Kyoto Guide 2009

mint jelly at kikunoi

While I do have a few more posts to come from my recent trip to Western Australia, I thought I’d switch continents and post about an even more recent trip to Kyoto, Japan. Over the past few years, Japan has become S’s and my favourite holiday destination. We love the obsessiveness and passion that pervades the country’s food culture. We love the devotion to seasonal produce, hand-crafted ingredients, and the rituals that surround eating well. We also love the beautiful products that the Japanese love to serve food and drinks in. These range from imperfect pieces of mismatched ceramics to vintage Baccarat glasses. We love the whole aesthetic that surrounds the ever (slowly) evolving culinary scene there.

I’ve been to Kyoto before. Once as a backpacker the summer before my freshman year in unviversity, and last year on a work trip. The first time I spent a few days visiting primarily temples and cultural sites. Neither my palate nor my pocketbook was developed enough to really explore the city’s gustatory offerings. Last year, I visited for an overnighter. And while I ate well, checked out a few shops and discovered an awesome cake shop, I was in town for less than 24 hours–which meant that I really didn’t see the place. Before this trip, S had never been to Kyoto, which was fabulous. Fabulous because I love watching her discover great things, be they wonderful cities we can get lost in together, books that I love, seminal music by great bands, or movies that have changed the world. Suffice it to say, we had a wonderful time. I had put quite a bit of thought into where we should eat and what shops/places we would visit. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a lot of great travel literature on Kyoto in English–at least the kind of stuff that I was looking for. There are pages upon pages about the temples and castles in and around Kyoto, but almost nothing (in English) on the city’s best restaurants, coolest shops, and other noteworthy culinary artisans. Fortunately, the concierge at the surprisingly sexy Hyatt Regency was very helpful. In addition, S and I picked up a few “souvenir” books and some city magazines. And while these were all in Japanese, they had great pictures and good maps, so I was able to work out a pretty good itinerary of what looked like some great places to visit. The below list is of the places we especially liked. (As always, cultural highlights are left out–simply because, well, there are many better sources for these, and that’s not what you or my other readers come here for.) For all the restaurants, you should ask your concierge to book for you and to print out maps and directions.


Gyu Ho
While Gyu Ho was one of the most casual restaurants S and I visited, and definitely the most out of the way, it was probably my favourite on this past trip. The restaurant’s name translates as “precious beef” and great beef is definitely the star of the show at this tiny, dark, smokey restaurant. Gyu Ho seats 10 or so people around an L-shaped counter. Behind the counter is a charcoal grill and a bit of kitchen space where the lone owner-chef does all is work. He’s aided only by a young waitress, whose main job appeared to be refilling the many drinks our dining companions consumed and replacing their constantly overflowing ashtrays. Dinner was a sumptuous yet rather challenging–in a very Fergus Henderson kind of way–affair. Many of the dishes went just a tad beyond the norm, such as raw calf’s liver and beef tongue gyoza, for example. Everything was delicious though. The beef was exquisite and each course was paired with an abundance of organic vegetables and the chef’s homemade miso and other sauces. The chef’s English is pretty good here and he’s quite the joker. This is a great little place for a fun night. Just go with an open mind and an empty stomach.

top row: abalone and uni baked in clay, tuna belly with mustard and egg yolk, both at kikunoi; bottom row: raw calf’s liver and the chef at gyu ho

Ifuki is just one of the many tiny restaurants littering the dozens of alleys off Pontocho-dori. Pontocho is the old red light district of Kyoto. While the entertainment may have changed, it is still a popular destination, for both tourists and locals. The street and its many alleys are cramped with restaurants and bars. Picking one to dine at or have a drink at, without prior research, would be in my estimation near impossible. Fortunately, a friend recommended I try Ifuki. Located at the end of alley 21 (last restaurant on the right), Ifuki is a small, counter-dining restaurant run by a very sweet husband and wife team, Norio and Miyuki Yamamoto, plus one additional chef. The food is classic Japanese, prepared beautifully and served in a very comfortable, very nice space. Several dishes are cooked over charcoal, including (when we were there) some lovely seasonal fish (including ayu, nodoguro and amadei) and some sensational Kagoshima beef. Ifuki is a great, very well-hidden restaurant that deserves more attention. Miyuki will very modestly tell you in perfect English that her English is bad, so don’t worry about communicating and having a good chat with her while eating there. Dinner is priced at Y12,000 per head.

Il Ghiottone
This cosy little restaurant, hidden in a nook at the northern end of the Kiyomizu area, offers some of the best, artisanal Japanese-Italian fare you will ever try. Chef-owner Yasuhiro Sasajima has created a beautiful, deceptively simple, cuisine that is both surprising and delicious. Some dishes have clearly more Japanese roots while others are more Italian in their origins. Chef Sasajimo’s handmade pastas are gorgeous. The stocks he uses to flavour these dishes are clearly complex and the taste of the finished dishes were simply revelatory. Il Ghiottone offers lunch sets at Y3,675 and Y5,250 and dinner sets at Y7,875, Y10,500 and Y15,750. We went for lunch. I ate the cheaper set while S had the more expensive one. Both were fabulous introductions into Chef Sasajima’s food. Eating here, quite simply, is something every gourmand should do, if ever in Japan.

octopus with gazpacho and lady’s fingers from il ghiottone

Kaneyo, one of the oldest, most popular and most famous eel (unagi) restaurants in Kyoto, is centrally located near the intersection of Sanjo-dori and Kawaramachi-dori and also near the Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcade. The restaurant is reportedly over a century old. And it sure looks it. The exterior and interior dining room looks like something out of an old film. Nonetheless, the food is reasonably priced and very good. The unagi are grilled over charcoal and served in a few ways. The most popular, from what we could see, is wrapped in omelet and served over rice–which is exactly what we ordered. With a splash of shoyu, it was very nice and satisfying. This is a nice place to stop in for a very casual meal if you are shopping in the Shinkyogoku arcade area, and also if, like us, you wanted a break from multi-course and high priced meals.

If and when you get to Kyoto, one of the restaurants everyone will recommend to you, if you want to experience a real Kaiseki meal, is Kikunoi (others might include Kitcho, Sasaki and Hyotei). Chef-owner Yoshihiro Murata is considered one of the living masters of Kaiseki. Now, the first thing you need to know is that Kikunoi has two branches. They have a rather formal restaurant (Honten) just east of Gion, surrounded by nature. This restaurant is very traditional; you eat in private tatami rooms amidst nothing other than the sound of your companions chewing. The food is super-refined and also very traditional. The other branch, Roan Kikunoi, is a small, minimalist outpost in Kyoto’s “downtown” area. The food is also, like the setting, just a touch more modern. More impatient readers might want to visit Roan Kikunoi (it’s also a tad cheaper than Honten). And if you do, sit at the counter. Note that it has just 10 seats so make sure you book way, way in advance. Meals, like most other restaurants on this list, are prix fixe. So just sit back and enjoy the show. One of the most beautiful and quite famous items served at either branch is uber-fresh tuna belly, served with a smattering of mustard and an egg yolk dipping sauce. Beautiful. Another, which S and I loved, was uni (sea urchin) and abalone, wrapped in seaweed and baked in clay. This is a must-visit for serious foodies.

clockwise from top left: crab croquette at yonemura; unagi with omelet at kaneyo; kinaoko mousse cake; kinaoko ice cream

Chef Naoki Okumura calls his food “kaiseki style French cuisine”. Which means he spent his formative years training to be a chef in Paris, after which he returned home and began exploring how to combine his Western training and the Japanese devotion to seasonality and presentation. Okumura is a discrete restaurant in the famous and historic Gion area. Inside, the clientale are as well-dressed as the space is chic yet toned-down. The food is beautifully prepared and presented. Like Yonemura (below), the cuisine is hard to categorize. It is both Japanese and European, in ingredients and techniques. Again, sit at the counter and enjoy the parade of small, exquisite dishes that will be presented to you. Prices at lunch range from Y5,000 to Y12,000 (4 set menus) and at dinner from Y10,000 to Y20,000.

Located between Hanami-koji-dori and Higashioji-dori, on the north side of Shoji-dori. For a sweet treat while wandering around Gion, head to Tsujiri, which occupies the second and third floors of a small building–enter through what looks like a cheesy tourist shop and get in line with everyone else. Tsujiri is the locals’ favourite green tea dessert shop, selling everything from green tea cakes, ice cream and, most popular of all, green tea parfaits. The house special–and what most of the teenagers in line with you will order–is the Special Tsujiri Parfait, which contains green tea ice cream, pieces of green tea cake, cubes of green tea jelly, mochi, fresh cream, sweetened azuki beans and slices of orange. Myself, I prefer Kakigori with green tea syrup, mochi and some vanilla ice cream. Either way, this is a must-visit, especially on warmer days.

Restaurant Yonemura
This “new Japanese” showstopper has a branch in Tokyo I have previously written about. The Kyoto branch, located at the edge of the historic Gion district, is the original and where Yonemura-san himself cooks. It is also strikingly sexier while at the same time more casual than it’s Tokyo sibling. Chef Masayasu Yonemura’s food, a refined blend of Japanese and European techniques and ingredients, was as always, sensational. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Yonemura is one restaurant I wish I could eat at on a weekly basis. If you go, definitely sit at the counter so you can watch the chefs work and interact with them. All meals are prix fixe, lunch at either Y6,000 or Y10,000 and dinner at Y14,000.


“totally awesome” shoyu maker
(We have since learnt through awesome readers that the name is Sawai Shoyu. Thanks guys.)
Location: Roughly off Abura-no-koji-dori, south of Naka-dachiuri. Please refer to card below. Click on image for larger hi-res, printable version of the card, which you can show your concierge or a taxi driver.
This tiny shop, run by a lovely old couple, sells some of the most delicious and well-made shoyus and shoyu-based sauces we’ve tasted. Which means that it’s well worth hunting down. Unfortunately, we could never actually figure out the store’s name so we can’t call it anything but “totally awesome shoyu maker”. The best sellers here are a “fresh” shoyu, a heavily-fermented version, one just for sashimi and the store’s ponzu sauce. We really couldn’t communicate properly with the very amiable store owners–I have a feeling they thought we were a little mad. They did let us taste their sauces and even let me roam around their manufacturing facilities. We purchased several bottles (some even had labels with surprisingly contemporary designs) and left with a gift of a handful of shoyu candies. I tried one as our taxi sped us away and immediately cursed myself for not having had one in the store and buying several bags of the candy!

“neat wirework guy”
Location: Sakaimachi-dori, just south of Ebisugawa-machi. Opposite a super-swanky men’s clothing store.
Another shop whose name eludes both S and me. This small store sells beautiful, handmade wirework products for cooking with. This ranges from mesh baskets for frying foods to wire racks on which you can grill small pieces of wagyu (if you’re into that kind of thing). Everything is hand-assembled in the store, and you can watch the owner and his colleague actually shaping pieces if you hang out there.

Location: Nishiki-Koji-dori, inside the Nishiki food market. North side of Nishiki-Koji-dori, west of Gokomachi-dori.
This family-owned business sells handmade knives and other cooking implements, including sushi knives, bamboo steamers, pots, pans, and cookware used in the preparation of traditional Japanese cuisine. Supposedly, they’ve been in business for over 400 years. This is a pilgrimage spot for many chefs and foodies.

engraving a signature on a knife at aritsugu

Fujii-Daimaru Department Store
Location: Corner of Shijo-dori and Teramachi-dori.
Sadly, most of the department stores in Kyoto are kind of dowdy. They sell old-fashioned clothes for, well, old people. If you want trendy things, you have to roam the streets in search of specific boutiques–the best area being Sanjo-dori between Sakaimachi-dori and Teramachi-dori. That said, one department store has made an effort to appeal to the hipsters out there. Fujii-Daimaru is the lone outpost of cool in the department store scene in Kyoto. Its ground floor United Arrows shop and its other shops/brands make it stand out as the only one-stop shop scene worth stepping into in this town.

Gion Hararyokaku
Location: north side of Shijo-dori, corner of Shijo-dori and Hanami-Koji-dori.
S loves shichimi togarashi, a Japanese seven spice blend usually made with chili pepper, mandarin orange peel, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, hemp seeds, nori or aonori, and ground sansho. Of all the various shichimi shops in Kyoto, Hararyokaku is the one to visit. In business since 1704, this historic shop is constantly filled with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen quietly but busily stocking up on the shop’s famous kuro shichimi (black seven spice powder) and other spices.

clockwise from top left: kyoto landscape; “totally awesome” shoyu lady; tourists in kiyomizu; wire grills from “neat wirework guy”

Location: Teramachi-dori, south of Ebisugawa-dori.
You won’t find a tea shop more famous. Located on a picturesque stretch of Teramachi-dori, this beautiful tea house has been producing some of the country’s finest green teas for the last 3 centuries. Stop in for a cuppa and spend some time shopping. Some of the staff speak English so you will have no problems getting someone to help you.

Location; Ryogaecho-dori, south of Shioran-dori, on left.
Both S and I are big fans of furoshiki, the decorative cloths that the Japanese use to transport and wrap gifts. Furoshiki are made from a variety of cloths, ranging from cotton to silk. They can also range in design, from plain monochromes to ornately patterned and contemporary designs. We loved the variety at Karakusaya. Some of the prints actually reminded us of Marimekko, while others were distinctly Japanese in origin. We ended up buying loads from here and are looking forward to using them when presenting special gifts to close friends over the coming year.

Location: Click here to see map
We literally stumbled upon MaMeKiCHi while in search of another store. We were thrilled by the display of flavoured nuts and beans. It was literally like being a kid in a candy store. We ended up picking up several bags of charcoal flavoured and green tea flavoured nuts. I especially can’t stop eating the charcoal ones and am kind of annoyed at myself that I didn’t buy more–I’m already down to my last packet.

Roku Roku Dou
Location: Near Kiyomizu temple, Higashi-yama. Best to refer to the website.
I can totally sympathize with Roku Roku Dou owner Takayuki Maemori’s plight. Takayuki-san owns and runs one of the most beautiful ceramic shops in Kyoto, stocked with gorgeous artisanal products made by true masters, i.e. some of Kyoto’s most famous potters. Unfortunately, Roku Roku Dou is surrounded by dozens of second-rate and touristy pottery shops in what is fast becoming an overly touristy and kitschy neighborhood. Of course, as soon as most tourists see the prices of Takayuki-san’s pieces, they exit his lovely and quiet shop rather hastily. The prices here, as you would expect, are higher than those of his neighbors but the quality of the pieces are of a strikingly better calibre as well. If you are fans of well-made ceramic work, this is a must-visit and a great place to purchase some serious investment pieces.

Ryuouen Chaho
Location: Nijo-dori Gokomachi Nishi-iru, Nakagyou-ku. Off Gokomachi-dori.
This small, humble tea shop is considered a newcomer by Kyoto standards, meaning it only opened in 1875. Ryouen has a cute, small purchasing room in which you can also try their teas. While Ippodo is more famous, local friends told us that Ryouen is where they shop for their “every day drinking teas”. We especially liked their sweetened green tea powder, which is super-tasty when mixed with iced water or cold milk.

Location: Teramachi-dori, between Oshi-Koji-dori and Nijo-dori
Seikado sells simply stunning handmade pewter, silver, bronze and brass objects, ranging from teapots and sake pourers to candy dishes and chopsticks. Unfortunately, the prices here are heart-attack high. But Seikado is definitely worth a visit, even if (like us) all you can do is look.

Shinzaburo Hanpu
Location: Higashioji-dori, north of Furumonzen-dori
I’m a huge sucker for bags, especially shoulder bags and tote bags. Ishizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu has an interesting history. There used to be a really famous store called Ichizawa Hanpu. The founder, Ichizawa, originally made sails, then adapted his very strong sailcloth to make bags, which turned out to be a much better business. Over time, the head designer of the bags became Shinzaburo, Ichizawa’s third son. Foolishly but not surprisingly, when Ichizawa passed away, the business went to the oldest son. Pissed off (as I would have been), Shinzaburo left the company, taking with him many of the key personnel, and started his own bag store, calling it Shinzaburo Hanpu, and opening right next door to his brother’s shop. Well, over time (and we’re talking in just a short amount of time), Shinzaburo Hanpu has won the war. When we visited Kyoto, Ichizawa Hanpu was closed and there is no telling if and when it will re-open. Ichizawa Hanpu bags–and now Shinzaburo Hanpu bags–are iconic in Japan. Their backpacks, shoulder bags and tote bags are lust objects and must-haves. Japanese visitors will get in queue early in the morning, before the shop opens, in order to have first pick of the day’s stock. When we visited, we were shocked. The street outside the shop was pretty empty, but inside, the place was packed. We did pick up a nice bag for my mother and a fabulous grey and yellow tote for ourselves. Definitely a must-visit for shopaholics and cult design fans.

West side 33
Location: Nawate-dori, south of Shichijo-dori, just behind Sanjusangen-do Temple
This tiny shop sells beautiful handmade household products fashioned from copper, steel, and brass, plus some nice silver-plated pieces. The pieces here are quintessentially Japanese in style and design. I picked up a really elegant silver-plated sake pourer. Be warned, they take only cash and the pieces are really seductive.

Gion store: Northeastern corner of Hanamikoji-dori, off Shijo-dori
Yojiya has one of the most iconic brands in Japan. The image of woman’s face in black and white in a crudely drawn mirror is something every Japanese woman recognizes and instantly associates with aburatorigami. Aburatorigami is facial oil blotting paper and according to some of our female friends, the best on the market worldwide. In fact, one friend begged us to bring back as much as we could carry for her. While Yojiya sells other products, it is these papers that ensure that the boutiques are constantly buzzing.


Hyatt Regency Kyoto
S and I adored the very sleek Hyatt Regency Kyoto. Designed by Super Potato, this well-appointed property marries comfort and cool design very well. It is located near the Kyoto JR station, which is perfect for travellers coming into town by train (or from Osaka airport and then by train), and surrounded by cultural sights, like the Kyoto National Museum. Since it is a Regency and not a Grand nor a Park Hyatt, the rates are reasonable, especially for Japan. Suffice it to say, S and I will happily make this our home on every subsequent trip to Kyoto.

About Aun Koh

Aun has always loved food and travel, passions passed down to him from his parents. This foundation, plus a background in media, pushed him to start Chubby Hubby in 2005. He loves that this site allows him to write about the things he adores--food, style, travel, his wife and his three kids!