Situated just west of the belly of Japan’s elongated island chain lies its cultural and culinary heart - Kyoto, Japan's onetime ancient capital.
It’s the perfect city for experiencing the real Japan and its elegant, traditional cuisine. Encircled by mountains, this low-rise town dotted with almost three thousand temples and shrines, and their peaceful gardens, has a country vibe with mystical overtones. Immaculately preserved cobblestoned streets, traditional shop-houses and ryokan (inns) and the spotting of camera-shy geisha shuffling between appointments provide the kind of imagery that will have your mind flipping back in time a few hundred years.
Kaiseki cuisine, originally connected to humble tea ritual, has developed throughout the centuries into a formal, high-end dining experience. Commonly encompassing 12 courses of exquisitely presented dishes representing seasonal observance, historical reference and folklore, and served on valuable lacquerware and ceramics, a kaiseki meal should feature on the bucket-list of any dedicated foodie. Reservations are highly sought after so book early.
Kyo-yasai, local vegetable varieties revered throughout Japan, are respectfully sliced and diced to highlight their sweet, pure flavours and textures. They’re highly likely to show up in shojin ryori (Buddhist vegan cuisine) establishments, usually found in close proximity to Kyoto’s zen temple precincts, in fare divine enough to make a wagyu farmer cry.
Kyoto is also the best place to experience handmade tofu, yuba (soy milk skin) and gomadofu – a rich delicacy, resembling tofu, made from ground toasted sesame seeds.
Nishiki-koji market, affectionately referred to as Kyoto’s kitchen, is a long, narrow arcade lined with purveyors of fresh and preserved Japanese foodstuffs, culinary tools and handcrafted tableware. Sample pickles, senbei (rice crackers), miso and sake, inhale the scent of roasting green tea and witness katsuobushi (dried smoked bonito) being shaved for dashi.
The maze of glass cabinets in Daimaru department store houses the prettiest and widest collection of wagashi (traditional confectionary) in town – hand-picked from Kyoto’s famous sweet artists.
Best food souvenirs
Divinely packaged Japanese sweets, both traditional and modern, in flavours of the season. Look out for cherry blossom and peach in spring, chestnut in autumn and yuzu, or ginger and black sugar, in winter.
Tin boxes of yatsuhashi, a crisp, deeply cinnamon cookie, often shaped like a Japanese bridge are available everywhere. Simply follow your nose.
The finest quality local matcha (powdered green tea) or bancha – a roasted tea with a significantly smoky aroma and flavour are available in speciality tea shops or department stores.
Best time to visit
Most people are desperate to visit Kyoto for cherry blossom season or to view the spectacular changing colours of the maple leaves in autumn but I recommend visiting outside those periods (except for high summer) in order to truly absorb Kyoto’s charms without being elbowed in the ribs. Kyoto in winter is at its best – peaceful, relaxed and focussed on soulful seasonal eats!
Photography by Jane Lawson