With Kyoto being the most famous and longest-lasting capital city in Japanese history, through centuries of cultural and artistic growth and development, it’s no wonder that Kyoto has so many incredible foods and dishes that are unique to the city or originally invented there. Some of Japan’s most cherished dishes can be found in Kyoto. Here are 10 that visitors must try when visiting the old capital.
Buddhist Shojin Ryori
Shojin ryori is a stripped-down vegetarian cuisine favoring seasonal produce which originated in the 13th century. Traditionally eaten by Zen Buddhist Monks who would abstain from meat, onions, and garlic, the meal primarily relies on soy for flavor. It’s a healthy and colorful meal consisting of a series of small dishes of fresh vegetables, rice, pickles, and soybean-based dishes like tofu. Despite their simplicity, each dish makes an impact with a perfect blend of sour, spicy, and sweet flavors and a mixture of cooking styles. One of the most popular places to try shojin ryori is at Shigetsu in Tenryu-ji's World Heritage gardens; bookings should be made in advance.
One of the most iconic desserts from Kyoto and a popular souvenir, these triangle parcels, which can be compared to mochi, are made from glutinous rice flour and hide a delicious filling; traditionally red bean paste. The skin is often flavored with cinnamon, green tea, or sesame which accounts for the different colours you’ll find. There are even seasonal specialities like cherry blossom and plum-flavored yatsuhashi. It won’t be hard to find yatsuhashi in Kyoto but a popular chain of cafes specializing in the dessert is Honke Nishio Yatsuhashi.
Sushi is one of the staples of Japanese cuisine but many people don’t realize there are regional variants that are very much worth seeking out. As Kyoto is landlocked, their traditional style of sushi differs slightly, using preserved fish and wrapping the maki rolls in kombu (kelp) instead of the usual nori (seaweed). Make sure you try the aji (horse mackerel) sushi while in Kyoto. Popular restaurants include Izuju in Gion and Izu in Higashiyama.
This is a form of wagashi (Japanese sweets), which are perfectly formed into shapes such as flowers, fruits, and leaves, made with rice flour and filled with azuki paste. They are traditionally served alongside a cup of matcha as the sweetness of these delicate desserts offset the bitterness of the tea perfectly. For this reason, they are closely linked with the Japanese tea ceremony which began in Kyoto. Aside from providing a sweet treat, they’re also perfect for photographs being a work of art in themselves. Visit Sasaya Iori, open since 1716 to try handmade wagashi, including namagashi.
Native to Kyoto, this is essentially Kyoto home cooking. Obanzai ryori is considered an everyday food and focuses on seasonal produce. This collection of dishes packed with flavor is served at most restaurants in Kyoto and is perfect if you’re looking for a budget option. The meal normally arrives as a set and will typically include a soup dish, rice, a main dish, and some smaller side dishes. Some popular dishes include grilled fish, nikujaga (meat and potato stew), curry, and grilled eggplant. Settle down at comfortable Moritoshi after sightseeing for some delicious obanzai dishes.
Yudofu is a classic tofu dish that originated in Kyoto due to the good quality of the water giving the tofu a creamy, rich quality. Simmered with kelp and served with dipping sauce and ginger, this is a healthy meal that hits the spot and is strangely addictive. If you visit a yudofu restaurant, you’ll normally find various tofu dishes on the menu, including tofu desserts! One of the most famous spots to try yudofu is Nanzenji Junsei, a traditional restaurant with a long history.
With a history stretching back 1,200 years and thought to have originated in China, this soybean-based dish made from tofu skin, is a staple of traditional Kyoto cuisine. There are various ways to eat it from raw and served with soup, to fried. You can also find it being served as part of the tea ceremony. Creamy and wholly satisfying, yuba is must try while in Kyoto. Toyouke Jaya is a popular tofu restaurant that serves delicious yuba.
A balance of flavor and a work of art that’s traditionally served in ryokans or specialist restaurants. Kaiseki is often described as ‘haute cuisine’ due to the artistry that goes into each dish. It's also traditionally served in ryokans or specialty restaurants. This is a long meal of small, elegantly presented, simple dishes, once again focusing on flavorful and fresh seasonal ingredients. With so many courses to enjoy, Kaiseki is ideally enjoyed slowly as a group with lashings of shochu or sake. Dishes you can expect include appetizers, sashimi, a simmered dish, and a grilled dish as well as dessert options. Roan Kikunoi is a Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant with a stunning interior that offers cheaper lunch deals as well as their full evening kaiseki menu.
Tsukemono, literally meaning "pickled things," were once a necessity in Kyoto. With fresh vegetables being brought to the capital from every prefecture, a way to preserve and enjoy them had to be devised, so pickled vegetables became a popular practice in Kyoto for hundreds of years. Turnips, parsnips, eggplant, and cucumber are amongst the most popular vegetables to be pickled and served together in a variety of ways. Often served as a side in traditional meals like kaiseki and Buddhist shojin ryori, if the pickles aren’t well made it’s said to spoil the whole meal. Akoya jaya is one of the most famous places to try over 25 different kinds of pickled items soaked in green tea.
Hamo, or conger eel, are a particularly aggressive kind of eel that are as troublesome to cook and prepare as they are to catch, but over the centuries chefs have perfected a number of methods by which hamo can be cooked and served. One popular option in the summer months is to boil the hamo and serve it cold with a plum sauce, but it can also be grilled or fried. However you choose to eat it, hamo is a true Kyoto delicacy, and has been for hundreds of years. A popular Kyoto restaurant to enjoy hamo is Yanagiya, which also serves delicious sushi.