Snacking on the go is a major faux pas in Japan, a fact that might disappoint travelers who believe that the most authentic culinary experiences are those you can find at small stalls and food carts. The impenetrable rules of Japanese etiquette forbid eating and walking at the same time, which could explain why street food culture is less widespread than in other parts of Asia.
However, these rules don’t seem to apply at Kyoto’s Nishiki Market. Fondly nicknamed “Kyoto’s kitchen,” the market is a diverse assemblage of 150 shops, groceries, and stalls, where eating and walking is not only accepted, but encouraged. Stepping into the market from its western entrance near Shijo Karasuma station, you’re almost instantly assailed by small armies of things-on-sticks: fried chicken, fish cakes, fresh sashimi, tiny octopi. Other snacks include sesame dumplings, yuzu honey ice cream, Japanese omelets, wagashi (traditional sweets), and soy powder-coated peanuts.
The Origins of Kyoto’s Kitchen
Nishiki Market resembles any number of the covered shopping arcades you may see in Japan, but its reputation for stocking only the highest quality goods has earned it a special place among Japanese chefs. Aritsugu, a 450-year-old operation that once made swords for royalty, is now one of the premier kitchen knife shops in Japan. The market also sells many of the ingredients essential to Kyoto cuisine, like Kyo yasai (traditional Kyoto vegetables), tsukemono (pickles), dried bonito, yuba (tofu skin), konyak, and miso. Kaiseki masters and modern-day foodies make weekly, sometimes daily, pilgrimages to Nishiki, typically in the early morning hours, long before the crowds swarm the narrow pedestrian walkways.
The market has been around since 1310, when an entrepreneurial fish seller set up shop next to a nearby spring. Other vendors soon followed, attracted by the opportunity to use the spring’s cool water to preserve seafood and other perishables. Today’s Nishiki has a mixed personality that can only be the result of tension between its original identity as Kyoto’s grocer, and its newer identity as a tourist-favoring food hall. The market comes off as both lively and aloof – free samples of sweets, pickles, and rice crackers are abundant, and many shops are staffed by young salespersons promoting their products in welcoming, high-pitched exclamations. On the other hand, some vegetable and fish sellers won’t go out of their way to entertain conversation, and a few places have No Photo signs.
Yet here street food culture is alive and well: this the place to try all those foods you’ve been eyeing, but haven’t had the gall to order at a sit-down restaurant. Make sure to stop by Ochanokosaisai, a geisha-themed spice store, and Konnamoja, a quirky stall hawking tofu donuts by the half-dozen. Sip a discreet serving of Japan’s finest liquor at Tsunoki, Kyoto’s 220-year-old sake distributor, and savor some yuba at a place that specializes in crafting silken strands of tofu skin. While delicious eats abound, the following foods are the essential Nishiki must-trys.
Top Five Nishiki Market Eats
- Takotomago: A baby octopus stuffed with a boiled quail egg – sweet, chewy, slightly cute, surprisingly good. You can find these curious cephalopods at several of Nishiki Market’s fish stalls. Other skewered seafoods worth tasting are grilled mackerel (head, tail, and gills intact), tuna sashimi, and the delicious soft squid with roe.
- Picked Vegetables: Tsukemono, or pickled vegetables, are ubiquitous to local cuisine. Large wooden barrels of preserved cucumbers, cabbage, and daikon line small stretches of Nishiki Market’s narrow thoroughfare. One notable pickle is shibazuke, a Kyoto specialty. Distinguished by its purple-y, almost neon hue, it’s a blend of cucumbers and eggplants that have been salted and brined with red shiso. Pickles are said to aid in digesting rice and fried foods, which will come in handy as you savor your way through Nishiki Market’s more decadent selections.
- Deep Fried Fish Cakes: Soft and bursting with rich flavors, Kyoto’s satsuma age are served on short wooden sticks, easily nibble-able as you browse the rice toppings, dried fish, and plastic sushi-shaped keychains peddled by nearby vendors. The fish cakes come in a variety of flavors: edamame, crab, red ginger, green onion, potato, and even cheese. While some might find them too oily, or too fishy, they’re kind of addictive, and before long you might find yourself reaching for a second skewer.
- Black sesame soft-serve: Gomafukudo is one shop that specializes in everything sesame: seasonings, salad dressings, dumplings, bread, mochi, and several kinds of Japanese sweets. Their black sesame squares – small, perfect cubes of pure sesame paste, lightly sweetened with honey – make a unique gift for friends at home. But the black sesame ice cream, topped with freshly ground white sesame seeds, is a crucial treat to try.
- Senbei: These are not your store-bought rice crackers – senbei, as they’re known in Japan, come in a multitude of flavors, and are anything but boring. The crackers are baked or grilled, and then coated in seasonings like wasabi, salt, soy sauce, red pepper, shiso, or seaweed. Typical rice crackers are light and airy, but these have a slightly heavier taste, while still maintaining a satisfying crunch. Order one or two warm senbei to eat on the spot, and then purchase a bag from Mochiyaki Senbei to snack on at home.
To get the fullest Nishiki Market experience it’s a good idea to book a guided food tour in advance. A local guide will explain some of the more visually illegible ingredients (like the hard, long bricks of katsuobushi), and you’ll get to taste a variety of dishes and traditional sweets. Tours make the sampling process a less intimidating exercise, and you’ll also leave the market having learned a little bit about the fundamentals of Japanese cuisine.
Nishiki Market is open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and many shops are closed on Wednesdays. To get there from Kyoto Station, take the Karasuma Subway Line to Shijo Station, and exit via the eastern gate. Nishiki Market runs parallel to Shijo-dori street, stretching east from Karasuma-dori to the Nishiki-Tenmangu Shrine.