Above: Grilled barracuda with autumn leaves at Kikunoi.
When you’re done exploring the monuments and gardens of this former imperial capital, the most refined cuisine in Japan awaits. But where to go? Here, an insider’s pick of Kyoto’s top 10 bets for an unforgettable meal
Story and photographs by John Ashburne
It was born, wrote the ancient poets, as the city of celestial spirits, where temples outnumbered the gods and the very water that sprang from the earth was purer than the dew on the lotus leaves in the gardens of Nirvana. Its fame “spread to the four known corners of the terrestrial earth.”
Alas, somewhere along the line, something got lost in translation. Although tens of millions of domestic tourists visit Kyoto annually to marvel at its temples and shrines, its stone gardens and geishas, and its impossibly elegant ryotei (traditional fine-dining restaurants), Japan’s ancient capital attracts a relatively scant number of foreign visitors. Most heinously, the great star in Kyoto’s cultural firmament—its incredibly sophisticated and alluring food—has, until recently, passed beneath the global tourist radar.
The city’s signature cuisine is Kyo-ryori, a catch-all term that encompasses the sophisticated multicourse kaiseki and chakaiseki feasts associated with the tea ceremony, as well as the nuanced vegetarian fare that constitutes the Buddhist—in particular, Zen—culinary arts. Directly translated, it simply means “Kyoto food,” yet the phrase is synonymous with the ultimate in quality, service, refinement, omotenashi hospitality, and luxuriant style.
Kyo-ryori emerged from a unique combination of historical, artistic, and geographic factors. An abundance of natural spring water and fertile soil provided the essentials. However, the inland city’s remove from the ocean posed, in the centuries before refrigeration, a serious logistical problem. Kyoto chefs had to find new ways of salting, preserving, and pickling seafood, and using soybeans and local vegetables to satisfy the dietary demands of the ubiquitous Buddhist clergy. Thus, from its very outset, Kyo-ryori has been associated with innovation.
When, in 794, Japan’s imperial capital moved to Kyoto, the city’s kitchens and markets had to fulfill the needs of even more important customers—the emperor and his court. Despite the paucity of raw materials, chefs were obliged to produce new and evermore entertaining cuisine. As master chef Toshio Murata of Kikunoi explains, “It was a difficult and dangerous business. If a cook’s dishes displeased the imperial retinue, it was ‘Off with his head!'”
The threat of imminent decapitation proved an effective spur to culinary creativity, but it was a gentler, more benign influence that was to move Kyo-ryori to even more exalted heights. The newly emerged aristocratic art of the tea ceremony demanded a culinary accompaniment that incorporated wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic system that finds beauty in imperfection and impermanence. Thus was born chakaiseki, the beautifully crafted antecedent of all formal Kyo-ryori meals.
Centuries later, Kyoto’s cuisine may have finally arrived on the international stage. In 2009, the Kyoto-Osaka Michelin Guide awarded 84 of the city’s Japanese restaurants the sum total of 109 stars, with six receiving the coveted three-star accolade. Earlier this year, another French tastemaker, fashion house Louis Vuitton, went even farther with its first edition of the Louis Vuitton City Guide Kyoto/Nara (for which, it should be noted, I was a contributing writer), showcasing 90 eateries that reflect the city’s unique “cultural DNA.”
And so it should be. But if I had to pick only 10 experiences that best exemplified the cuisine of Kyoto, my home for the past two decades, it would be these:
Savor the Seasons at Kikunoi
Presided over by three-star Michelin chef Yoshihiro Murata, this exceptional ryotei is arguably the most famous restaurant in Japan, and an obligatory stop for any Kyoto-bound gourmet. Its tranquil tatami rooms are beautiful, many looking out onto Kikunoi’s gardens; the intimate Yakatabune room was designed by Murata himself to evoke the experience of dining on an old-fashioned pleasure boat on nearby Lake Biwa.
Kikunoi, which has been in Murata’s family for three generations, is the epitome of refined luxury in everything from its bespoke lacquer-ware to its delicate ikebana flower arrangements. But it is Murata’s beautifully crafted kaiseki that has brought him much-deserved acclaim. Borne by kimono-clad waitresses, every element in the nine- or ten-course banquet is perfectly matched to the seasons. On my latest visit, Kamasu no Sugiita Yaki, a 17th-century recipe for grilled barracuda that Murata himself rediscovered, made for an amazing autumn specialty. Presented on the plate with freshly fallen leaves and a piece of smoldering cedar, it recalled a picnic in the Kyoto forests of yore. 459 Shimo-gawara-cho, Kawaramachi-dori, Yasakatoriimae-sagaru, Higashiyama-ku; 81-75/561-0015; kikunoi.jp; dinner for two from US$410.
Explore Artisanal Cooking at Ryozanpaku
Dining at Ryozanpaku is like being invited into the home of an impossibly tasteful and wealthy friend. You enter through a carved wooden gate, walk across a stone path, slide back the shoji door, and pass into a realm of flower arrangements, gallery-worthy art, and wondrous food.
In the case of Ryozanpaku, your host is the genial master chef Kenichi Hashimoto. His two-Michelin-star restaurant is named after the legendary Chinese mountain lair from which a band of righteous outlaws waged war against an evil regime. The only battle going on here, however, is for the captivation of your taste buds. Everything, right down to the soy sauce, is handcrafted on the premises, where Hashimoto was born and raised. His home-turned-restaurant even boasts its own source of pure water, dubbed Izumidono (“His Highness, the Well”), for which the chef modestly credits his culinary success. The 15-dish hassun (the second course of a formal kaiseki meal in which the chef expresses his full creative flair in a selection of hors d’oeuvres) is a visual and edible delight. But it is Hashimoto’s signature misozuke—a magical, sake-infused mix of broiled scallops, mackerel, and white miso—that keeps Ryozanpaku regulars coming back for more. 5 Izumidono-cho, Yoshida, Sakyo-ku; 81-75/771-4447; ryozanpaku.net; dinner for two from US$270.
Dine on Contemporary Kaiseki at Hana-Kitcho
For all that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the former bad boy of sumo wrestling Asashoryu, Kunio Tokuoka is as urbane and charismatic as celebrity chefs come. With four Michelin stars under his belt and a restaurant group founded by his grandfather to oversee (including an eponymous dining room in Singapore’s Resorts World Sentosa), Tokuoka still manages to be a charming and entertaining host. But once he ex-changes his Armani suit for his chef’s whites, he’s all business. He runs his kitchen with precision, issuing a multitude of orders and testing stock with a clearly practiced eye and palate.
Tokuoka rose to fame when he took over the legendary, stratospherically expensive, rigidly classical Kitcho restaurant in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district. Hana-Kitcho, its chic younger sibling (complete with a checkerboard moss garden on the rooftop), sets the stage for Tokuoka’s contemporary take on Kyo-ryori, with unconventional elements appearing on the menu and prices geared toward mere mortals. Don’t miss the unique shioya, a dish that features succulent, partially grilled prawns and seasonal fish served in a dome of salt. 3-2 Taiwa-cho, Yamato-oji Shijo-sagaru, Higashiyama-ku; 81-75/531-1500; kitcho.com; dinner for two from US$156.
Try something Fishy at Ranmaru
Chef-owner Taiki Sato runs this fantastic, intimate restaurant near the Heian-jingu shrine in Kyoto’s Shogoin district. His speciality is fish, be it grilled, steamed, deep-fried, or raw and supremely fresh. “I became a chef because I can’t do anything else,” he professes with a grin. And that’s just as well: in all the years I have been going to Ranmaru, I’ve yet to be disappointed.
This is the best place to sample nodoguro (literally, “black throat”), or tilefish, a Kyoto specialty known elsewhere in Japan as guji. It is excellent as sashimi or deep-fried. Nor should you miss the feather-light tempura of wakasagi (ice fish) smelt or the Ebi to Tako Escargot Fu—prawn and octopus baked and served with freshly toasted French bread in an escargot dish. Ranmaru also has a fine sake collection: try the Kintsuru, a lovingly crafted brew from the island of Sado. 28-5 Sanno-cho, Shogoin, Sakyo-ku; 81-75/761-7738; dinner for two from US$90.
Satiate yourself with Sushi at Sushidokoro Man
It is said that the finest sushi in the world can only be found among the legendary itamae (sushi chefs) of Tokyo. So much for conventional wisdom. Sushidokoro Man is a true gem, tucked away in the relative obscurity of the Ebisugawa furniture district, just a couple blocks north of City Hall.
The restaurant’s cheerful owner, Akira Umehara, likes to keep things low-key. He shuns the media, relying instead on word of mouth to publicize his small, elegant establishment. It’s proven a successful strategy. Reservations are essential here: Umehara’s sushi is some of the most sublime that I have ever tasted. Staples such as toro (fatty tuna belly), and tai (sea bream) are superb, but be sure to try some of his seasonal nigiri sushi, such as the shiroika—a species of white squid from Nagasaki—and pickled cress. The latter may sound mundane, but, in fact, it is a gustatory revelation. Take that, Tokyo! 305 Tawaraya-cho, Ebisugawa-dori Yanaginobanba Higashi-iru, Nakagyo-ku; 81-75/223-3351; dinner for two from US$260.
Embrace the Eel at Kappo Nakagawa Shijo
Hamo—a.k.a. the daggertooth pike conger—is emblematic of Kyoto cuisine, and nowhere is this eel served with more loving care than at Kappo Nagawa Shijo. Chef Hikko Nakagawa pioneered eating hamo in the shabu-shabu style at his restaurant in the Gion district, and his son Masahiro Nakamura has continued the tradition for the last 18 years in the relatively informal setting of this branch in downtown Kyoto.
What really sets Kappo Nakagawa apart is the quality of its dashi, a characteristic stock of konbu (kelp) and katsuo (bonito) shavings whose exact formula is a closely guarded secret. The hamo, which you simmer all so briefly in a hot pot of stock at your table, is ready when it curls into a white arc of succulent fishy flesh. You can also try it grilled over charcoal in the sumibiyaki style. Nishi Kiyamachi-dori Shijo-sagaru, Shimogyo-ku; 81-75/352-3511; kappou-nakagawa.ecnet.jp; dinner for two from US$170.
Taste the Tofu at Shoraian
During the Heian period, Arashiyama, a leafy district in the western outskirts of the city, was the playground of Kyoto’s nobility, who would gather here to attend moon-viewing parties, write elegiac verse and indulge in a spot of cormorant fishing. The area today is a mecca for domestic tourists, who swarm to its bamboo groves and the magnificence of Tenryu-ji temple. For the gourmet traveler, however, the real attraction is the tofu specialty restaurant Shoraian. Perched above the banks of the Oi River, this beautiful wooden building is owned by master calligrapher Fuyoh Kobayashi, who has filled the space with her graceful Zen-inspired artwork.
The delicate, silken bean curd here is just as remarkable as the decor; explore it in all its varieties with the set tofu kaiseki. Reservations, especially during the autumn maple-viewing season, are essential, but there’s no finer spot to kick back with a glass of sake and watch the river flow by over a long, leisurely meal. Kanyuchi-nai, Saga Kameno’o-cho, Ukyo-ku; 81-75/861-0123; only open for dinner on weekends; lunch for two from US$80.
Explore Nishiki Market
To the locals, it is Kyo-no-daidokoro, or “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” and the Nishiki-koji Ichiba market arcade has existed on this central site since 1615, serving the inexhaustible appetites of the imperial court and the high-end ryotei restaurants. A visit here is a must, as the full span of Kyoto food culture is represented in the family-run businesses that line the narrow, covered alleyway that runs for 300 meters between Takakura Road and the Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine. Highlights include the local pickles at Uchida Tsukemono (free samples available); the knives and kitchenware at the legendary Aritsugu; the gourmet vegetables on offer at Kanematsu; and the inexpensive, freshly grilled shellfish at Daiyasu.
This is one spot where eating on the hoof is tolerated in Japan, though many of the shops also provide takeway bento boxes. And if you fancy a sit-down meal, the oyako donburi (rice topped with chicken and egg) at Maruki Shokudo canteen is excellent, and a steal at around US$8. Also recommended is Yaoya no Nikai, a restaurant above Kanematsu that serves a set lunch made with locally sourced heirloom vegetables such as Shogoin daikon, Kujonegi leeks, and Kamonasu aubergines. kyoto-nishiki.or.jp; stalls open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Order Noodles Fit For Royalty at Honke Owariya
Famed for its soba, this Kyoto institution dates back to 1465, and is reportedly Emperor Akihito’s favorite spot for a bowl of buckwheat noodles when in town. Another of Kyoto’s specialties, nishin soba (noodles in broth topped with cured herring), is in fine form here. Better still, order the signature hourai soba, an elaborate dish presented with shiitake mushrooms, sliced egg, sesame horseradish, seaweed, leek, deep-fried prawns, and grated white radish. 322 Kuramaya-cho Nijo, Nakagyo-ku; 81-75/ 231-3446; honke-owariya.co.jp; the hourai soba will set you back US$27.
Sip Gourmet Green Tea at Ippodo
Ippodo has been retailing the finest green teas in Kyoto for nearly three centuries, its name synonymous with the highest quality and service. At the main store’s Kaboku Tearoom, even the most discerning of tea connoisseurs will find plenty to delight in, while helpful staff are on hand to guide novices through the brewing and tasting process. Start with the simple Kaboku sencha at about US$9, then, if you are feeling adventurous and deep-pocketed, splash out on the tenka-ichi gyokuro (US$23). The name of this aromatic decoction means “the finest under heaven,” and you’ll soon know why. Teramachi-dori Nijo, Nakagyo-ku; 81-75/211-3421; ippodo-tea.co.jp.
Originally appeared in the October/November 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Quintessential Kyoto”)