While Tokyo is Japan’s fast-paced modern metropolis, Kyoto is a great place to get a sense of traditional and ancient Japanese culture. Amid the city’s Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines, however, are streets lined with tiny temples of soba, custardy tofu and Kyoto-style pressed sushi. And then there’s Nishiki Market, a five-block-long food lover’s paradise where you can find everything from warm soymilk donuts to pickled daikon that's stacked high in wooden barrels.
The cooks of Kyoto are true shokunin, or masters of their craft. No matter if they are using chopsticks to carefully roll egg into tamago (Japanese omelet), or boiling tofu until it is reminiscent of edible silk, in many cases they’ve dedicated their lives to perfecting the food you’re about to feast on.
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And that food, we’re pleased to tell you, does not have to break the bank. We’ve scoured Japan’s old Imperial capital for inexpensive eats that you absolutely cannot miss, finding chocolate-almond croissants, savory Japanese pancakes and green tea soft serve along the way.
Nishiki Market for breakfast
Nishiki is Kyoto’s most famous traditional food market, and it's a wonderland of produce, pickles, fish, tea and other traditional Japanese delicacies. Wander through the five-block-long market and grab a bag of fluffy soymilk donuts at Konna Monja (¥250 for 10 pieces), accompanied by a glass of creamy and warm Japanese-style soymilk (tonyuu). After you’ve completed your first breakfast course, head to Miki Keiran for a rolled omelet flavored with dashi (dashimaki tamago). Watch as the cooks flip the omelets (¥630 to ¥950 depending on the size and filling) in the traditional box-shaped tamago pan, rolling layer after layer of egg until the gorgeous tamago is formed. If you still have room in your stomach, know that there will be many opportunities to sample Nishiki’s famous pickles (tsukemono), including pickled daikon, eggplant and plum.
Nishikikoji Teramachi-Takakura, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto
Honke Owariya for soba
This historic soba restaurant has been operating for over 550 years (that makes it twice as old as America), which explains the traditional tatami mat dining area, narrow staircases, low ceilings and sliding screens. Owariya was designated the official purveyor of soba noodles to the Imperial Palace, but you don’t have to be Japanese royalty to try the restaurant’s legendary buckwheat noodles. The house specialty hourai soba (¥3,024 or $27) comes with five stacked trays of cold soba, a side of broth and toppings—including shiitake mushrooms, shrimp tempura, grated daikon and wasabi—to mix in and snack on at will. Don’t forget to pick up a package of soba on your way out to bring to your loved ones back home.
322, Niomontsukinukecho, Nakagyo-ku Kyoto-shi, Kyoto; https://honke-owariya.co.jp/
Café Bibliotic Hello for pastries
It’s no surprise that the Japanese are masters of bread and pastry, given that Japanese food culture dictates unrelenting attention to detail and devotion to quality. For some of the best pastries in Kyoto, head to Café Bibliotic Hello, where you’ll find impossibly flaky chocolate-almond croissants (¥300 or $2.70), strawberry tarts (¥600 or $5.40) and souffle cheesecake (¥500 or $4.50). When you’re not gorging yourself on sweets or sipping spicy Moroccan chai, browse through the architecture and design books that line the walls or head upstairs to the second-floor art gallery.
650 Seimei-cho, Yanaginobanba-higashi-iru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyo-ku; http://cafe-hello.jp/
Tsujiri Honten for green tea soft serve
You can’t visit Japan and not consume matcha green tea in all its delightful forms. Go for the gold at Tsujiri tea shop in Gion and order one of the enormous matcha soft serve parfaits (¥900 to ¥1400), which come layered with your choice of matcha pound cake, red bean paste, matcha whipped cream, matcha jelly, matcha syrup, mochi and fruit. For those serious green tea-dessert fanatics, there's also matcha shaved ice and matcha mousse, both made with premium matcha powder from the nearby city of Uji.
573-3 Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto; http://tsujiri-global.com/
Arata for okonomiyaki
If a cold Kirin, comfort food, and a lively atmosphere are what you’re after, Arata will not disappoint. The restaurant, located on the South Side of Kyoto Station, draws crowds for its house special okonomiyaki (¥950 or $8.45), a Japanese savory pancake loaded with beef and yakisoba noodles. The okonomiyaki masters grill the pancake in front of you until it’s crispy on the outside, then top it with mayonnaise, an addictive spicy sauce and loads of chopped scallion. A few Kirins will definitely put you in the mood for a second and third okonomiyaki.
24-4 Nishikujoincho Minami-Ku, Kyoto
Shoraian for a tofu tasting menu
Kyoto is famous for tofu, a delicacy introduced to Japan by vegetarian Buddhist monks as a source of protein. There’s no better place to experience it than Shoraian, a restaurant occupying the holiday cottage of a former Japanese prime minister, located in the middle of enchanting gardens and the Arayshiyama bamboo forest. There’s a six course tasting menu for ¥3,800 ($33.70) featuring delicate boiled yu tofu, deep-fried agedashi tofu, and seasonally-changing dishes like wagyu beef and tofu gratin. The best part (besides the soy) is that you get to sit cross-legged on a tatami mat and stare out the window onto an emerald-green river while you dine.
Sagakamenoo-cho, Ukyo-ku; http://www.shoraian.com
Izuju for Kyoto-Style Sushi
If you’ve never ventured outside the land of nigiri-style sushi, you’re truly missing out. Izuju has been around for over a century, and it specializes in Kyoto-style sushi—including sabazushi (pickled mackerel pressed sushi), inarizushi (sushi rice and vegetables in deep-fried tofu skins), and hakozushi (square pressed sushi with pike eel). After you’re done feasting on sushi and checking out the restaurant’s impressive wood-fired hearth oven, there’s only one thing left to do: Head across the street to visit the colorful Yakasa Shrine, one of the oldest and most stunning shrines in Kyoto. Assorted sushi for two people costs ¥2398, or $21.40
Gionmachikitagawa, Higashiyamaku, Kyoto; https://www.facebook.com/izuju/