Kyoto Is for Food Lovers

Savor tofu, kaiseki, yuba, and “flowing noodles” as the imperial capital intended.


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Making yuba, picturesque sites, and tempting foodstuff are all part of the Kyoto fabric.

Photo by Anna Mindess

Scattered cherry blossoms and ochre maple leaves enhance the sublime beauty of Kyoto’s ancient, narrow streets and lush gardens. In their respective seasons, pink petals and orange leaves also appear as handmade local confections to be enjoyed with a cup of earthy green tea. Renowned as the cultural heart of Japan, Kyoto’s temples, shrines, and palaces are resplendent in every season, but the soul of a culture is revealed in its food. Sampling Kyoto’s culinary specialties provides cultural insight and gustatory delights.

While more than a thousand imposing Buddhist temples reflect the central role of Buddhism in Kyoto’s culture, its Zen monks’ vegetarianism helped shape Kyoto’s cuisine. Soft spring water and generations of artisans perfected the best tofu in Japan, still made daily, often by hand. Anything but boring, tofu stars here in soups and stews, as well as grilled and deep-fried dishes. Kyoto is also famous for kaiseki meals: elaborate, refined, successions of dishes–often quite expensive.

Yet price need not be a barrier between you and Kyoto’s classic flavors. The best place to savor locally produced foodstuffs is Nishiki Market, a long, lively, covered street whose sides are lined with fish sellers, pickle peddlers, dried fruit dealers, and tea merchants, many offering free samples. At this temple to food-ism, shoppers are enticed by everything from conger eel to dainty fruit jellies, plus an edible rainbow of pickled vegetables.

Another easy entryway into the world of Japanese delicacies is the fabulous food halls on basement floors of department stores such as Daimaru, Takashimaya, or Isetan. You can wander through endless arrays of prepared foods: enticing salads, elegant pastries, tempting sushi creations. The lovely thing about lunching in these living food museums is that foreign visitors don’t need to struggle with menus: Just point and taste.

Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, still has cobbled streets lined with quaint, wood-framed houses, where you might glimpse a geisha on her way to work. During World War II, the city was spared from bombing–reportedly because U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had honeymooned there years ago.

While it is easy to fall in love in or with Kyoto’s charms, be forewarned that its summers are sweltering saunas. Still, it might be worth a trip between May and September to play a unique gastronomical game: wielding your chopsticks to catch and slurp bundles of cooling noodles as they whizz down an icy waterway in a outdoor restaurant perched atop a cascading mountain stream.

The only spot to enjoy these nagashi somen or “flowing noodles” is in the forested village of Kibune, a short train and bus ride from downtown Kyoto. Walk up a narrow mountain road, past high-end restaurants set on platforms over a gushing river, to Hirobun, the last eating place at the top of the path. As slippery strands of noodles zoom through pipelines past hungry patrons, squeals of delight and frustration are heard all around, followed by murmurs of pleasure as diners savor the noodles they’ve nabbed.

Back in Kyoto, in a steamy hot workroom, a man carefully skims the golden skins off scores of pans of simmering soymilk, and deftly hangs up the filmy glowing sheets to dry, following a centuries-old tradition of making yuba, a staple protein since feudal times. Yubani is a century-old yuba shop near Toji Temple, where owner Emiko Katsuta, granddaughter of its founder, honors his legacy by continuing artisanal yuba making. While her husband does the hands-on labor, Katsuta acts as hostess for the shop and restaurant upstairs, where visitors enjoy meals that celebrate yuba in a dozen incarnations, including yuba tempura, yuba “sushi,” and a crispy yuba dessert.

Other must-try Kyoto dishes include okonomiyaki, a thick vegetable pancake made of eggs, cabbage, ginger, green onions, flour and your choice of fish or meat, often topped with eerie waving flakes of dried bonito; and soba, skinny buckwheat noodles served chilled with dipping sauce in summer or in warming soups in winter.

Before you depart, explore Kyoto Station’s futuristic architecture. Its many floors house fine restaurants and intriguing food shops: perfect for buying edible souvenirs, such as exquisitely shaped sweets, savory crackers, or pickles. Since Kyoto’s climate makes it an ideal vegetable growing center and home to eggplant and radishes cultivated only in this region, its pickles are particularly prized: Japanese visitors from other parts of the country often bring these home as gifts.

If you are leaving by train, select an eki-ben to eat on your journey. These exquisite bento boxes whose compartments contain rice, smoked fish, pickles, and fresh and cooked vegetables are wrapped in seasonal paper and tied with string. Partaking in an elegant takeaway meal might ease the pain of bidding sayonara to this enchanting city.

 

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