of the 12th century would hold. A tea ceremony is an elegant affair led by a graceful host or a maiko (apprentice geisha). When you book your vacation in Japan, don’t forget to include one in your reservations.
A trip to Japan isn’t complete without trying a kaiseki (haute cuisine) course meal. Tokyo has its fair share of kaiseki restaurants, and you can find Michelin-starred options throughout the country. However, there’s nothing like partaking in this dining experience in the city of its birth. A formal kaiseki meal is fundamentally several pairings of food and sake, but that doesn’t quite describe the whole gastronomic journey.
Traditional Japanese cuisine primarily uses season-specific ingredients, but kaiseki chefs take it to a whole new level and pay attention to the micro-seasons. Your meal will likely feature ingredients harvested that morning. Though subtle on seasoning, each dish works to create a balanced flavor profile. The chefs carefully consider each element of the meal, including which ceramic plates they’ll use.
From venerated shops to newly-opened establishments, there are more than a few options in the city. You can find a cluster of kaiseki restaurants near Hanamikoji Street in the Gion district. This area also happens to be where Kyoto’s geisha live. If you’re lucky, you might spot one of these women as she scurries off to work.
Vegans and vegetarians face several challenges while traveling through Japan. Plant-based diets aren’t typical for Japanese people, and even miso soup can have a fish base. Thankfully, when you eat Shojin Ryori, you can rest easy knowing everything on your plate won’t have any animal parts.
In the 13th century, a Buddhist monk named Dogen introduced Shojin Ryori from China to Kyoto. He would later found the Zen temple Eihei-ji. Buddhist doctrines forbid killing animals for consumption, so Shojin Ryori meals use soy, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. Like kaiseki, Shojin Ryori uses light seasoning so that you can taste the full flavors of the ingredients.
Since Shojin Ryori has Buddhist roots, you can often find restaurants in or near Zen Buddhist temples. Shigetsu is one such place, and you can find it in Tenryuji Temple’s garden. Tenryuji is the head temple for the Rinzai sect and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s especially gorgeous during the fall when the autumn leaves change colors on Arashiyama mountain.
Earlier, we mentioned that green tea often comes accompanied by small cakes. These confectionaries also make our list of food you have to eat in Kyoto. Wagashi sweets are also vegetarian and vegan-friendly, as they often comprise of beans, sugar, rice flour, and seaweed-derived gelatin. Though the recipes for wagashi treats call for only a few ingredients, there are innumerable combinations out there.
You might start with trying mochi daifuku, which has a rice-flour outside and sweet bean paste inside. There are many variants of daifuku with fillings like strawberry, custard, and chocolate. If you’re visiting Kyoto during cherry blossom season, also keep an eye out for sakura mochi. This sticky triangle of pink rice has sweet bean paste on the inside and a pickled cherry blossom on top.
In addition to tea ceremonies, you can also find wagashi souvenirs to take home in Nishiki Market. Nicknamed “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” the 400-year-old market features shops selling local fare. Most of the stalls deal in fresh produce and fish, but you can also find street food and other snacks you might have missed otherwise.