Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Japan >
Oct 19, 2012 04:50 PM

First trip to Kyoto - a few questions please

Hi all,
In about a month's time my partner and I are spending 2 weeks in Kyoto (my first time, she's been there before). We love food, with a particular fondness for Japanese cuisine, so dining will be a central part of our holiday.

Here's what we've got planned so far;

[lunch] Sushi Ina
[lunch] Izuju
[lunch] Maguro Koya (we're spending 1 day in Nara)
[lunch] Toriiwaro
[lunch] Yoshimura Soba
[lunch] Kani Doraku (we're spending 1 day in Osaka)
[lunch] Omi Steakhouse
[lunch] Hafuu Beef
[lunch] Tempura Yoshikawa
[lunch] Omen Noodles

[dinner] Kappo Sou
[dinner] Anji
[dinner] Honke Daiichiasahi
[dinner] Zezekan Pocchiri
[dinner] Hirokawa Unagi
[dinner] Dotonbori street food
[dinner] Sushi Iwa
[dinner] A Womb

Apologies for just providing the name, please let me know if a more thorough description is expected/proper.

This is our list of back-up/spare restaurants; Ajiro, Fukei kara-age, Kinana (Icecream), Manzara (Machiya Izakaya), Marugame (Udon), Miyomoto Sushi, OKU (desserts), Owariya (Soba), Tsujiri Honten Dessert, Kitcho, another Kasekai.

If you don't mind, here are my questions;

1. In general I've booked the more expensive restaurants at lunch, as it's cheaper. How are the lunch meals compared to the dinner meals? Are they cheaper because less effort or food goes into it, or is it "just as good as dinner" (and cheaper for some other reason, ie demand/culture).

2. We don't, yet, have a Kasekai meal planned. We're staying at a hotel which doesn't serve Kasekai. Picking a Kasekai restaurant has been the hardest decision, partly because I'm trying (but failing) to justify the expense of Kitcho. Any suggestions re Kasekai?

3. Tofu. Can someone recommend a decent tofu restaurant or 3?

4. A lot of the places we've booked are asking us, today, what we'd like to order. Is this "normal"? Is saying "I've no idea, can I please order on the day" an acceptable response?

5. Breakfast. I want to minimise hotel breakfasts. What do locals on the run eat?

6. What are the customs regarding photographing food and/or menus? Here in Aus I'd happily do it (not that I do, mind you), but I'm not sure what the custom is in Japan. My current plan is to simply ask. But what about high-end places like Kitcho? Should I simply leave my camera at the hotel?

Thanks. Any other comments/suggestions are of course welcome.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Hi brismomo,

    far from being an expert - other people on the board are more up to date with the scene - but I do understand very well what "first time to Kyoto" means for foodies... A few general ideas.

    Kyoto food experience is not just about eating in restaurants. Must do gastronomic adventures not on your list involve shopping at the food basements of the department stores, lugging the catch onto the train or to your room and eating it there. The basements of Takashimaya and Isetan are top.

    Do not miss the Nishiki arcade market and eat what you see. There is a rice shop that serves lunch, and so does one of the vegetable stores. Grilled oysters too. All anonymous but very delicious.

    Yes it is normal to order when making the reservation. You will typically be offered a choice of two or three prices. You will not be given choice of what you eat, just how much you spend. This is politeness and good planning. At the higher end of the market it avoids embarrassment for the customer. And the kitchen does not buy produce they won't sell.
    Consider the price brackets more as a right to enter the shop and a gauge of the luxury, rather than as a prediction of what you will eat.

    Lunch sets are very good, but hard to book. There is just less elaborate techniques and decoration involved. You might be served a one or two tier box (bento) with all of your lunch in a single arrangement of small dishes.

    Kitcho - and a few other top kaiseki places like Kichisen, Wakuden, Chihana - are, to my wallet, very hard to justify, although I have been to all of them when the yen exchange rate was more clement. Kaiseki is an open end platonic concept with no roof limit to perfection. If the ladies serving you wear pedigree kimono's in hues matching the season and all the flower decorations and antique vessels come in a color scheme matching that of the food and so on, there is a considerable cost. If the meal involves precious items like maitake mushrooms or turtle you can easily get to 400 dollars per person. It is your sense of luxury that guides you here. Please note these places will not let you change the menu. Order on the spot is contrary to the essence of kaiseki food, some dishes requiring preparation spread over a full day or two.

    Strictly speaking of the food my choice for kaiseki as a cooking style is Nakahigashi. Try calling them on 1 November to get a table in December, if you are lucky. A very good and moderately priced restaurant serving the multi course tasting menu in a family home setting is Kaishin, south of the JR central station.

    No shortage of breakfast options in the same station basement - croissants, cappuccino, fruit salads, the lot. Finally, it is safe to assume that taking pictures with your phone is a japanese invention. But please do not - as I witnessed once - request the chef to come out of the kitchen and ask him pose with a fish and offer him a cash tip if he seems reluctant. I can tell your sensibility to japanese culture is way better than that.

    Enjoy and report back.

    12 Replies
    1. re: hblnk

      Gday hblnk, thanks for that. I've read it all and digested it (poor pun intended).

      You are indeed correct about the food experience being more than just restaurants. My hotel is about 600m from eastern end of Nishiki market - this was not by accident ;)
      That also puts me close to Takashimaya DS, so I'll make a special effort to visit this early on in my trip.

      My plan was to "snack" between meals. It's a walking holiday!

      The menu ordering method, and its benefit of not wasting food (as well as having FRESH food), deeply appeals to me. I'll double my efforts to research the menus and decide.

      again, thanks, and yes, I'll report back.

      1. re: brismomo

        In terms of researching menus, you ought not to waste too much time. All produce is strictly seasonal and the main ingredients will at this time of the year be pretty much the same wherever you go - saori fish, gingko nuts, new rice, matsutake mushrooms, persimmon, chestnuts.

        I wonder why no other of the permanently japan based c-hounds are replying. Your list has quite a few names of restaurants that were never mentioned before on this board.


          1. re: Uncle Yabai

            My deepest apologies - sorry. I obviously meant Kaiseki. At times I'm a little dyxlesic.

            Sadly I don't see a way to edit my original post, so this mark of shame looks permanent!

            1. re: brismomo

              Dyxlesic, I like that. For Tofu, the classic places are Okutan and Sagano Tofuya. Only open until 5 PM or so, no dinner.

              1. re: Uncle Yabai

                I second Okutan. The Kiyomizu shop has a lovely setting, though can get crowded with tourists. The one near Nanzenji is a great pitstop after visiting Ginkakuji and walking the Philosopher's Path.
                Tousuiro, in Gion, is a good option with a central location. They have an English website:
                Shoraian, in Arashiyama, would have to be my favourite, though. Here is a recent thread:

                1. re: wekabeka

                  Thanks for that.
                  I tried googling Okutan, and ran into a bit of trouble. Google maps and one post specifically mentioned Okutan being at Nanzen-ji. Other posts said it was near Kiyomizu. It didn't occur to me that there were multiple branches!
                  I also had zero luck when googling "Sagano Tofuya".

                  That search did, however, lead me back to Shoraian. I've asked my hotel to make a reservation there for me. These menus look a little bit "meaty" for a tofu meal. No problems there, mind you. I'll look for a vegetarian tofu meal elsewhere during my stay.

                  So, I've dropped Yoshimura Soba from above and replaced it with Shoraian.
                  Agan, thanks for the feedback.

                  1. re: brismomo

                    Oh, I didn't know you wanted a vegetarian meal - here tofu isn't as synonymous with vegetarianism as it is in the west. You might want to consider Shigetsu, in Tenryu-ji Temple (also in Arashiyama), for a shojin-ryori meal. Fabulous experience for visitors.

                    1. re: wekabeka

                      I love Shigetsu. An excellent and atmospheric Shojin Ryori place.

                    2. re: brismomo

                      It isn't that hard to find, really:

                      Ranked #2 in Tabelog after Shoraian, so I should try it. I almost ate there once, but we got sidetracked and ended up elsewhere. Note to myself to go back and try it.

                      Actually, Tabelog ranks Shoraian as the best tofu restaurant in *all of Japan*. Now I have to try it.

                      1. re: Uncle Yabai

                        #1 in Japan? I didn't realise. I actually went there last year, after enviously hearing of our mutual friend's meal there. Definitely worth a visit.

                        1. re: wekabeka

                          Well, finally made it to Shoraian, and I have to say its reputation as the best yu-dofu meal in Japan is well deserved. Portions are smaller, but the quality of the stuff is noticeably superior to those of more pedestrian offerings, which at this point include Okutan and Sagano Tofuya.

      2. I don't have extensive knowledge of Kyoto.
        The only place on your list that I know is Omen and that gets a very strong recommendation from me.

        I have been to Kitcho. To me it was totally worth it. But the cost is paying for everything, the total experience, (as was stated well by another, the kimono and the serving dishes and everything else) not just the food. (keep in mind that while the meal is pricey, their sake is not and does not add significantly to the pre-arranged cost of the meal. They serve only their special house sake, which is very nice, and not expensive. Don't remember the exact amount, however).

        I would recommend looking into Misoguigawa.
        This is a french-influence, simultaneously kaiseki-influence, restaurant near the Pontocho.
        Fantastic place; I have been there twice, both times wonderful.

        1 Reply
        1. re: pauliface

          It would be a big miss not to try kaiseki during your visit. I understand your budget concerns, good kaiseki is usually around 30,000 yens. Without budget, well ... it is similar to skip fine French restaurant while in Paris. By the way, French chef have been so influenced by kaiseki cuisine (the presentation, culture of the traditions, the seasons). In my opinion, experiencing kaiseki in an established, long tradition place gives you insights of collective memories of traditions...
          The plates will come one after another, each plate with a large variety of ingredients (it is fun to try to find out which!), tempo is well managed, usually, the preparation of the ingredients is reflected in the way to serve the menu (in a simple way to explain)... You will begin by a mousse sakizuke, then by tsukuri, a touch of the sea, before continuing your promenade on the river, mountain.. Some many unknown and new ingredients might sound a bit frightening, but actually on the contrary, there are so many things to enjoy that is less risky than trying a main dish, like a yutofu only (tofu is tofu!), and once eaten the second plate taste like tofu again.. it is why most tofu restaurant serve not only tofu.
          The last review about Kicho on tabelog, says he had a fine knife work of 'sakura tai(sea bream)' for appetizer, then some wild truite(from Kamikatsura River=famous) with wild water pepper leaves(like potage) that works very well with truites.. butĀ for a first kaiseki, try a half price kaiseki at Gion Maruyama, that will a easier, crab, ..

        2. Hey brismomo, sounds like you have an amazing trip planned. To second what other have said, I cannot emphasize enough what a great resource tabelog was for our trip. A lot of our favorite meals were places we found on tabelog.

          You should definitely expect that most nicer places will want you to order in advance. This is pretty standard in Kyoto.

          Re: photos, google and read up on the restaurants to see what others have said about the photo policy, and then just play it by ear when you get there. Every place is different, but in my experience most were pretty tolerant. There were some places that we didn't expect to be able to take photos, but other diners were snapping away and everyone was clearly fine with it, so we did too. Just don't let worrying about getting photos interfere with your enjoyment and pacing of the meal!

          Finally, make sure to post after with reports and photos! Some of us won't be going back for a while and need to live vicariously. ;-)

          1 Reply
          1. re: The Cookbook Addict

            Thanks all. I certainly will be having kaiseki, it's just a case of working out where.
            I've not used tabelog much, but I'll be sure to have a look.
            Sadly, Shoraian is fully booked on all the days that I have spare. It's late in my planning and many lunches/dinners are already booked, so I only had about 6 spare times (lunches or dinners).
            I wish I'd "found" it a bit earlier - my first restaurant booking was made the best part of 4 months ago now.
            I was very much looking forward to eating there - I must've loaded its menu up about 50 times in the past few days! Oh well, I now have the perfect excuse to head back to Kyoto next year.
            Our Japanese food embargo starts today - I'm not sure how I'll cope for 15 days.

          2. Just got back from Japan, and haven't started writing anything up yet, but one thought I have... we had 5 nights in Kyoto and spent 2 of them at Ryokan Shiraume. We had an excellent kaiseki meal there one evening. If I recall correctly, they do accept reservations from non-residential guests, though you'd need to double check on that by contacting them. Instead of eating in our room, we enjoyed our meal in one of their dining rooms, overlooking the stream, it was a delicious meal.

            1. I can't vouch for this personally, as I was poorly for a couple of days during our trip and we never made it to the Philospher's Path but I had bookmarked this post ahead of our trip, hoping to enjoy a tofu menu at Sosoan restaurant on the day we walked the path. We didn't make it but perhaps it's one I might search out next time I visit Japan.