Kyoto, the so-called "City of Ten Thousand Shrines," has probably made your list of must-visit destinations for a number of reasons. You'll likely want to see the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji Temple, which is dripping in gold, an extravagant declaration of opulence. Maybe you’re hoping to spot maiko in the historic geisha district of Gion or immerse yourself in the lush bamboo forest of Arashiyama. But don’t overlook Kyoto's rich food culture, which boasts high-quality cuisine and distinct local specialties, from elaborate kaiseki ryori course meals to the humble cup of green tea.
Looking for activities to add to your Kyoto itinerary? Check out these top 20 things to do in Kyoto!
Kyoto's cuisine is influenced by environmental factors, like the city’s geographic location, topography, and access to abundant freshwater. And its long history as Japan's capital up until the Meiji Restoration has seeped into the local food culture as well, making Kyoto the best destination to experience traditional Japanese culture.
On a health kick? No problem. The food scene in Kyoto is abundant with local vegetables and superfoods, and the city is home to some of the healthiest Japanese cuisines, including the vegetarian Buddhist cuisine called shojin ryori. But if you’re hoping to indulge, take relief in the fact that there is no end to the delicious Kyoto specialties, both traditional and innovative.
In case you're not sure what to eat in Kyoto, we've compiled some of the must-eat foods of Kyoto's traditional cuisine.
What to Eat in Kyoto: Kyo Ryori (Kyoto Cuisine)
Before we get to the top local specialty foods to eat in Kyoto, let's dive into the styles of cuisine that originated here.
Kyoto, the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, is the birthplace of many types of Japanese cuisines. Kyo-ryori encompasses the five styles of Japanese cuisine which got their start in this historic city: kaiseki ryori, shojin ryori, honzen ryori, daikyo ryori, and obanzai.
Kyo-ryori is distinct for its use of seasonal ingredients, creative plating on handmade lacquerware and ceramics, and attention to details like texture and color. These elements meld harmoniously to represent the current season.
Here are three distinct Kyoto cuisine styles to try in the ancient capital:
- Kaiseki Ryori: Traditional Multi-Course Meal
- Shojin Ryori: Vegetarian Buddhist Cuisine
- Obanzai: Kyoto Home-Cooking
1. Kaiseki Ryori: Traditional Multi-Course Meal
Kyoto is the birthplace of kaiseki ryori (kaiseki cuisine), a traditional Japanese multi-course meal in which seasonal ingredients, traditional techniques, and gorgeous presentation are merged into a mind-blowing culinary experience.
The original version of kaiseki in Kyoto was cha kaiseki (tea kaiseki), a course meal served prior to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Since then, kaiseki ryori has evolved independently of the tea ceremony. To enjoy sublime kaiseki cuisine and admire the techniques of top Japanese chefs, Kyoto should be your go-to city.
2. Shojin Ryori: Vegetarian Buddhist Cuisine
Shojin ryori is a Japanese Buddhist cuisine made entirely without meat or animal products. It is a vegetarian (and sometimes vegan) cuisine, eaten at Buddhist temples across Japan, utilizing fresh and simple ingredients. Like other types of Kyo-ryori, the focus is on textures, flavors, and presentation.
Originally, this Buddhist cuisine came to Kyoto from China. One of the first establishments to adopt the shojin cuisine was Manpuku Temple, or Manpuku-ji, in Kyoto. Given the abundance of sites of worship in Kyoto, there is no shortage of Buddhist temples and restaurants where visitors may try this Japanese vegetarian cuisine.
Browse shojin ryori experiences in Japan and taste this fresh, wholesome cuisine for yourself.
3. Obanzai: Kyoto Home-Cooking
Obanzai is Kyoto-style home-cooking that follows the traditional Japanese meal layout, ichiju-sansai, which consists of rice, soup, and three side dishes). The comforting and familiar aspects of Japanese home-cooking are elevated at obanzai restaurants, where experienced chefs coax out the deep umami flavors that Japanese cuisine is so well-known for.
Using fresh ingredients local to Kyoto, obanzai highlights the very best regional specialties. And unlike kaiseki ryori, which is usually reserved for special occasions, obanzai is a very accessible, everyday kind of Japanese cuisine.
What to Eat in Kyoto: Local Specialties
Within Kyo-ryori, or Kyoto cuisine, are a variety of local dishes that we'll explore in this Kyoto food guide.
Here are some Kyoto specialties you might find included in your kaiseki meal, as well as some of the best local foods in Kyoto you'll definitely want to seek out.
- Kyoto Sake
- Kyoto Soba (Buckwheat Noodles)
- Kyoto Sushi: Saba-Zushi (Mackerel Sushi)
- Tsukemono (Pickled Vegetables)
- Hamo (Conger Eel)
- Matcha Green Tea Desserts
- Yatsuhashi: Japanese Sweets
Japan’s reputation for having one of the healthiest cuisines in the world isn’t for nothing. Not only is Kyoto the go-to city for shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine), but Kyoto is also home to a little-known (outside of Japan) superfood called yuba, a precious source of protein.
A tofu-like product also made from soybeans, yuba (sometimes called "tofu skin") is a nutritious delicacy that forms on top of heated soy milk. These sheets of yuba can be wrapped up in a multi-layered morsel, enjoyed in soup, or even fried to make yuba chips.
A classic dish in Kyoto's cuisine, yuba is popularly used in kaiseki and shojin ryori. With antioxidants, anti-aging properties, and lots of protein wrapped up in a little low-calorie packet, yuba is a must-try Kyoto specialty.
2. Kyoto Sake
Undoubtedly, if you’re dining in Kyoto, you’ll want to pair some Japanese sake with Kyoto's delicacies. Kyoto, specifically Fushimi, is known for sake production. The springs of Fushimi, a name meaning “underground water,” are responsible for the refreshing and mild taste which is characteristic of Kyoto sake. In fact, the “soft” water of Kyoto is considered to be the highest quality, allowing the natural flavors of soba, tofu, and (of course) sake to shine through.
There’s a spiritual element to Kyoto’s production of sake as well. Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Kyoto’s top attraction recognizable by its labyrinth of vermillion torii gates, is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. Perhaps Kyoto’s reverence for the sake’s basic components—water and rice—is part of the recipe for great-tasting sake.
Want to develop your palate and learn how to appreciate Japanese sake? Join a tasting in Kyoto!
3. Kyoto Soba (Buckwheat Noodles)
Another Kyoto food whose high quality is attributed to Kyoto’s soft, mellow groundwater, is soba, or Japanese buckwheat noodles. But these aren’t just your regular buckwheat noodles. Kyoto has several soba specialties, including cha soba, nishin soba, and kamo namban soba.
Nishin soba is topped with a sweet and salty braised-and-dried pacific herring, while kamo namban soba consists of soba noodles in a broth made with leeks or scallions and duck.
Cha soba noodles (green tea soba noodles) are another classic food made with buckwheat flour and green tea powder. High-quality tea from Uji, a city just south of Kyoto, is responsible for its flavor and vibrant green color.
4. Kyoto Sushi: Saba-Zushi (Mackerel Sushi)
Saba-zushi is a traditional type of Kyoto sushi. Not to be confused with the typical Edo-style nigiri sushi you’ll find in Tokyo, this mackerel sushi is prepared using pickling methods intended to maximize its shelf life.
With landlocked geography, fresh fish was historically harder to come by in Kyoto City. The raw mackerel had to be heavily salted and wrapped in a dried bamboo sheath so that it could keep during the long journey from the sea to Japan’s ancient capital. This type of lightly-pickled mackerel sushi is a specialty of the Kyoto sushi scene, with a flavor unlike that of its Edo-style cousin.
5. Tsukemono (Pickled Vegetables)
Another specialty preserved food of Kyoto is tsukemono, or pickled vegetables. Back in the days before refrigeration, pickled vegetables could literally be lifesavers. The three types of pickles Kyoto is known for are shibazuke (eggplant pickled with red perilla leaves), senmaizuke (large, round, super-thin slices of pickled Shogoin turnip), and sugukizuke (a type of sour pickled turnip).
Kyoto’s lively Nishiki Market, nicknamed “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” is the best place to find a variety of colorful Japanese tsukemono, as well as Japanese sweets and seafood.
6. Hamo (Conger Eel)
The Gion Festival, Kyoto's most important festival, is also known as the “Hamo Festival.” The perfect summertime ingredient, hamo, a type of sea eel or conger eel, is a Kyoto delicacy with a price tag to match.
The tender white flesh of hamo can be prepared in numerous ways: boiled, grilled, deep-fried, as sashimi, or served in hot pots like shabu shabu and nabe. But in the summer, boiled hamo is often served cold with ume (Japanese plum) sauce. The conger eel is a tough guy, able to survive the journey to landlocked Kyoto City, and it is equally difficult to prepare with numerous tiny little bones for chefs to work around.
7. Matcha Green Tea Desserts
It’s undeniable, Japanese desserts and green tea are a matcha made in heaven. And Kyoto offers some of the most delectable green tea-flavored desserts, from matcha ice cream to green tea tiramisu, and even something called “matcha fondue.”
Tea-lovers, Kyoto is calling, with abundant matcha desserts made with high-quality Uji matcha. There’s no better place to indulge in matcha green tea desserts than Kyoto, the city where the Japanese tea ceremony was born.
Book a tea experience in Kyoto to visit a tea farm or experience a traditional tea ceremony!
8. Yatsuhashi: Japanese Sweets
Yatsuhashi is the iconic Kyoto omiyage, or souvenir. A traditional Japanese dessert, there are three types of yatsuhashi.
The classic yatsuhashi is a hard, cookie-like treat that packs a cinnamon punch and a satisfying crunch. Named after Yatsuhashi Kengyo, the koto harp and shamisen musician who composed many famous Kyoto songs, these baked yatsuhashi are made in a curved shape resembling the koto harp.
Nama yatsuhashi, or “raw” yatsuhashi, is a newer version: a flat, rectangular piece of steamed mochi, which comes in flavors like cinnamon, chocolate, and matcha.
The last type is the anko-filled version of nama yatsuhashi, a neat little triangular packet of mochi containing sweet red bean paste. Before leaving Kyoto, be sure to pick up this classic Kyoto omiyage!
From Japanese sake made with pure Kyoto water to saba sushi (the traditional Kyoto sushi), Kyoto's food scene offers a wide variety of local specialty dishes unique to Japan's ancient capital. Now, with the knowledge about what to eat in Kyoto and the highlights of Kyoto prefecture's local food culture, you can fully savor your journey to this city of shrines.