Kyoto culture and cuisine: Where to go and what to eat

Kyoto has been the cultural center of Japan for centuries. This is why it was saved from destruction in World War II; US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had it removed from the atomic bomb target list. Clearly, Stimson saw something in Japan’s former capital that moved him to spare it from ruin.

Kyoto’s charm continues to mesmerize visitors, and this has made it the fourth most-visited destination (with Tokyo, Osaka, and Chiba ranking first, second, and third, respectively). Here are some of the best places to visit and foods to eat in Kyoto.

Kyoto: People walk by Japanese style okonomiyaki restaurant in Kyoto, Japan.
Kyoto: People walk by Japanese style okonomiyaki restaurant in Kyoto, Japan.

Splendid shrines, tantalizing temples

For first-time visitors to Japan, Kyoto is a good place to start. Unlike busy Tokyo, Kyoto is relatively slow-paced and less intimidating. You’re unlikely to bump into people frenetically rushing to get to work. There may be plenty of tourists in Kyoto, but it’s not as chaotic as, say, walking alongside thousands of pedestrians at Tokyo’s Shibuya crosswalk.

No need to look up at skyscrapers, either; the buildings are no more than a couple of stories high — unless you’re looking at the Kyoto Tower. You’ll be gazing at stunning structures like the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, an icon of Kyoto architecture comprising 5,000 orange (or bright red) torii gates. It was built 1,300 years ago and was constructed in honor of Inari, Shinto god of rice. Japanese and foreign tourists set foot in this historic shrine to utter a prayer or to simply admire its beauty.

Woman in a kimono bowing in prayer at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan
Woman in a kimono bowing in prayer at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Also popular is the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji Temple), a Buddhist temple sitting next to a large pond surrounded by moss and trees, attracting some of the largest crowds in Kyoto. The area used to be the retirement compound of a powerful shogun, and to stand in front of it is to be enthralled by its gold-leaf covered facade.

The Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji Temple) is also a Kyoto must-visit, but if you wish to avoid huge crowds, do not visit on weekends and holidays. If scheduling a stopover on off-peak days isn’t an option, go anyway. It’s truly an awe-inspiring temple with an elegant garden that exemplifies Japanese garden landscapes. Walk toward the trail at the back of the garden, as it leads to a viewpoint that affords majestic views of the temple compound and the city. You’d want to take photos despite strangers popping in and out of your shots. The Nanzenji Temple is 30–40 minutes away from the Silver Pavilion by foot on the Philosopher’s Path. It looks exquisite during the cherry blossom season, but any season is a good time to visit this serene temple.

Related article: The irresistible appeal of Japanese art and aesthetics

Exquisite eats

Whether you’re looking to expand your palate or seeking Japanese comfort food, there are tasty treats for you to enjoy. If you want a little bit of both, the multi-course kaiseki ryori (or simply kaiseki) is a good way to sample several dishes at once. Kyoto is popular for this traditional way of preparing food, offered in many restaurants throughout the city. Kaiseki is an elaborately prepared set of dishes that are visually appealing as they are satisfying, offering a great balance of food flavor, appearance, colors, and texture.

Then there’s shojin ryori, a brilliant option for vegetarians. Feast on tasty, mostly tofu- and natto-based dishes if you prefer non-meat dishes. You can enjoy these in restaurants in some of Kyoto’s Buddhist temples, which may provide a nice respite from all the usual dining options.

If it’s succulent slices of raw fish you’re craving, there are plenty of places you can go to eat platefuls of sushi. We recommend trying the Kyoto-style sabazushi, lightly pickled mackerel sushi that’s unlike the sushi you’ve had anywhere else. The origin of this tasty and nourishing dish dates back to the old days when the people of Kyoto had to find a way to make sure that fish caught in the Sea of Japan reached the emperor in their edible state. To do this, they preserved the mackerel (saba) using salt then pickled in komezu (sushi vinegar).

Kyoto may not be known for sushi, but restaurants like Hanaore serves some tasty sushi and is certainly one of the best places to try satisfying sabazushi, served fresh or blowtorched to perfection. Should you go to Hanaore for sushi, take a quick detour to the Shimogamo Shrine, a UNESCO Heritage site that’s one of the oldest in Kyoto.

Sushi set in Japan
Sushi set in Japan

In Kyoto, everywhere you turn there is a place to try specific foods. A terrific place to sample Japanese culinary treats and buy souvenirs is the Nishiki Market (“Kyoto’s Kitchen”) in central Kyoto. Visit this lively market where a large variety of produce and food items is sold at reasonable prices, or go there to dine in sit-down establishments.

Very little will get in the way of your enjoyment in Japan, but make sure your enjoyment doesn’t get in the way of the locals. The Japanese are some of the most courteous people you will ever meet. Observe Japanese customs and you’ll be good to go.

Find out how to tour Japan the right way! Read our complete Japan travel guide: Making the most of your Japan tour: A traveller’s guide.

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