Japanese food, that's sushi and ramen, right? Yes, but there is so much more to Japanese food than that! With its fresh and often locally produced ingredients, Japanese dishes taste heavenly, and traditional Japanese washoku cuisine has even been designated as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage in 2013! Browse through our suggestions below for real Japanese food beyond the staples or check out our special list of vegan/vegetarian restaurants in Kyoto. It's best to try them all, of course!
Kaiseki is the pinnacle of Japanese haute cuisine. Kaiseki has evolved from the dishes that were once served to the emperor and other aristocrats at the imperial court. The modern kaiseki chefs of today take great pride in their locally sourced ingredients and the exquisite presentation of their dishes. Kaiseki restaurants are often very expensive, but most restaurants have cheaper lunch menus. In any case, they may require binding reservations a day or two in advance.
Note that, since the courses for each kaiseki meal are decided upon daily depending on the availability of the ingredients, you can only order a course for a given price, but not particular dishes. Some kaiseki restaurants now have vegetarian options, or some without fish, please inquire when making a reservation.
Tofu has been a staple of temple cuisine for centuries, so the Japanese have brought its preparation to perfection. While in Kyoto, you should watch out for yuba and yuudofu. Yuba are paper thin slices of tofu, served both hot in a broth or cold as a side dish. Yuudofu, literally "hot water tofu" is a favourite winter dish. It often comes in a broth with many side dishes. Tofu restaurants can often be found near temples.
Note that although tofu itself is vegan, the broth, side dishes or condiments you have with it may not be. If you want to be sure that you're getting something purely vegetarian or vegan, please ask beforehand.
Definitely vegan isshojin ryori, cuisine for Buddhist monks and other people who live according to a strict Buddhist doctrine. Besides not using any meat or other animal products, shojin ryori also forgoes certain root vegetables like garlic or onions. There are a number of restaurants specialising in shojin ryori in Kyoto, and some temples welcome visitors as well.
For a list of restaurants serving shojin ryori or other vegan/vegetarian foods, head over to our special page for vegan and vegetarian restaurants.
Of course, when talking about Japanese food, we must speak about sushi. Many restaurants in Kyoto specialise in sushi, it is important to get only the best and freshest fish every day, and the training to become a master sushi chef can take years! If you are not sure whether you'll like all that raw fish, try out running sushi, where small plates literally pass by in front of you. One plate usually only holds two pieces of sushi, if you don't like them, you'll just grab the next plate. Sushi can be expensive in specialty restaurants, but in a running sushi, there is a fixed price per plate.
Meat in Japan is of excellent quality, and the famous Kobe beef is produced nearby Kyoto, just as the equally tasty but lesser known Hida beef. You can eat it as steak or, for the more adventurous, try shabu-shabu, where you cook thinly sliced beef in very hot soup. There are many restaurants in Kyoto making beef a real treat! Alternatively, you can try a yakitori restaurant, where little skewers with grilled meat are quickly prepared and eaten, and make appetite for more.
Ramen noodles have become a staple in every student dorm all over the world. But don't mistake the cheap cup noodles for the real thing! A fresh bowl of ramen with different seasonal toppings - like pork, fish, tempura, vegetables - is a real treat that you absolutely have to try!
Beyond ramen, there are udon: fat wheat noodles served in soup, a great pick-me-up in winter. And for a refreshing summer dish that's not sushi, try out soba, buckwheat noodles, served cold and dipped in soy sauce. And fried yakisoba are a must-eat at every festival - absolutely delicious!
It seems that every culture has come up with some sort of pancakes. In Japan, they are called okonomiyaki, and there's not one but two styles: The Osaka style okonomiyaki, where the main ingredient is cabbage, and all the ingredients are mixed into a batter and fried in one go. And there's the Hiroshima style okonomiyaki without the cabbage, where the ingredients are consecutively and carefully layered on top of each other and fried this way. Of course, people have arguments which one is the better way - best not get into that here, both of them are delicious!
Believe it or not, but tempura is foreign food! Introduced to Japan by the Portuguese several hundred years ago, the deep-fried vegetables, fish, and shrimp have become one of the most Japanese dishes of them all! Our recommendation: Try perilla-leaf tempura! Perilla are leaves with a slight mint flavour that taste great together with fish, for example.
Pro Tip: Tempura tastes best when eaten as hot as possible - right out of the frying pan!
Kyoto is one of the most traditional cities in Japan. Still, the Japanese love foreign cuisine, and you can find plenty non-Japanese restaurants all over Kyoto: French, Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese,... The choice is yours, just in case you ever get tired of Japanese food!
Japan is still a country where people prefer to drink tea, but coffee culture is establishing itself rapidly. All through Kyoto you will find many cafes providing you with your necessary caffeine fix. Have a quick coffee-to-go, or take your time with a traditional matcha green tea and Kyoto wagashi sweet.
Pro Tip: Traditional Japanese cafes are called kissaten and also sell small meals during lunch and dinner time.
Japanese love their izakaya bars! Typically open from the late afternoon, they will serve you not only your favourite booze - be it beer, whisky or sake - but there are always little snacks to line the stomach during your evening. You'll just have to try them all!
Note that in Japan, many bars still allow smoking and do not have special non-smoker's seating. Please ask beforehand.
Some places in Kyoto's inner city offer tabehodai or nomihodai - all you can eat/drink menus. Upfront, you agree on a fixed amount and a time frame (usually 90 - 120 minutes) where you can order as much food or drink (or both) as you can. Especially nomihodai can be great value when going out with a larger group.
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