Kaiseki is Japan’s haute cuisine, a multicourse dining experience of the utmost sophistication. Each dish – and there can be upwards of ten – is meticulously prepared and exquisitely presented, the result being more like a work of art than a meal. You can also expect to find a wide range of local, seasonal and traditional ingredients used. Kaiseki meals are often included with stays at a traditional ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), but there are plenty of restaurants in Kyoto where you can enjoy this elaborate fare, particularly in the Gion and Higashiyama areas.
Try Hyōtei which, at 400 years old, is an atmospheric Kyoto institution, or Kyoto Kitcho Arashiyama, where you can enjoy gorgeous views of the gardens while you eat. Both of these Kyoto restaurants are Michelin-starred, with price tags to match. For something more contemporary and also more affordable, try Roan Kikunoi in the heart of geisha-filled Gion.
Vegetarians and vegans visiting Kyoto are in for a treat with the city’s other famous type of multicourse cuisine, shōjin-ryōri. This traditional Buddhist fare is just as beautiful and elegant as kaiseki, but made without the use of animal ingredients. To experience it the proper way, go to a temple restaurant such as Shigetsu, which lies within the zen-like grounds of the temple Tenryū-ji in the beautiful Arashiyama neighbourhood.
For more modern vegan fare in the city, try Choice, which makes its own vegan cheese on-site, or Ain Soph Journey. The latter’s menu has a wealth of plant-based dishes, from curry and paella to burgers and pasta, but the real showstoppers are the pancakes. Made with matcha and vegan white chocolate, these super-fluffy delights might just be the best dessert you've ever had.
Speaking of vegetarian food, tofu is one of the city’s specialities, and you’ll be amazed at all the things chefs in Kyoto restaurants can do with this humble ingredient. Head to Junsei Shoin in the grounds of Nanzen-ji in the east of the city to see what we mean. Here you can sample yudōfu – soft squares of tofu simmered in broth – as well as yuba, or tofu skin, which is made by skimming the top from gently cooking soy milk. Many izakaya (traditional Japanese pubs) serve agedōfu (deep-fried tofu with a crispy outside and creamy inside), which goes perfectly with a cold beer. For something sweeter, look out for street stalls and restaurants such as Saga Tofu Ine selling tofu doughnuts and tofu ice cream.
When it comes to confectionery, Kyoto has some of the most delicate, exquisite and adorable of them all. Kyo-wagashi are traditional Japanese sweets from Kyoto, and were originally served as part of the tea ceremony to offset the bitterness of matcha. Made using sweet bean paste from either red adzuki beans (anko) or white beans (shiroan), it’s the decoration that makes them so special. Each sweet is hand-sculpted into a seasonal flower, a cute character, a local fruit, or any one of a number of designs. Other varieties include higashi, dried sweets made using a wooden mould, and jelly-like yōkan. The intricacy and beauty of these creations is impressive – so much so that you might find it hard to eat them!
Sweet shops can be found across the city, often with tea rooms attached. One of the best is Kagizen Yoshifusa in Gion, whose serene tea room and authentic sweets will transport you right back to ancient Kyoto. It’s also possible to find cheaper, mass-produced wagashi in certain convenience stores and supermarkets.
© Greg Elms / Lonely Planet
In Kyoto, tea and sweets are an unbeatable pairing. Just south of the city lies the small town of Uji, which is known across the country as one of Japan's best producers of top quality green tea. This makes getting a perfect bowl of matcha in Kyoto a breeze. Including the aforementioned Kagizen Yoshifusa, there are an abundance of teahouses in the city where you can attend a tea ceremony, learn more about the drink, or simply sit back and relax with a cup.
Both En and Camellia offer authentic tea ceremonies in English, with optional kimono rental at Camellia. And if you’re looking to buy some tea to take home with you, Kyoto's famous shop Ippōdō Tea can’t be beaten.
© Jeffrey Friedl
Kyoto’s other drink of choice is nihonshū – better known as sake – and the city’s Fushimi district is renowned as one of the best producers of rice wine in the whole of Japan. Home to around 40 sake breweries, it sits on the intersection of three rivers prized for the purity of their waters. Drop by the Gekkeikan Ōkura Sake Museum to learn more about the tipple and sample some finished products, or head to Aburacho which boasts over 80 different types of sake. If you’re more of a craft beer fan, Kizakura Kappa Country is the place to go – check out its matcha beer for a unique twist on a local ingredient.
When it comes to street stalls, there’s no better place to go than Nishiki Market. Also known as Kyoto’s Kitchen, this narrow, traditional food market runs through the centre of the city just north of Shijō-dōri. It’s a bustling hub, overwhelming the senses and selling a wide range of fresh, local products, from seafood, tofu and pickles to tea, sake and sweet treats. There are plenty of samples to try, as well as takeaway street food like yakitori (grilled chicken) and mochi (sweet, sticky rice cakes).