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Sunday, 11 December 2011

The London Foodie Goes to Japan - Kyoto (Part 1)

On arrival, the ultra-modern JR station (train) complex is very impressive, but Kyoto can hardly be described as an immediately attractive  town. If you care to spend a few days in Kyoto though and discover some of its hidden beauty, you will undoubtedly fall in love with the ancient former capital of Japan.

Compared with Tokyo, Kyoto is relatively smaller and was spared much of the bombing in WWII - today, it has hundreds of thousand year old temples and shrines surrounded by beautiful Japanese gardens, magnificent palaces and original wooden townhouses known as machiya. Many of these sites were built during Kyoto's millennium at the centre of Japanese power, tradition and religion for the country's emperors, shoguns and monks. I recommend planning your trip in great detail before visiting Kyoto as there is just so much to see and experience there.

This post is about my latest visit to Kyoto, and is by no means a comprehensive list of things to do or places to visit. For more information about this magnificent city, visit the WikiTravel page on Kyoto here.

Where to Stay in Kyoto

The sky is the limit when searching for accommodation in Kyoto, which does not come cheap even at the most modest establishments. Budget accommodation will cost you anything between £80 and £100, while mid-range hotels (3-stars) will set you back about £150 to £200 for a double room. The more luxurious ryokans (traditional Japanese Inns) can cost a few hundred pounds a night per person.

Kyoto is a major tourist city, and at peak season (cherry blossom days and weekends) accommodation can be difficult to find, and prices reflect this. Osaka is only a 30 minute train journey from Kyoto, and being less popular as a holiday destination, it can offer a wider range of hotels to suit every budget.

We were recommended to stay at the Hiiragi-Ya. This is a luxurious traditional Kyoto ryokan which is the crème de la crème as far as Kyoto accommodation goes. But with my investment banking job well behind me and rates starting at £250 per person per night, we decided to go elsewhere.

We stayed at the Yuhara Ryokan which was also recommended by another Japanese friend (from Tokyo) who normally stays there. This is a traditional Japanese inn set along the Takase River. It is a delightful place, simply but tastefully decorated and immaculately clean. The owners (mother and son) speak good English and were very friendly, giving us the  low-down on the neighbourhood and on things to do in Kyoto before we set off sightseeing.

Yuhara Ryokan on Takase River Walk

Our bedroom was a Japanese-style room, pretty, spacious and comfortable and with a lovely view over the Takase River. The walk along the river  takes you through the geisha district of Gion (a 20 minute, very pleasant walk), and also to the centre of Kyoto including Pontocho Street. It is also a 15 minute walk from Kyoto's JR Station. At just under 10,000 Yen for a double room (about £85) for two people, this is highly recommended for its price, great location and charming hosts.

Japanese Style Room at Yuhara Ryokan

Where to Eat in Kyoto

As much as I love Tokyo, in my opinion, the best Japanese food is to be found in Kyoto. My Tokyo friends will not be impressed when they read this, after all Tokyo has more 3-michelin stars than Paris itself, I hear some of them saying. But compared with the style of cooking elsewhere in Japan, Kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine) is lighter and more delicate, stressing the natural flavour of ingredients over enhancement with heavy sauces and broths.

Pontocho Street

You will struggle to find a bad place to eat in Kyoto but it is always good to have some recommendations and book them in advance if you can. Also bear in mind that some restaurants will have a strict 9-9:30pm last order policy - this is because depending on the menu you choose, it might take a couple of hours to get through all the courses. There are many popular places serving a range of different dishes from the humble donburi to a full-blown kaiseki dinner (Japanese haute-cuisine) so choices are endless.

Giro Giro was highly recommended to us and happened to be a 3-minute walk from our ryokan on the Takase River. The 8-course menu devised by head chef Edakuni Eiichi features some kaiseki classics in his kuzushi-kappo, or “break the rules” casual cuisine. Price is a steal at only 3,600 yen or £30 per person. 

Giro Grio - View from Takase River Walk

There are two other branches, in Paris and Honolulu. I strongly recommend this restaurant and if you do get to book, ask for a seat by the counter where you can watch the chefs in action, highly entertaining.

Giro Giro - Chefs at Work

These are the fantastic dishes that we had at Giro Giro:

Platter of amuse bouche, including grilled namafu, pickled chestnut, sushi, and tamago

Cod sperm & seaweed tempura in a glutinous daikon & yuzu pink broth

Straw-smoked salmon and oyster sashimi

Yellow-tail grilled in white miso, with daikon & ginger, onion & yuzu and pickled apple

Tofu and shimeji mushroom tempura, topped with crab in a dashi and soy sauce broth

Red snapper with burdock, cooked in soya sauce and sugar

Tonjiro of pork and crab, sweet white miso soup with thinly sliced carrots & burdock, rice and Japanese pickles (clams & daikon)

Pumpkin with bitter tea sauce, chestnut ice cream, black sesame mochi filled with sweet red bean, yasahashi with cinnamon and filled with pickled apple and blue cheese

Dr G and I went back to Manzara-Tei where we had had a brilliant meal on our last visit in 2008. This is a lovely restaurant serving "casual" kaiseki style set meals at 4,500 Yen (£37.50 @ 120 yen/£) "Sekkou" for ten courses or "Gekkou" at 3,500 Yen (£29 @ 120 yen/£) for 8 courses on the busy Pontocho Street. 

The food again did not disappoint- we went for the ten-course dinner which included some local Kyoto specialities like fu (glutinous wheat gluten cakes) and yuba (soy-milk skimmings). If you like watching the busy chefs at work, ask for seats at the counter when booking (I did!).

These are the courses we enjoyed at Manzara-Tei:

Yuba scoop with yuzu ponzu

Asparagus with uncured ham, cherry tomatoes & smoked cheese

Sashimi (tuna, sea bream, yuba), with freshly grated wasabi

Grilled Sawara (Spanish Mackerel)

Wagyu beef with rock salt

Grilled Namafu (glutinous wheat cakes)

Slow-braised daikon in a thick dashi with pork belly - my favourite dish of the evening!

Tempura Assortment

Sushi and Akadashi (red miso soup)

Sweet soft tofu with red currant jam

What to Do in Kyoto


Thanks to its plain geography and grid-style streets, Kyoto is a great place to cycle and whenever I visit I hire a bicycle for the day. Yuhara Ryokan's owners recommended us a tiny cycling shop a couple of minutes walk from the ryokan where we hired a couple of bikes for 500 yen each for the entire day, that is £4.20!

Nishiki Market

From the bike shop we headed straight to Nishiki Market, Kyoto's main food hub in the centre of town. Nishiki Market is 390 meters long and runs from Teramachi Street to Takakura Street. There are around 130 shops and stalls, selling traditional Japanese food and ingredients. 

As customary in Japan, there are many shops specialising in one particular type of ingredient like tsukemono pickles, Japanese sweets (wagashi), dried food, tamagoyaki (egg omelets), sushi, fresh seafood and vegetables.

Salmon Eggs (Ikura)

Unlike department stores, almost everything at Nishiki is locally produced. Nishiki Market has a long history, the first store opening as early as 1311. It is a great place to spend a few hours learning about Japanese ingredients, sampling and buying. I returned to Nishiki Market everyday during my stay in Kyoto.

Smoked/Petrified Bonito Fish Ready for Shaving for Dashi Stock

Geisha Spotting at Gion

Kyoto is synonymous with geisha and maiko (the apprentice geisha), who live and work in the  neighbourhoods of Gion, Pontocho and Miyagawa-cho. Many girls are attracted to this glamorous world, but few make it through the arduous training required to become fully fledged geiko, as geisha are known in Kyoto dialect. The best time to see them is in the late afternoon as they head for rendezvous at the ochaya (tea-houses).

Dining with geisha is difficult to arrange, and expensive, but it is possible. Kyoto resident Peter MacIntosh of Kyoto Sights and Nights is able to arrange private engagements and VIP dinners.

There are hundreds of magnificent temples to visit in Kyoto and some of these will be featured in my second post.

Travel Essentials

For a printable PDF of Kyoto Walks by the Japan National Tourism Information (JNTO) - click here

For excellent accommodation for value and friendliness, Yuhara Ryokan is on Kiyamachi Dori, Shomen-agaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto Prefecture 600-8126 , Japan. Email: ryokan.yuhara@cap.ocn.ne.jp (tel: +81 075 371 9583).

For information on where and what to eat in Kyoto, visit the Kyoto Foodie blog here.

For fantastic food at very reasonable prices head to Giro Giro Hitoshina, 420-7 Nanba-cho, Nishikiyamachi-sagaru, Shimogyo-ku, +81 75 343 7070, open 5.30pm-11pm daily, or visit their website here.

For Pontocho casual dining, Manzara Tei is on 1-198 Higashisawaragi-cho, Pontocho-dori Shijo agaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto City 604-0906 (tel: +81-75-212-0028)

For information on places to visit in Kyoto, go to the fantastic site Kyoto Kyoto here.

For information on Nishiki Market and directions, visit the Nishiki Market website here.

For information on how to dine with a geisha (and much more about Kyoto) visit Kyoto Sights and Nights' website here, tel: +81 905 169 1654.


  1. London Foodie,
    Your Kyoto visit looks awesome. I wish I was there with you. We miss you! x

  2. sigh... a place I would love to visit...

  3. This is bringing back sooo many memories....I love Fu and didn't know it was a Kyoto speciality.

  4. I shouldn't read your post at this time of night, just makes me eat late bad boy!!! Looks like you had a buzzing time!!

  5. I stayed at the Yuhara in july 1972-40 years ago. The very same family ran it then as now (I remember the son as a very small child). I tried to submit to Tripadvisor a 'comparison' review of the Yuhara as I remember it then, but they weren't having any of that. The photos I took then show it to look pretty much as it does now, although it looks to have been enlarged a bit since then. I can still recall the very good food that was served there. Now that I see that it is still in existence, I would very much like to return.

  6. I stayed at the Yuhara in july 1972-40 years ago. The very same family ran it then as now (I remember the son as a very small child). I tried to submit to Tripadvisor a 'comparison' review of the Yuhara as I remember it then, but they weren't having any of that. The photos I took then show it to look pretty much as it does now, although it looks to have been enlarged a bit since then. I can still recall the very good food that was served there. Now that I see that it is still in existence, I would very much like to return.


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