Updated on May 1, 2021 by Julia
Kyoto is a completely different beast from Tokyo. While Tokyo has its lights and crowds parallel to the quaint, quiet neighborhood streets, Kyoto retains a relative calm. Even in Gion, one of the more tourist-ridden areas, the buildings are built much lower and the streets are incredibly wide, making room for everyone.
Although home to only 1/9th of the population of Tokyo, Kyoto holds it own through its depth in culture. There are an abundant number of shrines and temples to visit. The famous Inari Shrines and the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest aren’t far off either, both only a couple subway stations away. I would 100% recommend finding time in your itinerary to explore these two areas. Although Kyoto had been extremely hyped by at least two people (many of them saying I should spend less time in Tokyo and allocate more time in Kyoto), I felt like my three days were plenty.
I think it really depends on your preferences. I can see why some people prefer Kyoto over Tokyo, but as someone who constantly craves a faster pace and enjoys sensory overload, Tokyo’s livelihood is more my cup of tea. Here’s your Kyoto food guide:
Day 1 – Gion Tsujiri/Sukiyaki Iroha Kita
By the time, we arrived from Tokyo on the JR, it was already around 3:30 PM. The great thing about Japan is that they are the center of culinary masterpieces. The unfortunate thing about maintaining this quality is that that most restaurants don’t operate around 2-5 PM in order to prep for dinner. We were starving and nothing was open. So what do you do when you can’t eat real food, you get dessert.
Kyoto is known for their matcha (I would highly recommend buying your matcha in Kyoto. Honestly, I can’t discern between bad or good matcha just yet, but it’s sold much more abundantly and there are more stores specializing in the various types of tea). We went to the same famous establishment I visited at Tokyo Skytree– Gion Tsujiri. But now I was ravenous (aka hangry) and actually had someone to share a larger dessert with. They’re most famous for their soft serve and parfaits, but we weren’t really feeling anything too cream heavy, so we settled on their matcha ice cream bowl filled with fruits, chestnut, mochi, green tea jelly, and red bean. If you’re craving more of a set meal, they also offer green tea soba, which I’ve heard positive reviews about.
Although we had planned to head to Omen Kodai-Ji, an udon establishment popular with tourists, we decided that since we had many days ahead of carbing (and I’m not as big of a fan of udon as I am of ramen or soba noodles) we wanted to get something hearty and warm. Enter Sukiyaki Iroha Kita, an unassuming establishment in Pontocho Alley (you have to cross the bridge from Gion to get here) serving wallet-emptying sukiyaki and shabu shabu. However, you get your own private room and you have a dedicated server who brings all the vegetables and meats and starts the pot for you. If this is your first time, she teaches you how to eat sukiyaki (dip it in raw egg!). At least you know in Japan, if you aren’t paying for the incredible quality of food, you’re definitely paying for incredible service. There’s always a memorable takeaway.
Sukiyaki is a Japanese dish served hot pot style, but instead of typically deeper broth-like pots, these are much more shallow– allowing the unique sauce to thicken. The thin slices of meats and vegetables are cooked in relatively sweet mixture of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin. I personally love sukiyaki, but I know some people who find the sauce to sweet. If so, I’d suggest you opt for shabu shabu where you get a much lighter and healthy broth!
At Iroha Kita, every customer has to order a 6000 yen set. There are several different sets that also include shabu shabu, yakiniku, and a sukiyaki set that serves Wagyu tenderloin beef (they’re all 6000 yen regardless), but we decided to go with the traditional sliced sirloin. It’s pricey, but you get a sweet potato “noodle” appetizer, a plate of beautifully marbled Kyoto beef, a generous serving of vegetables, and Kyoto speciality fruits. With the addition of the private room, it’s definitely a more unique experience than the crowded ramen bars and one that really fits the more calm atmosphere of Kyoto.
I’d say the meal was worth a one-off experience, but being 6000 yen, I think we could’ve chosen a different place for dinner. There’s no doubt you’re going to experience the buttery texture that’s expected from high quality meats, but a larger quantity of meat and vegetables may have made this a little more worthy of its price tag.
We explored Gion afterwards and semi-successfully spotted a geisha in Gion. To be honest, there are a lot of tourists who walk around dressed in what look like geisha get-ups, but apparently there are a couple defining features. The only thing that made this sighting semi-legit was that this poor lady was being chased down the alley by three people trying to take her picture. Dude. No chill.
So in the midst of me being taken aback that I had seen a geisha with my very own eyes and a couple people freaking out, I captured my only very very blurry image.
Day 2 – Inari Shrines/Sobanomi Yoshimura/Nishiki Market/Musashi Sushi/Lipton Tea Company
Our second day was incredibly food-heavy and this post is now living proof of the bottomless pit that my stomach is.
We headed to Inari Shrines first thing in the morning– hoping to get there early enough to avoid the tourist lines. Unfortunately, I’d say once it hits 9 AM, even on a weekday, it’s going to be inundated with Chinese tourists (me being one of them). If you’re looking to take pictures with the shrines, I’d suggest climbing farther up. Much farther up. It does get really repetitive since its rows and rows of torii but most people tend to give up halfway. It’s an awe-inspiring experience simply to walk down this path, and even when incredibly packed, it’s refreshing to be surrounded almost entirely by nature.
When you first enter the area, you’ll see a side street to your left with tons of little stalls. I was so tempted to go down this lane before even heading to the shrines (I lead by stomach, not by heart nor brain, obviously). Luckily, Bernie had more common sense, but I knew I wasn’t going to skip this experience. After our climb, we obviously had to make up for the lost energy/calories (whatever excuse I can use, right?) and ordered a grilled tofu (Kyoto is known for their tofu! If you’re going to eat any tofu, eat it here, regardless of how bland you think the product is.). They top it off with a savory sauce, some dried seaweed, and bonito flakes. However, I’d definitely say the most memorable thing was the sake soft serve we passed by randomly (and I think for Bernie, this was his favorite soft serve flavor out of the 5-6 ones we tried).
The sake soft serve has a negligible amount of alcohol (probably like 0.5%), but you can definitely taste the mixture of sweetness and bitterness. Regardless of how artificial the actual ingredients are, I’d say it’s something you have to try at least once in your lifetime.
After our pre-lunch snack, we headed back to the city to get some soba at Sobanomi Yoshimura. I had my three different types of ramen in Tokyo and I was ready to take my noods adventure to another level. Supposedly the best soba in Kyoto, this place is recommended by both locals and tourists. However, if you go in and can only ask for their non-Japanese menu, you’re going to get different lunch set options. I saw an elderly Japanese couple eating a way more dank set that I couldn’t find on our English menu, but I guess that’s what I get for traveling locally illiterate.
Their soba noodles are made on-site. When you walk through the front door, they have two men literally milling the buckwheat and rolling out the noodles. Dining seating is located on the second floor and the area is relatively small. I heard there are crazy lines but there was no one there when we arrived. I ordered the cold soba noodle set with shrimp tempura and sashimi and Bernie ordered a half/half which had the thinner cold soba noodles, a thicker soba noodles cooked in a hot broth, and a small rice bowl with a generous topping of tempura. Both sets probably cost around 2000 yen each.
The soba was phenomenal. There is a dipping sauce on the table and you can mix in a little of wasabi to your liking. The soba was the perfect al dente and you can really tell the buckwheat difference compared to the bouncier ramen wheat noodles. Bernie and I both agreed the cold soba noodles tasted much better than the hot ones, most likely because the texture/consistency hadn’t been affected by hot broth.
The tempura here seemed almost better than the tempura speciality restaurant we went to on our last night in Tokyo– a good balance of flavor and breaded crunchiness, without tasting any of the frying oil. After you’re done with your meal, you can continue to sip on hot soba “tea” which is just the water left over from making to soda and is incredibly delicious. A lot of people online recommended the soba ice cream, but at that point, I was out-dairy-ed with the sake soft serve. Kind of bummed we missed out on this experience, though. Guess that means I’ll just have to come back to Japan again.
Since our time in Kyoto was going to be short, we had to head to our next must-see destination (especially because we were going to spend the entire day at the Arashiyama Forest the next day)– Nishiki Market. For what? For the food, duh. And, uh, also to culturally engage in a 400 year old market known as the “grocery” market of Kyoto.
Nishiki Market is a long strip that’s broken down into several parts by small side streets. You have vendors on both sides, some of them selling more official goods such as tea powder and leaves and knives, while the rest focus on a variety of culinary goods and fresh produce. Pickled vegetables and fruits are popular, grilled seafood on sticks, fried snacks, fishcakes, you name it. They even had fresh uni (ugh, I still dream about buttery Japanese uni), but I guess I still retain a little bit of self-control and didn’t purchase any. You would think an outdoor marketplace would be a relatively cheap place to eat, but because a lot of these items are locally produced, you can still expect to pay a mid-weight price tag. A lot of the vendors do free samplings, but, of course, we couldn’t resist and ended up purchasing a black sesame soft serve and a mini octopus stuffed with quail egg (takotomago).
The black sesame soft serve actually had a really prominent smoky sesame taste and it was topped with what seems to be crushed sesame powder? Regardless, another really great soft serve flavor to add to the list. As for the takotomago, the only reason I got it was just because the concept of shoving a boiled quail egg into a mini octopus seemed intriguing. I believe one of these is 300 yen, and it ended up being very cold and very flavorless. Look at it and move on, definitely not worth more than a glimpse or your 300 yen.
And of course, because we were in Kyoto, we had to try the warabi-mochi. Warabi-mochi is different from mochi in that it’s made from bracken starch rather than glutinous rice powder. I would say it’s much more jelly-like and softer in texture. Usually covered with kinako (roasted soybean powder), we opted for the matcha flavoring. Since it’s apparently one of the more famous confectionary sweets in the Kansai region, we couldn’t pass it up. The texture is definitely unique, but the matcha gave it a light bitterness that I wasn’t too keen on. I think if I had tried the original warabi-mochi with kinako I would’ve been more apt to finish the serving.
After this affair, I definitely thought I was done for the day, having essentially had two “light” meals and a full-fledge lunch set. But after trying to explore a couple more shrines (they were all closed), and trying to see the former Imperial Palace (also closed…), we had logged a good number of steps where I was like: “Sure, I can do a couple of piece of conveyor belt sushi.”
We went to Musashi Sushi, which is known for its value. Obviously, you’re not going for a supreme quality omakase meal, but you’re going to get great cuts of fish (so much salmon and so much fatty tuna) on plates that range from 175 to a little over 300 yen. Unfortunately, they don’t do sashimi so you will be getting copious amounts of rice, which I unfortunately couldn’t get myself to stomach. However, I did manage to snag the rare piece of uni that made its way on the conveyor belt (not going to lie, my heart was racing when I saw the sushi chef place three plates of uni onto the belt, and I pushed Bernie to grab it before it slipped through my fingers). The night went from “I’ll just have like three or four plates cause I’m so full” to an entire tower that probably ended up costing around 2300 yen per person. Oops?
You would assume this would be a wrap up to what I would call a culinary delightful day, but, remember? I am a bottomless pit of hunger. So we actually ended the night getting a slice of fig cake and a slice of pumpkin cake from Lipton Tea Cafe and a little pot of Haagen-Daaz’s “limited edition” sweet potato ice cream.
Both cakes were only ok, the pumpkin cake fared better than the tasteless fig cake and had pieces of chestnuts, but that’s what you get when you order cakes from a place called Lipton Tea Cafe (we were blinded by their beautiful display!). I only have grainy iPhone pictures because I was definitely leading by stomach at this point, but it’s hardly worth a mention. To be honest, I remember being fond of the sweet potato ice cream, but obviously not memorable enough for me to recall the taste (however, Japan is KNOWN for producing really unique Haagen-Daaz ice cream flavors, some of which are actually limited edition, so I would recommend just picking up a few to try. They come in tiny containers, so these are definitely individual servings).
With a belly full of market foods, soba, tempura and copious amounts of soft serve and cake, we finally called it a night.
Day 3 – Arashiyama/Shoraian/%Arabica
I had originally assumed that the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove would be a short fare, but I think if you truly want to enjoy it (and you should!), you should dedicate almost an entire day. Unfortunately, it is one of those spots where you will have to deal with a large number of tourists groups, so come much earlier in the day if you truly want to enjoy an experience you most likely wouldn’t get anywhere else.
The park itself is enormous. However, they fence off large parts of the bamboo forest, so you’re stuck to one path. There were a ridiculous number of people which made the experience really underwhelming for me. In order to get into the thick of it, you can pay a buggy to pull you through the forest. I saw a couple people who had dressed up in the traditional Japanese outfits in order to take pictures. I would go to see the bamboos, but what you truly want to experience is going up to the Iwatayama Monkey Park. There’s a small entrance fee and a longer than expected hike up, but so worth it.
Not only do you get to see monkeys, some who have obviously just given up on life (see below), you also end up with a beautiful view of the park. There’s a little caged “hut” where humans go in to buy snacks and feed them to the monkeys. It’s actually kind of ironic as we’re caged in while the monkeys freely climb up and down and grab snacks from us.
We then proceeded to what Bernie considered one of his top three meals. Another patron who was sitting next to us at the restaurant said he had been travelling Japan for the last 10 days and that he considered this his top meal.
Shoraian is a tiny cottage, preserving a lot of the traditional Japanese elements. They serve a tofu-based tea ceremony meal which goes beyond all expectations. If you’re not a fan of tofu, this could either change your world or you just end up wondering why you spent over $50 on a meal that you wish you never ate. Although I think for a majority of people, you’ll experience the former.
Shoraian has three different lunch sets, essentially going from basic to blow-your-brains-out amazing. I think if you’re going to experience Shoraian, you should either go with the medium tier set or go all out with the top tier one that includes extra dishes such as wagyu beef and an amazing gratin dish. I ordered the medium tier one (Shorai) that was 4600 yen without tax and Bernie ordered the Shofu that was 5800 yen. For dinner, Bernie’s set is a little more expensive as per usual for most Japanese dining establishments.
Honestly, this was the epitome of a Japanese dining experience. We sat on tatama mats and they had about four or five ladies, each one serving two sets of guests. They explain the menu to you upfront and as they present each dish, they teach you how to eat it (if it’s unfamiliar) and everything is timed to the speed of your dining, so you never end up feeling rushed.
The dish assortment was ridiculously amazing. It was beautifully presented with shrimp, duck, tamago– everything I could ever want.
The fried tofu was served in a delicious savory sauce that paired so well with freshly cooked rice. And even though the yodofu is essentially plain tofu cooked in a stoneware pot, I still asked for seconds. There’s an unspeakable silkiness to the texture that you just don’t find in supermarket soft tofus!
Bernie’s set came with a couple extras such as dried soymilk skins, an amazing cheesy Japanese-style gratin that made me hate myself for being lactose intolerant, a couple slices of rich wagyu beef, and a choice of desserts (I could only have tofu ice cream, and Bernie got a tofu pudding with gold flakes!). Unfortunately, my camera lens was doing some extra suckage so I couldn’t get any great pictures.
The whole meal lasted almost three hours and it was so worth it. Each course was small enough so you don’t feel completely stuffed and there’s a serenity to the entire process. If you’re able to make a reservation here, I wouldn’t pass it up.
Our last stop was at %Arabica, a popular coffee shop in Kyoto that opened a location in Arashiyama. To be honest, I’m no coffee connoisseur, but the latte had a nice smokiness to it, but didn’t suffer from the dark roasted bitterness you get from most Asia-based beans.
We were completely out of it by the time we got back to Kyoto. After rushing to Nishiki to purchase matcha, we went to a random mall where Bernie ordered a heaping beef dish while I let three days worth of food overload completely defeat me.
Kyoto and Tokyo may be two completely different cities, but the food is entirely comparable. You may end up getting more traditional dining fare in Kyoto, but you won’t be lacking in quality or taste.
- Shoraian: This is a must-try! It’s an experience on its own and the tofu takes you to another world. I don’t think anyone ever regrets eating here!
- Sobanomi Yoshimura: Again, highly recommend and really affordable. Definitely a place I’d go back to again– especially to try the soba ice cream!
- Nishiki Market: Ranks a little higher than the next two just because the marketplace is honestly a great cultural experience on its own and there’s just so much to try! If I lived in Kyoto, I’d definitely be here more often than not.
- Iroha Kitamise: Decent, but a one-off experience. If you want to eat in a traditional, private setting, and get guaranteed high-quality ingredients, you can try this place, but there are so many other better options in Kyoto!
- Musashi Sushi: Yes for high value sushi, but you wouldn’t miss anything if you didn’t go here either.