Kyoto Food Blog – What To Eat In Kyoto Without Going Broke
Kyoto Food Blog
Kyoto, Japan, is well known for its culture, temples, and the historic Gion district. But, there is more to Kyoto than culture. Although there is a reputation for fine dining in Kyoto, there are plenty of things to eat in Kyoto that don’t involve maxing out your credit cards. In our Kyoto food blog, we share tips on what to eat in Kyoto without breaking the bank.
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Kyoto Food Guide
Japanese cuisine and travel in Japan in general, can be expensive. Aside from Tokyo, I feel that Kyoto has a reputation for being one of the more expensive destinations for dining. Although some of the Kyoto specialty foods are rooted in traditional, royal cuisine and are best seen in one of the many Michelin Star restaurants in Kyoto, there’s a world of food to eat that is more accessible and a little more down to earth.
Sure, Kyoto cuisine should involve some exploration of higher end food if you have the means. But if not, you will not starve! Although Kyoto might not have the same sort of eat until you drop reputation as its nearby neighbor, Osaka, there’s loads of good food to eat in Kyoto too. In this Kyoto foodie guide, I share our top tips on where to eat and what to eat in Kyoto, all without breaking the bank.
Or, if you want to let a professional handle things for you, take a look at our recommended Kyoto Food Tours, with recommended cooking classes and sake tastings.
If you need help planning your trip to Japan, check out our sample itineraries:
How To Find The Best Food In Kyoto
With all of our trips to Japan over the years, we tend to focus our food travels on Osaka, which is only a 15 minute high-speed train ride from Kyoto. Both cities are located in the Kansai region, south of Tokyo.
Osaka is known as Japan’s kitchen and is a city where people are known to eat until they drop. Something we can surely get behind.
Kyoto, on the other hand, is known for being the home of traditional Japanese cuisine. Kyoto is sometimes called Japan’s culinary capital more for the retainment of food traditions and heritage than the outright focus on eating. Osaka’s reputation is for gluttony.
The Best Restaurants In Kyoto
When it comes to where to eat in Kyoto, many of the best restaurants focus on a style of Japanese cuisine known as kaiseki.
Kaiseki cuisine is Kyoto’s call to fame. It’s a multi-course meal that originated with some of the Japanese tea ceremonies. There is a set order to the menu. Within the set, dishes will be served raw, stewed, grilled, and fried. Normally the meal starts with a small shot of alcohol as an aperitif. There will be small bite-sized appetizers, followed by soup and sashimi. This is followed by stewed vegetables or meat, grilled vegetables or meat, and tempura. Yes, that’s an “and” not an “or.” After a few more plates, the meal will always finish with rice and miso soup and then a dessert. It’s a meal fit for a king (or emperor).
The best way to enjoy a kaiseki dinner in Kyoto is to book a night at a ryokan. A ryokan meal will often be in the kaiseki style. Otherwise, many of the Michelin restaurants in Kyoto are known for the kaiseki dining. Just note that even a non-Michelin star meal of kaiseki will be pricy. Expect to pay anywhere between $100-$400 a person.See the Best Restaurants In Kyoto Japan
Where Else To Eat In Kyoto Japan
If budget-busting Michelin Star dining is not an option, and for most people it’s not, there are loads of other options when it comes to where to eat in Kyoto. Some of these can fall into the category of cheap eats in Kyoto, others are just simple reasonable places to eat.
Kyoto Food Market
One of the best places to eat in Kyoto is at Nishiki Market. There’s loads of great street foods, Kyoto snacks, and more. This is a great place to search for all different kinds of matcha snacks and desserts. This includes matcha jellies and green tea rice cakes.
The Kyoto market is open seven days a week, from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm. I do recommend going earlier in the day and trying to avoid the market on the weekends. In addition to the market itself, there are a lot of restaurants near Nishi Market as well, so it makes a good place to head for an afternoon of eating.
I will note that the market doesn’t necessarily focus on traditional Japanese cuisine. Sure you can find sushi, sashimi, and even Kobe beef sushi. And, check out the tempura rolled omelet.
The market, though, tends to focus more on what is trendy and what you can put on a stick. This includes takotamago, the red octopus on a stick with a quail egg in its head. For something more sweet, look for dango, which are similar to mochi balls but on a stick. In between, there are all sorts of potato products on a stick as well as takoyaki (octopus balls) on a stick,
For matcha treats head to Sa Wa Wa. In the winter, look for roasted chestnuts and roasted sweet potatoes. There are other stalls serving all sorts of ice cream, even charcoal ice cream and black bean and flour flavored.
Shijo Dori Street
Shijo Dori Street is the main shopping street that connects central Kyoto to the historic Gion District. It also runs parallel to the market. There are several shopping and eating streets that run perpendicular to Shijo Dori.
Don’t be afraid to check out some of the department stores along the street for some of the best Kyoto food. Often there are floors of restaurants or food courts filled with locals looking for an afternoon or evening out.
Pontocho Alley And Surrounding Streets
Pontocho Alley has to be one of the most famous places to eat in Kyoto. It’s an alley way that runs parallel to Kamo River, west of Gion. The alley stretches from Shijo Dori to Shanjo Dori. It’s one of the more pricey areas to eat in Kyoto, but the restaurants all have fabulous reputations. Even if not eating there, it’s an adorable place to explore, particularly when it is lit up at night.
If looking for something a little less expensive, head west from Pontocho Alley across the small canal. Take a look at the standing bars, izakaya, and yakitori restaurants in and around Shinbashi-dori. This area is where students and young people hang out, which means there are better deals at the restaurants.
Izakaya In Kyoto Japan
An izakaya is a Japanese pub or tavern. The Japanese characters translate roughly to a place to stay with alcohol or a shop for people with alcohol. It’s definitely something I am down with when looking for some place to eat in Kyoto. As much as it is defined as a bar, there is just as much a focus on food as drink. You might feel a little awkward ordering a drink without at least some food.
People will sit at a counter top or around tables to eat and drink. Often, small dishes are served family-style to share. Many izakaya are super casual, with relatively inexpensive dishes. Some can be more expensive and specialize in seafood or sushi. Overall, look for a lot of the typical Japanese foods on these menus, like fried chicken, edamame, yakitori, and more.
The Best Izakaya in Kyoto
The best Izakaya in in Kyoto that we visited was Sazanka-Tei Rokkaku located near the Komo River. It’s located on the west side of the river from Gion. It’s near Pontocho Alley. It’s old school and has been open since the 1960s, with little deviation from the feel from decades ago.
Further away from the touristy areas of Kyoto, we also found a tiny little izakaya that was pure local. We stayed near the Kyoto Imperial Palace and a little south of there we found a fun place where we had both our first and last meal in Kyoto. It’s just next to the craft beer bar called Takanoya. We think the izakaya is called Tsujiya, but the pictures on Google maps look nothing like the casual somewhat gritty bar inside. If looking for it, head to the beer pub Takanoya, and look for the izakaya to the right from the picture above.
Kyoto Izakaya Pro Tips
When visiting an Izakaya restaurant in Kyoto be prepared for smoke. Although smoking is prohibited in public, there is still a good amount of smoking in bars and restaurants, particularly smaller ones. We recommend packing one or two bottoles of travel-sized Febreze Fabric Refresher for a trip to Japan. Between occassional smoke and eating food being cooked right in front of you, it’s a great way to refresh jackets, scarves, jeans and sweaters when traveling in Japan.
What To Eat In Kyoto Japan
Rather than focusing on kaiseki in Kyoto, I want to focus on the everyday foods that Japanese people enjoy day in and day out. Sure, Japanese will dine on kaiseki on occasion, but it is not how they eat every day. Instead, the residents of Kyoto are more likely themselves to be looking for quality Kyoto dining options. That’s our focus in this Kyoto food blog. Here are our recommendations on how to find the best eats in Kyoto, for traditional Japanese dishes and regional Kansai cuisine.
Of course, I am starting with the world-famous Kobe beef, which is certainly not a Kyoto cheap eat. Wagyu is the Japanese word for beef. Kobe beef is the type of Wagyu that comes from Kobe. Kobe is also in Kansai and can actually be reached in a day trip from Kyoto.
This beef is most known for its intense marbling. The fat adds flavor, which is what makes it one of the most prized types of beef in the world. Although perhaps not the best Kobe beef in Kyoto, if you are on a budget look for both grilled and raw Kobe at the Nishiki Market. Or, look for Wagyu beef in Kyoto at one of the top steak houses.
It’s popular to eat beef both raw and grilled in Kyoto. Yakiniku technically refers to Japense BBQ. Some of the restaurants called yakiniku will grill the meat for you to perfection.
But, some yakiniku restaurants allow you to cook your own quality beef yourself. It makes eating out in Kyoto a bit of an experience. Look for the best yakiniku in Kyoto at one of these top restaurants.
Sukiyaki takes sliced beef, often Kobe beef, and slowly simmers the beef table side. Along side the sliced beef are vegetables and sometimes tofu. It’s almost like a Kansai-style hot pot. Sukiyaki is also one of the best things to eat in Kyoto in the winter. Some of the best sukiyaki restaurants in Kyoto might charge upwards of ¥5000 yen for sukiyaki, particularly with high-quality Kobe.
To be honest, I am not a huge fan of this style of eating beef in Japan. If I want to eat high-quality Kobe beef, I would rather eat it raw or grilled to perfection. The idea of taking great meat and essentially boiling it is just not my cup of tea. But, it’s a really popular way of eating in Kyoto.
Shojin Ryori – Buddhist Vegetarian Cuisine
From Kobe beef to tofu. The Buddhist religion forbids the killing of animals for food, so all Buddhist cuisine is vegetarian. Shojin ryori is an entirely plant-based meal focused on vegetables, seeds, nuts, and soy-based foods like tofu. Normally the meal includes a soup, three side dishes, pickles, and rice. It’s not uncommon, though, for there to be more than three side dishes.
The goal of having several dishes is to provide different tastes from simple ingredients. Most of the ingredients also change based on the seasons.
Where To Eat Shojin Ryori
We had an elaborate Buddhist temple dining experience in Wakayama, also in the Kansai region just before arriving in Kyoto. We didn’t feel the need to repeat the experience a few days later. But, for travelers to Kyoto who want be be adventurous, a shojin ryori meal is a must.
It’s one of the most important Kyoto food specialities and certainly unique for people who travel for food. If you have the time, visit Arashiyama’s Tenryuji Temple for this type of cuisine. There are also plenty of restaurants that specialize in tofu-based and Buddhist vegetarian meals.
Eric is simply not a fan of tofu. So when I told him that some of the best foods to eat in Kyoto revolved around tofu, he was not too thrilled. But, he tried them anyway and appreciated the tofu. But, he’s still not a fan.
Eating tofu in Kyoto is part of its tradition and heritage. It’s part of the shojin ryori, or Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, which is well-known in Kyoto. When looking for good tofu in Kyoto, notice the subtleties of its flavor. Good tofu should taste clean, creamy, with almost a silkiness to it.
Look for these dishes in Arashiyama, a district at the edge of Kyoto with a good number of tofu and vegetarian restaurants. We found plenty of these dishes also on menus at typical izakaya as well.
This includes Yuba, which is tofu skim. This did not sound all that appealing to me to be honest. And I do like tofu. We tried it during our Buddhist vegetarian meal in Wakayama and I was pleasantly surprised. The flavor and texture were delicate and the sauce a little sweet. Certainly nothing to be afraid of!
Eating tofu also includes Yodofu, which is tofu cooked in a hot broth. The yodofu is normally served with a ponzu sauce for dipping as well.
Eating Obanzai In Kyoto
Obanzai ryori is another type of Kansai dining, but tends to be a little more focused on home-style cooking. Unlike shojin ryori, there can be meat dishes, including stews. Everything is normally served small plates style. If kaiseki is the haute cuisine of Kyoto, obanzai is the working man’s everyday meal.
What makes obanzai unique is that there is a focus on using uber-local ingredients in a sustainable way. I know this is a trend occurring in many cities around the world, but people in Kyoto were doing this before it became fashionable. The goal when preparing the meal is to use as much of the vegetable or meat as possible, with as little waste as possible.
Kyoto Ramen Restaurants
One of the most popular things to eat in Kyoto has to be ramen. Between high-quality ramen chain restaurants, creative ramen-ya, and even a ramen alley at the train station it is not hard to find great ramen.
We wrote an entire post about how to find the best ramen in Kyoto. Check it out for more information.See our guide on How To Find The Best Ramen In Kyoto
Although it’s possible to eat soba everywhere throughout Japan, Kyoto is a great place to try soba. That’s because Kyoto has the reputation of having perfect, clean water, which makes the soba noodles that much better. This is why Kyoto is known for soba, sake, and tofu, which all require high quality water. Also look for Nishin Soba, which is served with heering.
The best soba in Kyoto can be found at Daikoku-ya, where they’ve been hand making soba noodles for decades. It almost looks like a house from the outside and I do believe the family lives in the building. They take such pride in making their soba noodles. The restaurant is located just a few blocks west of Pontocho Alley.
In addition to soba noodles, Daikoku-ya also prepares really nice udon noodles. This is where I found the best udon in Kyoto. In particular, look for Kitsune Udon. In addition to the noodles and broth, this dish is topped with scallions, fish cake, and a sweetened, fried tofu called age. It is named Kitsune after the sly fox that lives in the forrest, who according to legend, eats the age tofu.
This could quickly become a comfort food for travelers to Japan. It’s also a great option for travelers who might not be as adventurous as others. Omurice is simply fried rice with an egg on top. The translation of the word is omelette rice. The egg is prepared like a fluffy omelette. It’s at its most basic just a good food to try in Kyoto.
Omurice is pretty easy to find in Kyoto, but Kichi Kichi Omurice has the reputation for the best. So good in fact that seats are reserved weeks or even months in advance. You can try your luck at a cancellation by waiting on the line along side the building. They say it is best to arrive at 15 minutes past the hour to look for a no-show. The full-size portion is a whopping ¥2700, or there is a half portion as well.
Sushi And Sashimi
When it comes to sushi, sure you can eat sushi and sashimi across the island. In Kyoto, though, look for saba sushi, which is sushi made with mackerel. It’s a Kyoto specialty. Generally, the mackerel is marinated in vinegar, sometimes overnight. It tends to be a little fatty and will taste a bit different from other “normal” sushi.
The best sushi in Kyoto can be found at some of the top restaurants, but also you can find great offerings at some of the more casual and local izakaya.See our guide to Sushi Eating Etiquette - How to Eat Sushi in Japan
Matcha Tea, Sweets, And Kyo-Wagashi
When it comes to people with a sweet tooth, it’s pretty easy to find the best desserts in Kyoto. Traditional Japanese sweets, called Kyo-Wagashi, form the centerpiece of dessert in Kyoto. They are normally made with red bean paste to be served alongside matcha tea. They can be served as mochi-style balls or in decorative shapes, like flowers, or even Santa around the holidays.
Check out Kagizen Yoshufusa, a traditional sweet shop that started operations over 300 years ago. More contemporary sweet shops make Kyo-Wagashi that look more like tiny pieces of artwork.
All of these sweets are made to pair with matcha tea, but matcha products are everywhere in Kyoto. Particularly look for them at Nishiki Market.
Matcha Tea Ice Cream
If only for the Instagram, you must try matcha tea ice cream at least once in Kyoto. It’s easy to find at the market, at speciality ice cream shops, and even in the department stores.
I have to admit, I am not a matcha tea fan. I just don’t like the grittiness of it. This was not my favorite ice cream for sure, but the creaminess and coldness of the ice cream offset the grittiness of the matcha in a way that made it at least tolerable. Expect to pay between ¥400-500 for a cone.
This is a souvenir sweet that is found all over Kyoto. It’s made of a soft, glutinous rice flour, which sort of looks like a crepe. It’s then filled with all sorts of sweet filings, including red bean paste, match, and even contemporary flavors like banana and chocolate.
They make great food souvenirs, but they are sold fresh. This means they need to be consumed within a week. So, pick them up at the end of the trip rather than the start. Or, just pick up a package and enjoy them yourselves while eating in Kyoto.
FAQs - Kyoto Japan Food And Drink
Many say it is the water in Kyoto. Not only is the water incredibly clean, but many of the top chefs in the city use water as a theme for much of their kaiseki meals. Overall, Kyoto dishes tend to be cleaner and more simply elegant than the dishes from their neighbor, Osaka. There’s still plenty of room to find grilled and fried dishes, but much of the cuisine is more refined.
Many restaurants and bars (even at Izakaya or craft beer bars) will charge a cover charge. It is charged per person and includes a snack. Sometimes it is listed on the menu but other times not. It can range between ¥200-500 yen per person. You cannot decline the snack and save the money. It’s just automatic and a price to allot for when dining in Kyoto.