What to eat, drink and do in Kyoto

Steeped in symbol and tradition, Kyoto is Japan’s wellspring of culture and refinement. Drink deep and find inspiration and restoration both.

By Pat Nourse
Maiko in Gion
Snow is falling on Kyoto. It falls on ceremonial pines, and flutters past doorway lanterns casting keen kimono colours - pink and orange, lemon and red. It carpets the cobbled streets of Gion and blows through the ghostly bamboo groves of Arashiyama. Inside, we're sitting warm by the window with Tanefumi. A maiko of House Toshi, she's drinking from a glass of hot shochu flavoured with umeboshi. She's 20 years old, speaks a little English, and a mutual friend fills in the gaps. She's keen to chat.
Even in the heart of Kyoto where it's commonplace, the appearance of a geiko or maiko - the hostess-performers known outside Japan as geisha - still draws everyone's attention. Heads turn, shutters snap. How these women live with such constant scrutiny is hard to understand.
"I was quite surprised on my first few outings by how many people were watching me, but you get used to it," says Tanefumi. What seems odd now, she says, is when she goes out without her hair or make-up done on her one or two days off a month and she doesn't get a second look as she walks down the street.
The most fun parts of her job, she says, are meeting people, talking, going to kabuki theatre and the dancing. She starts her night at six, finishes work at one, but taking care of her hair and clothes before bed means she doesn't really clock off till three in the morning. "But I like it."
A top-tier geiko can charge about $2,500 an hour to converse, sing and dance. Her clothes will not only be heavy and expensive (in the vicinity of $100,000 for the kimono and accessories, all vintage), they'll be weighted with tradition and meaning. The antique clip in Tanefumi's hair celebrates a famous kabuki actor, her other accessories reference the season. The unpowdered stripes on her nape, rendered with laser-precision, are designed to accentuate the length of her neck.
"You've heard of wabi and sabi," says Tamada, referring to the Japanese aesthetic qualities that stem, broadly speaking, from the ascetic beauty of lost, lonely and faded things. "In Kyoto we have a third quality, miyabi, which I would describe as the opulent beauty of court life."
Kyoto is layered with symbol and meaning at every turn. Religion and scholarship loom large; the imperial court held sway for a thousand years. Artisans flocked here to serve the aristocracy and flourished, and though the capital has moved, their craft and dedication endure.
It's certainly a big city, with close to 1.5 million residents, but it's built along much more human lines than Osaka or Tokyo. Comparisons with the newer capital can't be avoided; they're the mere flick of a phoneme apart. "To kyo" means eastern capital, while "kyo to" means capital of capitals. Yet in nature they are very different.
Take the difference between Japan's two most prestigious schools. "Tokyo university was established in 1877, and then 20 years later a university was built in Kyoto," my guide, Mie Tamada, tells me. The education minister at the time wanted the newer school to be different to the one in Tokyo, so he collected a group of unique professors and, as a result, Kyoto university is known as a place that nurtures students' ideas and ennobles creativity. "Tokyo university graduates become bureaucrats, but Kyoto university graduates become scientists or entrepreneurs, and a great many of Japan's Nobel Prize winners come from Kyoto."
Tokyo has been the seat of power since 1868, but Kyoto was the capital for a thousand years, and remains its cultural centre. It's also central to the spiritual life of the nation. The city isn't particularly sprawling - five kilometres from north to south and slightly less than that east to west - but within its limits lie about 1600 Buddhist temples and more than 400 Shinto shrines. They are as grand as the Golden Pavilion, and as idiosyncratic as the small Shinto shrines dedicated to everything from academic achievement and horse racing to dancing and hair. "Each temple has its own beautiful gardens, so even for Japanese people Kyoto is special," says Tamada. "It would take you at least five years to see them all properly."
Trying to decode the layers of symbols that greet you at every turn in Kyoto is thoroughly absorbing. A ball of Japanese cedar needles - a sakabayashi, or sugitama - indicates that the bar, shop or brewery it hangs outside specialises in quality sake. Traditionally the ball is made with fresh-cut Japanese cedar and hung out when the sake is newly made, so the dryness of the needles indicates the age of the brew. The miniature torii gates nailed to the sides of buildings, on the other hand, are supposed to engender mindfulness in passersby, and thus discourage littering, while watering the path to the door outside a restaurant or shop is thought to encourage custom. Skewered-dumpling lanterns tell you you're in the Gion neighbourhood, while lanterns with seagulls on them mean that you're by the river at Pontocho. The very narrowness of the older traditional townhouses - they're called unagi no nedoko; "eel's nests" in the local argot - speaks of a time when Kyoto property was taxed on the width of its street frontage.
The careful layering of symbols finds its apotheosis in the tea ceremony, and in its attendant cuisine, kaiseki, both of which are at their most refined in Kyoto. Kikunoi, Kitcho, Hyotei and their lauded three-star brethren all practise a very similar style of cooking, and it's not uncommon to hear of travellers speaking of "kaiseki fatigue" after trying to squeeze in more than one kaiseki meal in a single visit. But a taste of kaiseki in its true Kyoto setting is special nonetheless.
Yudofo at Junsei
At Takeshigero, a restaurant that has specialised in kaiseki for more than 300 years, a chef talks us through just a few of the seasonal references in the plates he lays down. A December visit means pumpkin and beans to mark the solstice - eating pumpkins on the solstice is said to promote good health - while a number of other ingredients on the platter (karasumi, or salted mullet roe, and kazunoko, herring roe flavoured with kelp, paired with stems of butterbur) signify fertility. The folds in a ribbon of prawn sushi, meanwhile, recall the shape of the folded paper prayers adorning Shinto shrines, and the thought of praying for a good new year. You could, of course, merely appreciate the dishes for their deliciousness: yellowtail simmered at the table in sake lees with daikon, for instance, or glazed eel dotted with sansho berries, as memorable for the exceptional quality of the locally grown rice it sits on as anything else.
Kaiseki meals are seldom informal and almost never cheap. For a less pricey but similarly intricate meal, many Kyoto visitors look instead to shojin ryori, the cuisine that arose here after the court adopted Buddhism in the seventh century. It's vegetarian, but vegetarian evolved to serve princes and courtesans. A meal at Ajiro, a restaurant neighbouring the Myoshinji temple, is more about artfulness than monastic deprivation. The rice cakes you may be served symbolise the shojin ryori asceticism - any rice burnt onto the bottom of the pot by the monks had to be soaked off and eaten, along with the soaking water - but they also happen to be toastily delicious, offered amid the likes of sesame tofu dressed with wasabi and soy, and noodles made of soybean flour, fried and then served in a broth of kelp and mushrooms.
There's an even narrower focus at Junsei, a historic restaurant surrounded by ponds and streams just over the road from the ancient, brooding gates of Nanzen-ji, one of Japan's most important Zen Buddhist temples. In its hushed and soothing rooms, tofu becomes art. Its signatures, yudofu and yuba, are two of Kyoto's most essential dishes. Yudofu is firm tofu, freshly made from soybeans and well water, simmered in konbu broth over a blue flame at the table in a ceramic pot with a slice of fragrant yuzu. Large cubes of it are served in a soy-tinged dashi flecked with spring onion, and as sublimely giving as the tofu itself is, it's the delicacy of that sauce that's the source of the restaurant's fame. The yuba is plated in a similar manner, but its production is rather different, as is the finished texture. Soy milk is heated at the table until it forms a skin, then the diner deftly (or not) captures the skin with a skewer. It's meditative, and also quite a lark.
The springs and wells of Kyoto are the wellsprings of Kyoto cuisine. Kikunoi, perhaps the most high-profile of the Kyoto kaiseki élite, is named for the well over which the restaurant is built. Water from the same well is shipped to the restaurant's Tokyo branch; its chefs won't cook with anything else. Kyoto water is said to underpin the quality of the tea its citizens grow, the sake they brew, and the vegetables they cultivate with a rigour that borders on the extreme.
Among the most revered of the 43 official kyoyasai, or vegetables of the capital, are the small round kamo eggplant, the sweet shogoin daikon and the very red Kyoto carrot. At Kanematsu, a vegetable shop in the heart of the Nishiki Market, they're displayed with care (and vigilance) more typically associated with precious stones and jewellery. Don't even think about taking a picture. Point that camera instead at the tako tamago, a lurid treat on a stick sold a few doors down that is perhaps the most photographed of the market's offerings. "A quail egg is in the head of the octopus," the sign helpfully explains in English. "Let's try!"
Nishiki raises the bar for market porn. Even the most glancing examination of its stalls yields both curiosities and plenty to eat on the spot: toasty hot chestnuts, vac-packed lardons of whale, cups of sake flavoured with the charred wings of pufferfish. The open barrels of the pickle shops advertise the potency of their wares in pungent wafts, the radishes, cabbages and turnips glowing in neat stacks, or entombed in rice bran. And it's not just about the eats. Here, Aritsugu, Kyoto's best-known knife shop, sells a dizzying variety of task-specific blades that are united in their extreme sharpness. Wasabi graters? Naturally. Fourteen different eel knives? Not a problem.
There's plenty more to eating in Kyoto than water and vegetables, of course. One insider tip worth sharing is Gyuho, a yakiniku restaurant a short ride into the suburbs. The restaurant is barely big enough to accommodate its 11-seat counter, but the grill is thickly decorated with signature-stickers that show it to be a favourite with the geishas. Chef Masanobu Nishiyama riffs on the restaurant's grilled-beef theme in his tasting menu with the likes of crisp, flattened gyoza stuffed with minced beef tongue, and striking hunks of oxtail, steamed and showered with sesame seeds, salt and spring onion. Nishiyama-san is a cheery guy; show some interest and he might slip you a round of the house special - slivers of very fresh raw calf liver dressed with sesame.
It was a tip from the general manager of the Hyatt Regency, a remarkable and charming gentleman by the name of Ken Yokoyama, that led to lunch at Nakaichi, deep in Gion's geisha district. A kappo restaurant, Nakaichi presents a more classical setting than the likes of Gyuho, with ceramics behind the bar and a confidently drawn ink of a fat squid on the wall. Kappo translates to fine food but served with rather less hush and formality than kaiseki - a sort of traditional Japanese take on bistronomy, only with fewer beards and less natural wine. At Nakaichi that could mean salt-grilled yellowtail served with a slice of pressed, dried yuzu-miso, rely bound in a skinless dumpling, set in broth with rape shoots. Sushi is a feature, and if you're lucky you'll also see sabazushi, Kyoto-style sushi: pickled mackerel pressed with rice under a sheet of kelp.
Despite the richness of Kyoto's history, it can by no means be said to be stuck in the past. The drive along the flyover from Kansai airport to Kyoto, over a conurbation stretching from Osaka past gas tanks, smoke stacks and at least 16 pachinko parlours, doesn't really say "timeless imperial beauty". Nintendo came into being here, and the city is home to a museum dedicated to manga. Tradition in Kyoto isn't about stasis - it's the living roots that support the growth of the tree.
A visit to Robert Yellin is illuminating. An American, Yellin was drawn to Japan by its culture, and has lived in Japan for more than 30 years. His gallery, set in a house that was once owned by jazz pianist Chick Corea, is filled with pottery predominantly crafted by living artists, from traditional, functional classic stoneware to glazed wares, ruddy Bizen beer mugs fashioned from rice-paddy clay, and "some very rare ceramic drums made by a guy who lives in a cave". For the most part, too, it's pottery that's meant to be used. One of the things about Japan's reverence for craftsmanship that captured Yellin's imagination, he says, is the way the beauty is borne of functionality, "and the way that beauty enriches simple daily rituals".
As a collector and student of ceramics, Yellin was drawn to Kyoto because it sits close to many of the important western Japanese kilns, but he says the appeal to the visitor is powerful and simple. It's the silence. "These pockets of wonderful pristine, tranquil, timeless energy," he says. "Of course, the centre of the city is bustling, but you also have thousands of temples and shrines everywhere, and they're all emitting this silence." It's not hard, he says, to find a pocket of tranquillity in which to immerse yourself. "You can go to the Silver Pavilion, or you can go to Honen In, which is this wonderful little temple off the beaten track that I always recommend to people. It's just serene. With the light coming through the trees and the gate it's very mystical. You transcend yourself in those things. That place has been around since the 1100s, and probably everybody who has ever walked through there has felt this gift of life and the need to be aware of it right now."
That's the magic of Kyoto. Even as you lose yourself in the deadly glimmer of the tachi sword-blades on display in the superb Kyoto Museum, or the lustre of lacquerware church furnishings commissioned by Catholic missionaries arriving on Portuguese ships in the 16th century, or the solemn psychedelia of the Priest Baozhi's face splitting open to reveal the emerging Bodhisattva in an 11th-century wooden statue, it's not the otherness of this dizzyingly complex society that strikes you, but its calm humanity.
Kyoto isn't just a cultural and spiritual wellspring for the people of Japan. It's a place where anyone may drink from a deep well of civilisation and be replenished as a person. You'll leave Kyoto feeling more human than when you arrived.
Walking the grounds of Kiyomizu-dera, one of the grandest and largest Buddhist temples, Eigen Onishi, one of the monks, remarks that his order's Buddhism is concerned with being part of society rather than set apart from it. "There's a vision of hell we talk about," he says. "Everyone is at a table covered with food, and they're hungry, but they can't eat because they have fingernails which are too long for them to bring them to their mouths. But this is also a vision of heaven - the only difference is that in heaven all the people at the tables are feeding each other."
  • undefined: Pat Nourse