As December marched in and those Christmassy feelings started to hit, I made plans for the first days of my winter holiday. I decided to book a 1-week JR Pass Ticket (highly recommended if you are on a tourist visa and want to experience the Shinkansen trains while avoiding paying a fortune) and started planning my Kansai trip.
Osaka and Kyoto, I was excited! Especially for Kyoto, since I was about to meet my first Japanese friend, who I hadn't met since we first encountered each other in Berlin. The second person was Dimitris, an old friend from my hometown, who had moved to Kyoto to start a new life, and since then, he has mastered the tricks of the Kyotoite lifestyle.
On a cloudy, wet Kyoto winter day, we set out for the famous Nishiki Market. We made a grave mistake, though. We didn't meet outside the market beforehand. If you don't want to struggle with vast crowds of tourists and locals, make sure to meet your company beforehand.
Nishiki Market is a lively place packed with people the whole day, and almost every day. It has been around for over 400 years and, at some point, it was the equivalent of the (former) Tsukiji Market in Edo-Tokyo, so basically a fish market. But over the years it expanded to include all kinds of locally-produced raw food ingredients, as well as fermented, pickled, and dried food products. Until some decades ago, the shops were exclusively owned by families and were addressed to the local people who wanted to buy raw and processed food for their home-cooking. With the massive influx of tourists, the shops adapted to serving food on the spot to some extent, and some companies entered the market, too.
I entered Nishiki Market from the western gate. In front of the entrance, there was a beautiful noren curtain hanging, with a rooster, a carp, and a sharp-tail fish (I think, at least), and some veggies on it. Kyoto is very popular for its kyoyasai, which means Kyoto vegetables. They are supposed to be more nutritious and very tasty, with different colors and shapes compared to veggies from other regions. They are cultivated since the time the Nishiki Market is around. So, whether you are going to eat outside or cook at home, give it a try. Kyoto is famous for its healthy and very light cuisine, however, Kyoto cuisine restaurants can be quite pricey, so be prepared.
History and phytology aside, let's get straight to food!
Here are some of the top street foods at Nishiki Market!
The first Nishiki Market street food I got the chance to try was senbei! Senbei are rice crackers, but not like the ones you know outside of Asia. Especially when they are fresh, they are hearty, crunchy, and spicy! Another great choice could be a chewy skewer-style version of the senbei. Moreover, you have them seasoned for you on the spot! The seasoning ranges from plain salt to intriguing spices or sweet versions, and also a style that's wrapped in nori (dried seaweed). It is the perfect street snack to fool your hunger for a while before going for a hot meal. The shop provides a special stand for eating them and there plenty of choices to take as omiyage (souvenir) back home.
Not even 15 meters far from the senbei store, there was one of the most surprising morsels I've had so far in Japan! It was the tako-tamago, literally octopus-egg. It is a baby octopus marinated and cooked in a sauce made of sugar, mirin, and soy sauce. In the head of the octopus, a quail's egg is inserted before cooking. The octopus is sweet, chewy, and slightly crunchy, while the egg is a surprise for your tastebuds, especially if you don't know beforehand that it's inside there, like me! It has a pâté-like taste, making the whole thing a very bizarre and savory combination.
For sushi lovers, I've got a surprise for you... beef sushi! Yes, you read that right. Beef. Sushi. Nishiki Gyubei's "beef sushi" is a slice of meat on a sushi-shaped rice ball, but there's nothing raw here. However, oh my, it was the best choice of the day (and the most expensive…). You can choose among sirloin beef slice, kalbi rib slice, a bowl of creamy beef soup, and some croquettes. I went for a double "nigiri" of sirloin beef. It was delicious beyond words. While the meat is fatty and would remind you a bit of raw maguro (tuna fish), it was warm and sweet, and melted in my mouth like a seared marshmallow. Soft and tender, almost like butter, but slightly chewy and not too oily. With this little bit of wasabi on top, it was a pure taste explosion! I expect the kalbi rib or the soup must be delicious, too!
At this point, I need to mention one thing. Although the market was extremely crowded, the people's flow was functioning in its own Japanese way. All the vendors were very kind and welcoming, with many of them speaking English to some extent. The colorful thick glass ceiling was giving me the impression of an ever-lasting evening, or even night, even though Nishiki is daytime market.
Back to the food, sample tasting is the cheapest way to try many things and keep your stomach busy before your actual lunch or dinner. One nice option is the furikake, rice toppings. You can try a mouthful of rice with sugar, sesame seeds, different spices, seaweed, miso, and fish all dried and other ingredients. Another good omiyage option that can really liven up your freshly cooked rice!
If you like Japanese sake, there is a shop that sells exclusively Kyoto-produced sake, and you can taste it! The first option was a clear sake of very polished rice with a sour, slightly bitter taste. The second one was a thicker and less transparent sake of less polished rice with a smoother taste. Finally, the third one was fresh sake that has barely been through any fermentation, among others. Try not to get drunk on samples, though!
Another specialty of the Nishiki market is tamagoyaki, the Japanese omelet. There is the option of taking it packaged to savor it at home and/or use it in your cooking. Still, I found one shop where they cook it fresh on the hot plate, filled with pre-cooked cabbage, carrot, green and white onions, and pickled ginger. It is also topped with aonori, dried green seaweed, same as the one used for the takoyaki. The egg is slightly sweet and fluffy, while veggies are kinda crunchy, which gives you this heart-warming feeling of mom's cooking. There was also soy and Worcestershire sauce available on the table, but I noticed them all too late. I recommend using them, though, for the soft but salty sting that makes an egg what it ought to be!
The next stop of my seemingly endless food adventure was the dried fish and veggies. Here you can spend literally more than 15 minutes trying all the different samples. You get to choose from very light tasting tiny fish, which are just crunchy and salty, to extremely spicy thin strings of seaweed. Be brave and go ahead and taste as many as you can. The end result will be a good omiyage bought (and maybe a weird stomach feeling, so be cautious of the really spicy ones). You can eat them as snacks, use them as toppings, or even invent new ways of eating them!
Last but not least, at Kimura Fresh Fish you have the chance to eat anything on the spot as sashimi. The vendor led me to a tall table within the shop. There, I was able able to observe the vendors preparing the orders! My dish consisted of shirasu (tiny white silvery fish, also called whitebait), sea urchin, and a pancake-sized scallop.
All in all, I wouldn't recommend my choices. The shirasu were very sour and kinda bitter. The sea urchin tasted like French-style liver pâté. Still, nothing in particular. Scallop was very meaty and mouth-filling but the taste, oh well. They were served together with a bit of soy sauce and wasabi paste. But to be fair, the tuna (maguro) and the octopus (tako) seemed very fresh and tasty.
Around that point, I managed to meet my friend Dimitris. We ambled together through the crowds, while he explained to me the old and recent history of the market and all the different products you can find there.
On my way out of the rowdy crowd, I bought a box of matcha warabi mochi from Kyoto Matcha Sweets Sawawa. They were square jellies made with green tea and powdered with matcha green tea, all locally produced in the town of Uji in Kyoto, the first place where green tea was ever cultivated in Japan! Thus, it is famous for its tasty grassy and fresh green tea. I wanted to bring them to my hosts in Osaka as omiyage, but they barely survived the day, they were that delicious! Jelly-like, but this kind of jelly that fills your mouth and does not dissolve like water. Combined with the grassy bitterness of matcha giving you this slightly dry feeling, matching the wet sweetness of the mochi perfectly. Make sure to accompany them with freshly brewed Uji green tea, which you can find in the same shop! If you want something more refreshing, be sure to try their matcha ice cream!
As we arrived at the end of the Nishiki Market and where about to enter the Terayama Market, we paid a short visit to the Tenmangu Shrine. There you have the chance to pray to the god of learning if you are a student.
All in all, Nishiki Market is a must-visit place if you are planning to visit Kyoto, both for the tasting and the cultural experience! Of course, I only managed to try some of the delicacies offered there, so be adventurous and try whatever catches your eye, or your nose!
Before you leave, make sure to pick up some omiyage (souvenirs) like tsukemono (various kinds of Japanese pickles) and/or dried fish, made with the unique Kansai recipes for centuries! The Uchida Tsukemono (photo below) offers a huge variety of Kyoto-style pickles! They last a long time, and if they are appropriately wrapped, you can even take them with you on the airplane!
Tourism has changed and still is changing the nature of the market itself, which is an indispensable part of the local Kyoto life. So, please respect the rules of the market, as well as be kind and patient towards the other people!
Planning a trip to Kyoto? Check out these food experiences in Kyoto, including guided tours of Nishiki Market!