Tripadvisor and Yelp are not as reliable in Japan. Based on my experience at Ninja Food Tours, most people stay for fewer days in Kyoto than they do in Tokyo. Many of my guests also ask me for restaurant recommendations in Kyoto. So I see a need for a quick restaurant guide 🙂 Kyoto is a must-go city and different from any other cities in Japan. The city was Japan’s capital from the 8th century to the 19th century being the policial and cultural hub for a long time. Also, the Japanese emperor lived there during that period. In this Kyoto Food Guide, I will give you some ideas about local food and restaurants. If you are hungry while reading this article, maybe grab something to eat. I am sure I am going to make you hungry. Are you ready? Here is a list of 5 things you should try when you make a trip to Kyoto. Also, my restaurant recommendations follow.
There are more than 20 ramen shops in this small neighborhood including the main store of Tenkaippin, now a nationwide ramen chain from Kyoto. I will do another blog post about ramen in Kyoto. If you want to know where to go in Ichijoji, just ask me by leaving a comment below.
- Soba & Nishin Soba (Herring Soba)
- Saba Sushi
- Green Tea Desserts
1. Soba & Nishin SobaSoba is Japanese buckwheat noodles as I explained in my Tokyo Food Guide. But why soba in Kyoto? As you might know, Kyoto is known for its quality of water. That’s why Kyoto is famous for Tofu, Sake, and Soba. All of these require a good quality of water. OK then let me talk about Kyoto’s food culture a little bit. Kyoto is basically surrounded by the mountains and people there did not have access to fresh seafood in the past. That’s the reason why they have developed a lot of cooking techniques to preserve food. Now, have you tried herring soba called “Nishin Soba” in Japanese? Not Nisshin Cup Noodles! Herring cooked in soy sauce and sugar was a popular protein source back in the 19th century in the region. And there was this restaurant chef in Kyoto that started serving the herring with soba noodles. Since then the Nishin Soba gained popularity across Japan. We eat soba noodles with other toppings such as tempura, duck, and curry as well. But, when you visit Kyoto, make sure you try the Nishin Soba (にしんそば in Japanese). It is typically served warm.
Kyoto Food guide: where to go to try Nishin soba
- Matsuba (Gion area): This is the very first restaurant that started serving the Nishin Soba. The restaurant was open by the Matsuno family in 1861. They had to close the restaurant during the war, but around 1946, the family started to expand the business buying herring from Hokkaido. Now it is one of the iconic restaurants in the Gion district of Kyoto. Good for lunch. Address: Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, 東山区四条大橋東入ル川端町192
- Ogawa (Kitaoji): This is a true hidden gem that only the locals know. You are gonna miss the restaurant entrance if you do not recognize its Japanese sign attached to this traditional Japanese house. My go-to order is plain cold soba called Zaru Soba (ざる蕎麦) in Japanese. You will enjoy the smooth texture of the noodles and nice flavor of the dipping sauce… that is all. I do not need anything else to interrupt the nice combination. Address: 25 Shichiku Shimoshibamotocho Kita-ku Kyoto
2. ObanzaiOK, you are learning a lot of new Japanese words now. Obanzai is like Japanese small dishes, almost like a Japanese version of Spanish tapas using fresh local vegetables in Kyoto. This is traditional home cooking native to the region. Kyoto is also famous for fresh vegetables and there is even a Japanese term, Kyo Yasai (京野菜) for vegetables from Kyoto. Great news for my vegetarian readers! I know it is very hard to find food vegetarian food in Japan (be careful though some restaurants use dashi broth, Japanese fish broth to cook). Kyoto is the place to go. There are about 32 kinds of vegetables defined as Kyoto Vegetable brand. A lot of them are seasonal like eggplant in the summer and daikon radish in the winter.
Kyoto Restaurant guide: where to go to try Obanzai
- Menami (Kiyamachi): Serving authentic Japanese food for more than 75 years, Menami is still a very popular restaurant. Try their Ozanbai platter that changes every day and different small dishes using seasonal ingredients. Reservation recommended. If your party is 2-3 people, make sure to get seats at the counter. Address: Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, Kiyacho, 通 三条 上る 中 島町 96
- Aisani (Kawaramachi): This newly-opened restaurant is located by Takase river, just a couple of minutes walk away from the main street of Kawaramachi. They serve both traditional dishes as well as Japanese style western food (e.g. Japanese Paella). It is also good for drinks and some light snacks after dinner. Address: 京都府京都市下京区Shimogyō-ku, Ichinochō, 西木屋町通綾小路上ル
3. Saba sushiAs you know Japan is a huge sushi land. First of all, let’s talk about sushi in Kyoto. Historically speaking, people in Kyoto did not have access to fresh seafood easily as it is located far away from the sea. People still ate fish but it was delivered from either the West or the North, where Fukui prefecture is. Now, you must be wondering “OK, Kyoto is not a good place to eat sushi?” Hmmm, my answer would be yes and no. There are great sushi restaurants in the city and I believe you should at least try Saba sushi (鯖寿司). Saba, mackerel sushi is another traditional Japanese dish in Kyoto. In old days, fresh mackerel covered with salt from the North used to get delivered to Kyoto. It was eaten on special occasions locally, not a daily meal like Obanzai. Today chefs marinate the fish in vinegar and press it with rice to make saba sushi, unlike the regular nigiri sushi. The best part of saba sushi? The Saba sushi brings really a nice combination of fattiness from the fish and sourness from vinegar. It is different from the regular sushi you are used to eating. Unique, authentic, and tasty.
Kyoto Foodie guide: where to go to try saba sushi
- Chidoritei (Gion): It is a small family-owned restaurant, and current owner-chef is the third generation. The mackerel is marinated and seasoned just perfectly and it goes well with the sushi rice. They serve other types of sushi such as authentic chirashi (not the typical chirashi with a lot of seafood outside Japan) and eel sushi. Make sure you try some if you visit Chidoritei. Address: Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, 団栗通大和大路西入ル六軒町203
- Hisagozushi (Kawaramachi): You would easily pass by without noticing the restaurant. Hisagozushi is located on the main street of downtown Kyoto. They offer a good selection of different sushi types; chirashi, nigiri, and saba sushi. If you want everything, order their sushi platter. Address: Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Nakagyō-ku, Shioyachō (Kawaramachidōri), 344−3
4. Kyoto RamenHere we go. Ramen again. As you might know, we have regional differences in ramen flavors. For example, if you go to Hokkaido, you will see miso (fermented soybean) ramen and ramen with butter and corn as a topping. In Kyoto though, you will see a lot of Tonkotsu, pork broth ramen. Tonkotsu is not originally from Kyoto, but as a big college town, Tonkotsu ramen is quite popular for college students as well as locals. There are good ramen restaurants across the city. You can check out my recommendations below. Also if you are really into ramen and have extra time to explore non-touristy part of the city, go to this neighborhood called Ichijoji (一乗寺).
Kyoto Food guide: where to go to try ramen
- Hataka Nagahama Miyoshi (Kiyamachi): Really popular ramen restaurant locals go after drinking. They serve Hakata style Tonkotsu ramen where the Tonkotsu style is originally from in Fukuoka. Expect to wait for 10-20 minutes waiting outside depending on when you go. Do you want not to wait? Don’t worry, this restaurant is open until 6 am. Address: 115 Ishiyacho (Kiyamachidori) Nakagyo-ku Kyoto.
- Sugari (Karasuma): Another famous and popular ramen restaurant downtown Kyoto. They renovated Machiya, an old Japanese house and turned it into a ramen bar/restaurant. They serve wagyu beef ramen as well as intestine ramen which is quite good. You should definitely try the beef intestine ramen if you feel adventurous, or just want to eat it. Check out the picture below. Looking good. Address: 471-1 Kannoudocho Nakagyo-ku Kyoto
- Yamazaki Menjiro (Emmachi): If you are looking for a bold & punchy ramen flavor, this restaurant is not for you. This Michelin-starred ramen restaurant serves only soy-sauce or salt flavor ramen. The broth brings a lot of unami flavors yet delicate and balanced. This stop is located a bit far away from downtown area. If you want to taste and see what real Japanese ramen is, try this one. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays (Please double check). Address: 1-8 Nishinokyō Kitaenmachi, Nakagyō-ku, Kyōto-shi
5. Green Tea DessertsSince green tea was first introduced to Kyoto from China in the early 9th country, tea became popular across Japan. There is Uji where some of the most expensive green tea is produced in Kyoto. Even in the city, there are tons of green tea stores and shops serving different kinds of green tea products. Also, you might have heard multiple green tea related words like Matcha, Sencha, Ryokucha etc. Here is how you should think about this.
- Ryokucha (緑茶): It is the broadest term that means green tea in Japanese. Both black tea and green tea are produced from the same kind of tea leaves and Japanese green tea is produced by steaming not pan firing like Chinese tea.
- Sencha (煎茶): The most common green tea/Ryokucha type across Japan.
- Gyokuro (玉露): One of the most expensive green tea/Ryokucha type. The tea leaves are the same kind as Sencha described above and Gyokuro is grown under shade prior to plucking bringing a sweeter flavor.
- Maccha (抹茶): If you ground the Gyokuro into a fine powder, that is Mattcha. This is what we use during the Japanese tea ceremony with whisks.
Kyoto Food guide: where to go to try green tea sweets
- Tsujiri Gion (Gion Shijo): If you see a long line on your way to Yasaka Shrine in Gion, this is the place. This shop is relatively new (from 1978) compared to other green tea shops but it gained popularity serving various kinds of sweets such as shaved ice, cake, parfait, and green tea noodles(!). Address: Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, 四条通祇園町南側 573-3
- Yajikita (Gion Shijo): This is for shaved ice. While a lot of places make their desserts sweet too much, this shop serves great green tea shaved ice. You might find a little bitter but that is what the real maccha flavor tastes like. Address: Kyoto, Shimogyo Ward, Ichinocho, 240−2