The Food Nomad: Kyoto

The Food Nomad: Kyoto

Celia Hu travels to the capital of kaiseki ceremonial dining, Kyoto

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Foodie  Foodie Your Guide to Good Taste  on 9 Dec '14

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Kinkaku-ji Temple

If two cities can be described as siblings, then bustling, cosmopolitan Tokyo is the à la mode younger sister, while refined, dignified Kyoto is the mellow, yet captivatingly beautiful older sister.  Fondly referred to as the City of Ten Thousand Shrines, this former imperial capital of Japan whispers history at every turn. Surrounded on three sides by mountains, Kyoto is a rich tapestry of willows, cherry blossoms and maple trees bejewelled with tranquil temples. The city exudes an endearing brand of “restrained luxury”, with understated elegance being the supreme virtue. Whether it’s a glimmer of reflection in a Zen garden interrupted by the squeaking chirps of “nightingale floors”, or a stolen glance of painted skin and shimmering silk on a geisha’s kimono as she weaves through the ancient corridors of Gion, it reminds visitors that tradition and culture are never far away in this ancient capital, formerly known as Meaco. Join us as we indulge in extravagant multi-course meals at the birthplace of kaiseki ryori, and sample luminous greenummon-no-mukashi tea at the famed centuries-old Ippodo, before sifting for culinary gems at Nishiki Market.

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Nakamura, silky tofu capped in yuzu jelly and shiso flowers


Oike-sagaru. Tominokoji, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, 075 221 5511

Kyoto, being the former capital of Japan, is the birthplace of kaiseki ryori; a type of aristocratic multi-course meal woven around the subtle flavours of local and seasonal ingredients. Each course is a piece of edible artwork, and employs cooking techniques that amplify the true essence of each ingredient. With seven Michelin-three starred restaurants in the city, we chose Nakamura for our premier Kyoto kaiseki experience. Walking into the elegant establishment felt like being transported back in time. With only four private tatami rooms, each with a view of the Japanese garden, Nakamura has been in business for 200 years. A former caterer to the emperor, the Nakamura family is now at their sixth generation of chefs, with Chef Motokazu and his wife maintaining the same extraordinary standards that have resonated with the brand for centuries. We indulged in silky tofu capped in yuzu jelly and shiso flowers, delicate sashimi, baked abalone and uni, before arriving at the revered shiromiso zoni, prepared without broth to accentuate the aromas of the white miso. Our evening was a whirlwind of delicate, seasonal plates, so beautifully presented, that we can only compare them to art. Autumn is the season for matsutake mushroom and feathery light eel, and both were highlights during our meal. Our dinner concluded with the sincere bows of Chef Motokazu and his wife, who escorted us all the way to the gates and stood there waiting until we turned the corner of the street. A truly memorable meal.

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Nakamura, sashimi

Sumibi Torito

Marutamachi Dori, Kawabata Higashi-iru, Sakyo-ku, 075 752 4144

The coolest yakitori shop in Kyoto, Torito dishes out succulent, top-end skewers in a sleek, hipster setting. The narrow shop somehow manages to squeeze in three types of seating arrangements around their open-grill kitchen, with a communal table, bar seating and alcoved booths to fit any mood. The theme here is chicken – it is, after all, a yakitori joint and almost every part of the bird is served here. Skin, neck, heart and gizzards are grilled to juicy perfection, along with marbled cuts of pork jowl and plenty of vegetables. We couldn’t get enough of the velvety chicken livers, and grilled quail eggs but the star has to be the juicytsukune served alongside a fresh egg yolk as the perfect silky dipping sauce. For the adventurous eater, there’s also a raw chicken liver dish, served with salted sesame oil, although we bypassed this for the cooked variety. Definitely a delicious way to spend an evening, and ease back with a few highballs.

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Kane-Yo Unagi

456 Matsugaecho, Rokkaku, Shinkyogoku Higashi iru, Nakagyo-ku, 075 221 0669

A fine patina of age blankets the Taisho period architecture of Kane-Yo, a 100 year old restaurant famous for its charcoal-grilled unagi (eel). The rustic, creaking wooden structure is all warped wood and uneven floors, with a charming little garden and koi pond in the back. Kane-Yo specializes in Kansai (Osaka) style unagi, which is grilled over charcoal, rather than the Kanto (Tokyo) style, which steams the fish before grilling for a more tender finish. Regardless, the unagi that arrived at our table in lacquered bowls was melt-in-your-mouth and brushed with a caramelised sweet soy. We went for the original unagi donburi, which came with a side of pickles, and the ever popular unagi kinshi, a grilled eel rice bowl blanketed with a giant fluffy egg omelette. A filling lunch option that’s delicious, and easy on the wallet.

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Unagi with egg omelette

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Sushidokoro Man

1/F Forum Ebisugawa 305 Tawaraya-cho, 075 223 3351

Tokyo is reputed to have the finest sushi in the world, but Sushidokoro Man, in our humble opinion, can give any exclusive Tokyo establishment a run for its money. Owned and operated by Chef Akira Umehara, the exquisite seven-seater sushi restaurant on a quiet street a few blocks down from City Hall, is a true gem. Heralded by a loyal Japanese patronage, this elusive restaurant relies solely on word-of-mouth referrals, as Chef Akira shuns all media. Ouromakase dinner began with sashimi so fresh, that the tail of the sweet succulent ebi still fluttered as we devoured the flesh. We then sipped matsutake mushroom and kinki consommé from a tea pot before indulging in feathery light clouds of koutake and maitake mushroom tempura. The star of the evening was the grilled kinki – persimmon orange with sticky, buttery, collagen-rich skin. We also adored the tender morsels of tako stewed in sweet soy, and the seasonal anago. Finally, we said goodbye after savouring delicate morsels of sushi. Although a very exclusive sushiya, Chef Umehara is extremely friendly, and took time to carefully explain the stories behind each dish. Non-Japanese speakers might find it a bit challenging to dine here, although they do have a handy iPad on premise to help with translations.

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Salmon fish roe

Nishiki Market

In many ways, Kyoto is very much a town rather than a city. There is a busy city centre but nothing compared to the intensity of Tokyo. The Nishiki Market is interwoven into the centre as a covered street packed full of gourmet food vendors. Pungent miso-marinated pickles jostle for space next to fresh seafood and tamago makers, with plenty of sweet mochi desserts squeezed in between. This is where Kyoto’s finest kaiseki chefs come to shop. A must-visit here is Aritsugu, a knife maker that has been in business since 1560. The brand began as a battle sword maker before more peaceful times directed the focus to kitchen knives. Today, chefs from all over the world come to Aritsugu to get that perfect edge – the store carries more than 50 types and 400 models of specialized knives. We picked up two beautiful santoku knives during our visit, set in wood and bull’s horn. There’s an onsite engraving service to truly customize each blade.

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Teramachi-dori Nijo, Nakagyo-ku,

Ippodo is the granddaddy of tea in Kyoto. More than three centuries old, this purveyor of fine green tea cultivates the finest blends in Japan. In fact, the name “Ippodo” was bestowed upon by Prince Yamashina, and literally means “preserve one” to reflect the importance of preserving this high quality tea culture. The finest class of green teas are sourced from the lush fields surrounding Kyoto, a region renowned for the highest grade of green tea due to its mild misty climate and rich mineral terroir. We sipped the finest grade of matcha, the very rich, velvety green paste-like ummon-no-mukashi in the Kaboku tea room, and learned about brewing techniques and tea pairings. The tea was extremely full-bodied and brimmed with umami flavours – a transforming experience that changed the way we look at green tea. The Kaboku tea room opens from 11am to 5:30pm daily, so make sure you experience a cup of Japanese culture here.

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Fushimi-Inari Taishan

Temples: Our favourites are the tunnels of orange toriis at Fushimi-Inari Taishan, the golden pavilion of Kinkaku-ji and the towering Kiyomizu-dera temple that urge visitors to “take the plunge”. For that famous NatGeo image of bamboo groves, visit Tenryu-ji Temple, walk out from the north gate to find this awe-inspiring attraction – but make sure to go early in the morning to beat the crowds! For one of the best views of autumnal leaves, visit the very secretive, and tranquil Koto-In zen temple, flush with all kinds of maple trees.

Street treats: Browse the beautifully preserved Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka streets for souvenirs, matcha snacks and soft serve ice cream. Our favourite is the seasonal mochi with red bean and sugared chestnuts!

Best way to see Kyoto is on bike. You can rent bikes at many locations, or ask your hotel if they provide any. We loved our electric bikes from the Ritz Carlton, which made whizzing up hills and past various temples a breeze. Make sure to also ride alongside the peaceful Kamo river, and watch herons and cranes fishing.

Geisha sighting: The best chances of spotting geishas is around the old Gion district, and more precisely, along Pontocho Alley at dusk, as the courtesans rush to appointments in some of Kyoto’s most exquisite restaurants.

Summer days: During the balmy summers, dine al fresco at kawadoko restaurants in Kibune. Guests sit on raised platforms just inches above rushing streams, and enjoy glorious kaiseki meals for that ultimate summer cooldown.

Read more of Celia’s food adventures here:



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