As Japan's former capital and seat of the imperial court for over a thousand years, Kyoto offers a rich culinary tradition. The local food culture is diverse and ranges from aristocratic kaiseki ryori course dinners to the vegetarian shojin ryori of monks and the simple obanzai ryori home style cooking.
While some restaurants look to the past for inspiration, others experiment with new flavors. Fusion restaurants, that combine ingredients and techniques of Kyoto cuisine with cooking styles from other parts of the world, can also be found in the city. The Pontocho nightlife district is one of the best places to find good fusion restaurants alongside traditional establishments. Not far away, the Gion district also offers a wide range of interesting dining opportunities, as does the Kyoto Station area.
Regular Japanese food that is not necessarily associated with Kyoto in particular, such as ramen, sushi and udon, is also available across the city. Food fans should not miss a visit to the Nishiki Market in central Kyoto, which has been serving the city for many centuries.
Kaiseki ryori has its origin in the traditional tea ceremony, but later evolved into an elaborate dining style popular among aristocratic circles. Kyoto style kaiseki ryori (kyo kaiseki) is particularly refined, placing an emphasis on subtle flavors and local and seasonal ingredients. A kaiseki meal has a prescribed order of courses which is determined by the cooking method of each dish.
A common way for travelers to enjoy kaiseki is by staying at a ryokan where a kaiseki dinner is included with the stay. But kaiseki meals can also be enjoyed at restaurants, including high end ryotei, many of which can be found in the Pontocho and Gion districts of Kyoto. A good kaiseki meal usually costs around 10,000 yen per person, but prices can go as high as 30,000 yen or as low as 6000 yen. Some restaurants depart from tradition and include elements of foreign cuisines.
Whereas kaiseki developed out of the affluence of the aristocrats, shojin ryori developed from the austerity of Buddhist monks. Prohibited from taking the life of other living creatures, Buddhist monks had to make do without meat or fish in their diet. Consisting of strictly vegetarian dishes, shojin ryori can nonetheless be savory and filling. Travelers who spend the night at a temple lodging will be able to enjoy a meal as part of the stay.
A common ingredient in shojin ryori is tofu, which is a local specialty of Kyoto. The preparation of tofu is so common that it can also be referred to as Tofu Ryori ("tofu cuisine"). One popular dish that is widely served at restaurants is Yudofu, soft tofu simmered with vegetables in broth. A meal of Yudofu usually costs 1500 to 2000 yen, but the price can be higher or lower depending on the quality of the restaurant. The Nanzenji and Arashiyama districts are particularly famous for tofu cuisine.
Obanzai Ryori is the traditional home style cooking of Kyoto. It is made up of multiple small dishes that are usually quite simple to prepare. Local produce that is in season is best suited for the dishes. Although the cooking methods are usually not complicated, obanzai dishes can be made very rich by chefs skillfully bringing out the natural flavors of the ingredients.
Restaurants that serve obanzai ryori can be found all over Kyoto. Many of them have a relaxed and friendly atmosphere that reflects the home style of cooking. A full meal usually costs 2000 to 3000 yen, but can vary depending on the number and type of dishes ordered.
Kawayuka, or Kawadoko as it is known outside of central Kyoto, is the summer pasttime of dining outdoors on temporary platforms built over flowing water. Developed as a way to beat the summer heat, kawayuka is a great way to experience one of the traditional Kyoto cuisines listed above while taking in the cooling effects of the flowing water and lively summer atmosphere.
The most famous area to experience kawayuka is along the Kamogawa River in central Kyoto, especially around Pontocho. From May to September, restaurants here construct temporary wooden decks over the canal on the river's west bank. Many places serve kaiseki meals, however other types of cuisine are also available.
Kibune and Takao in the forested mountains just north of central Kyoto, are also popular places to try kawayuka, although here it is called kawadoko. In Kibune especially, the platforms are built just centimeters above the river and provide almost complete relief from the summer heat.
Terrace dining is popular, especially along Kamogawa River in the evenings on weekends and during holidays, when advance reservations are a must at most river facing restaurants along Pontocho (usually in Japanese by phone). A small number of restaurants can be reserved online in English through Japanican.