A Treat Of Taste In Kyoto

16 March 2015

It is nigh on impossible to eat badly in Kyoto; whether smoky hole in the wall yakitori bars to full on formal kaiseki dinners, the city serves up an utterly delicious smorgasbord, from breakfast until the small hours.

So prepare for some culinary experiences par excellence in one of Japan’s most compelling cities.

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There's More To Tofu Dining Than You Might Think

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Tofu (or ‘do fu’) came to Japan from China and travelled to Kyoto with Buddhist monks when the capital was moved from Nara.

Tofu comes in many different forms, from rougher texture momen tofu to soft silky kinu and unpressed oboro. It can be fried served in a warm broth, eaten cold and even made into ice-cream.

 Hearty as well as traditional

Kyoto tofu, made from the soft, pure local water is particularly famous, so even if you think you’re not a fan, give it a go.

Shoraian restaurant in Arashiyama is just 20/30 minutes on the train from central Kyoto. Set in a forest overlooking the Hozu River it serves a stunning tofu focused set menu.  Make sure to book though, there are just a couple of tables.


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Try A Tonkatsu Treasure Hunt

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Such an inelegant dish seems so unlikely in Japan, but the breaded pork chop was adopted in the 19th Century. Of course, they’ve made it entirely their own, using different cuts and even breeds of pork.

In many places you’ll be given a mortar and pestle with sesame seeds for grinding to add to the classic tonkatsu brown sauce. Served with rice and a finely shredded cabbage salad.

Katsukura, 13 Ishibashicho 3-Jodori Teramachi Higashiiru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto does excellent tonkatsu. There’s another branch at Kyoto Station’s ‘Cube’ building, but this one just inside Teramachi is the pick.

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You Can't Go Wrong With Yakitori

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Follow your nose and the clouds of smoke billowing from these little bars, that vary in sophistication from the most basic to luxe ... skewers of chicken cooked over coals on a bamboo skewer and grilled then flavoured with various tareshoyu and Japanese mustard concoctions.

Go posh at Wabiya Korekido, Gion Hanamikoji Honten. But you’ll hardly go wrong ducking into any of the smoky little joints in Pontocho either.

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Noodles Have A Long History

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While they don’t originate from here, udon soba and ramen noodles are found all over Kyoto and a bowl of noodles with their typical accompaniments offer a quick (and inexpensive)  meal when sightseeing.

 Udon has a story to tell at the Udon Noodle museum

Actually, you can do both with a visit to the Udon Noodle museum in Gion where you can learn the history of udon and have the opportunity to try more than 30 different types of noodles from 27 prefectures all over Japan.

At Omen Kodai-ji (358 Masuya-cho, Kodaiji-dori, Shimokawara Higashi iru, Higashiyama-ku) choose your dish from a machine near the door then give your ticket to the table staff. The tonkotsu (pork bone broth ramen) is thick and incredibly good.

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Eat As You Go At Nishiki Market

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Take a civilised stroll through Kyoto’s 400-year-old beautifully presented covered market, where the shops are filled with spices, exotic fruit and vegetables, live seafood, jewel like sweets and odd things fermenting in barrels.

 The centuries-old Nishiki covered market

It’s not huge but it’s lovely and easy to spend a good hour or so wandering from one end to the other, especially if you stop and eat as you go.

Grab a bag of warm soy milk doughnuts or some just baked sesame crackers to snack on as you go.

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Carve Into The Perfect Steak

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While wagyu is a pretty generic term here, in Japan there are top differentiated brands; Matsusaka Ushi raised in and around Matsusaka City in Mie Prefecture from virgin cows, fed beer and massaged. Kobe Ushi come from the Kobe City area of Hyogo prefecture and are fed on rice plants and corn and are known for their sweet richness and Kobe Beef Ohmi Beef is from Shiga Prefecture and is known for its  fat with viscosity.

Kyoto is the greatest consumer of wagyu in Japan, so you’re in luck if you’re looking to try some of this highly marbled, richly flavoured beef.

Hiro grew from a butchers shop in Sanjo across the bridge, and now consists of seven branches. At the Pontocho branch, you can take a private booth and cook your own cuts over a charcoal grill.

 Veranda dining remains popular

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Al Fresco Dining Kamo River Style

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If you’re in Kyoto during summer, there’s no better place to have a drink than a Yuka. Set up especially for the summer months, these verandas are built on to the back of restaurants lining the Kamo River to take advantage of the summer breezes.

Dating back to the 16th Century, Yuka drinking establishments first popped up along the Kamo River around Gojo. Since then they've gradually migrated south, about one kilometre.

Back in the day, a Yuka was comprised of barely more than wooden benches. These would be positioned along the Kamo River and sometimes even in the water. Simple, yet effective.

 Seafood is always in demand

Not to be outdone, the affluent community members opted to pass on the basic bench, setting up their own high-class table-benches along the water's edge. Regardless of whether you were seated at a bench or table-bench, food and drink were BYO for everyone, creating a communal atmosphere as people sat near the water and enjoyed one another's company. If it was a particularly warm day, some people (most often those of lower class) would soak their feet in the cool water.

This historic tradition has fortunately not been lost to modern advancements and is still a highly sought-after dining experience. As of today you can see as many as 90 Yuka along the Kamo River, and that's only in the downtown area!

Natascha Mirosch

Natascha Mirosch is the editor of the Brisbane Times Good Food Guide and has been writing about food both here and in the UK for more than fifteen years. A keen traveller, she's visited six of the world's seven continents, with Antarctica pencilled in for the not too distant future.