The first thing I asked our Japanese guide was where locals go to forage for food in Kyoto. I always like to head straight to the markets and food enclaves when I arrive in a new city; it’s the pulse of how people live and how the food culture is surviving the perils of supermarkets and industrial food.
With only two days in Kyoto we did not have time to visit the wholesale fish and produce market however did manage to spend a several hours at the Nishiki Market, a narrow arcade spanning six blocks lined with over a hundred shops and eateries that has been operating for many centuries, the first fish shop opening in 1310.
They call this place ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’ and you can see why with its specialist stalls bustling in activity and with fascinating displays of artisan produce and fresh local bounty; from glistening fresh seafood pristinely displayed to every imaginable dried fish and seafood, an extraordinary kaleidoscope of pickled vegetables and handmade sweets, and all the seasonal foods and specialties that the historical Kyoto Kaiseki-ryōri cuisine is renowned.
You could easily spend all day fossicking around Nishiki Market; actually my shopaholic mum would not come out for days if she were let loose here. It doesn’t open until 9.00am although really doesn’t get into full swing until about 10am. I would suggest you have a very light breakfast and then graze your way through the street incorporating lunch.
And it’s not just about food and fresh produce; there are some fascinating shops selling Japanese crockery, kitchen utensils and the two places that fascinated me most, one specialising in chopsticks and the other in Japanese knives.
The actual street of Nishiki Market runs parallel to Shijo Avenue; about five minutes walk from Shijo Station on the Karasuma Subway Line. I would suggest getting a taxi though, which are spotlessly clean and the drivers incredibly professional and helpful. Also, where the Nishiki Market ends the medieval Gion district begins and where the geiko (local term of Geisha) with old-style Japanese houses or machiya where the geiko practice the high-art of entertaining.
I would highly recommend engaging a Japanese English-speaking guide, as we did through JTB http://www.jtb-sunrisetours.jp/ We did not enrol in one of the set tours preferring to have a private guide, who by chance was a foodie and proved to be an invaluable resource on explaining the local cuisine (I’m am desperately trying to find her card).
The Kyoto Kaiseki-ryōri cuisine or multi-course tea ceremony style of eating is applying for World Heritage status—I now realise where the modern French menu degustation comes from—and is certainly a must-do when in Kyoto. I also highly recommend or more contemporary take on this with dinner at Wakuden Muromachi http://gm.gnavi.co.jp/shop/0220130100/. Make sure you ask to sit at the counter and watch the very friendly chefs prepare your food; our dining experience was one of the best I have had in memory.
Another little tip, the Michelin Guide to Japan is online (free!) through http://gm.gnavi.co.jp/
Scroll below for a photographic experience of the Nishiki Market: