Kyoto’s most beloved food market offers everything from super-fresh seafood and succulent sweets to sake, tea, and a profusion of pickles—not to mention a good taste of culinary history.
So, you’re writing a story about Nishiki Market, eh?” says a kimono-clad matron as she sips thoughtfully on her Suntory whiskey highball, slurping fresh magaki oysters from the market’s Daiyasu fish stand.
“Well, we have a kotowaza—a saying—that goes, ‘If you want to know what’s happening in the market, ask the market.’ you will learn more about Japanese food culture in an hour here than you will in weeks of reading books. Go out there, talk to the stallholders, and taste everything you can.” With a wry smile, she adds, “especially if it’s a free sample.”
As a matter of fact, I’ve been shopping at Kyoto’s venerable Nishiki Market for the last 26 years, on and off, but this encounter was an apt reminder that the place is not simply a venue for trading foodstuffs for cash. Rather, it’s a repository of old and invaluable culinary knowledge that dates back centuries—an ever-evolving practical history lesson where the medium is food, and the reward for diligent study is a gourmand’s satori.
Locals refer to it as Kyo-no-daidokoro—“Kyoto’s Kitchen”—and the Nishiki-koji Ichiba, to give the market its full name, has existed on this downtown site since 1615. In its earliest incarnation, the long, narrow street specialized not in food but in samurai footwear. Back then it was called Gusoku-koji (Soldier Shoe Street), which became abbreviated in common parlance to Kuso-koji—an unfortunate, but one suspects deliberate, homonym for “Turd Alley.” Earthy humor is never far from market life, even at a food mecca as pedigreed as Nishiki, which has enjoyed imperial patronage for centuries.
Visitors shouldn’t expect a “market” in the sense of an open expanse full of stalls, nor even a massive, frenetic enclosed affair like Tokyo’s Tsukiji. Instead, Nishiki unfolds along a single street—little more than an alleyway really —with the family-owned, narrow-fronted businesses crammed cheek-by-jowl along a stretch of pavement running from Teramachidori street and the Nishiki Tenmangu shrine to Takakura-dori, six blocks to the west.
It quickly gets crowded with tourists and locals, including chefs who come here to buy ingredients for their high-class ryotei restaurants. The secret, therefore, is to arrive early, though not on a Wednesday, as that’s when most stalls close. I also recommend you memorize this essential piece of Japanese vocabulary: shishoku. It means “free tasting sample.”
The market is best traversed from east to west, starting at the bustling Nishiki Ten Tenmangu shrine, where quirky “shishimai oracles”—automata fortune-telling devices—dispense clairvoyant messages in both Japanese and English. While there, be sure to rub your hand across the head of the bronze bull statue by the gate, then rub your own pate. It makes one brainier, they say, and cures a range of illnesses.
If you’ve arrived with an appetite, assuage your hunger pangs at Maruki Shokudo (No. 61), a small family-run canteen on the south side of the alleyway. Yukio Wakabayashi has been serving up the city’s trademark nishin soba (buckwheat noodles topped with a cured herring) and oyako donburi (egg-and-chicken rice bowl) since 1958. The latter is rather sweet, but the dashi stock used in both is second to none, offering a reminder that you don’t have to break the bank to eat great food in Kyoto, such are the skills of even the most humble chefs. The eatery opens a little late, though, from noon.
A few doors down on the north side of the street is the legendary knife-maker Aritsugu (No. 5). All of the utensils on sale here, from the miniature tofu-spoons to the gorgeous nabe bowls, are beautifully handcrafted, but it’s the shop’s incredible kitchen knives that draw chefs from around the world. Fitted with carbon-steel blades and handles of wood and water-buffalo horn, the traditional Japanese-style knives (starting from about US$225) are the most attractive, though they require careful maintenance, so you might want to opt for a stainless-steel version for ease of use. The staff is happy to advise. They’ve been doing so since 1560.