Kyoto is a remarkable city whose heritage has long played a symbolic role in defining Japanese cultural identity, from the Geisha of Gion to the over 1600 sacred temples that dot the landscape. It is a very popular tourist destination, but I quickly learned that it manages to retain a distinct identity and intimacy, a melding of old traditions and new. Kyoto was built on a grid system so it is easy to navigate. The streets are adorned with small eateries and specialty sake bars making good food easy to find. From matcha to the world famous Nishiki Market, the flavors of Kyoto offer a very rapid introduction to Japanese culinary identity. Renting a bike will allow you freedom to discover some of the less visited neighborhoods and small streets that offer a respite from the busy crowds. The temples and shrines around the city are vast, so don’t get overwhelmed trying to see them all, just pick two or three. Kyoto is a magical destination that haunts you until you return.
Where to Eat:
Going to Kyoto? Stop what you’re doing and book a reservation at Monk right now. Located in an area known as the Philosophers Path, this tiny 14-seat restaurant run by Chef Yoshihiro Imai is a genuine expression of Kyoto’s local ingredients. Yoshihiro presents you with eight skillfully prepared courses prepared by himself and with the help of only two other staff members. The meal crescendos into the final savory course…. pizza. You choose from toppings like salted mackerel, chrysanthemum greens, or simple margherita. Imai takes time out to stage at some of the world’s great restaurants (like Noma and Hartwood) and when he’s not in town, the restaurant is closed. Fingers crossed he’s there when you are.
Baitarusain- Organic Vegetables and Wine Bar
Located in the back ally of Kyoto Shijo Kawaramachi, I did not find this little spot in a guide book or Instagram. I found it biking up and down the tiny streets of Kyoto. I was drawn in by their display window packed with natural wine and organic vegetables. They offer a small cozy dining room, simple rustic food, and a modern atmosphere.
Menya-Inoichi Hanare – Favorite Ramen
This ten-seat ramen shop landed in my favorite meals in Japan list. Recommended by Michelin guide this ramen stands out from the crowd. They focus on high quality ingredients and the broth is light and clean, made with the less traditional bonito flakes as opposed to pork or chicken bones. Tip: there is always a line out the door, but it moves fast.
Myodai Omen Kodaiji- Favorite Udon
In an area that can feel tourist heavy, this fantastic restaurant specializing in Udon proved so delicious I visited twice! My first proper udon experience, these thick wheat noodles are served hot or cold with a side of soy-based broth and a plate of seasonal vegetables, sesame, and ginger. You build your broth as you like it and dip the wide, chewy noodles in before eating.
Tempura Endo Yasaka
Located in the historic Gion neighborhood, this beautiful restaurant is so popular that they have several different dining rooms on the same street. I dined at the tempura bar. Using the highest quality seafood and local ingredients, the chef prepares a selection of 13 individual tempura tastings ranging from whole sea bream to eggplant. The atmosphere and service are impeccable.
If you looking for an introduction to Japanese cuisine, this is it. A culinary mecca, the Nishiki market has been operating for over 400 years. Stretching over 5 city blocks, the market is an array of stalls selling everything from Japanese knives to shaved to order katsuobushi.
Yoramu/ Sake-Bar- An Educational Experience
This 9-seat sake bar is run by Israeli expat Yoram Ofer. Only open at night, the seats fill up fast. There is no standing room and no menu. If you are lucky enough to grab a seat, he will help you choose a sake (or a flight) based on your tastes. A truly educational experience.
Local Sake and Beer Stand 336-Sansaro- A Casual Experience
If you’re in the neighborhood swing by this this small corner building. A casual spot that’s standing room only, a perfect place to tuck into after climbing the hills to Kiyomizu-dera.
Japan has a strong coffee culture and Weekenders coffee has been a pioneer in Kyoto, the standard-bearer of meticulous care from bean to cup. The small store front has no seats and is located on the back end of a quiet parking lot. It’s only a few blocks from the Nishiki market.
Whatever You Do You Must:
Rent a Bike and ride along the Kamo River
Eat an Omelette at the Nishiki Market
Eat Matcha Soft Serve (Yes, the matcha soft serve is worth fighting the crowds)