Kyoto’s stint as Japan’s capital had a lasting impact on Japanese culture, art, and religion… and especially on Japanese food! The Kyoto area produced some of the best dishes in Japan.
The best known is the elaborate kaiseki-ryori, where fresh ingredients are prepared to make the most of subtle nuances of flavor. However, Kyoto is just as famous for its shojin-ryori, an austere vegetarian style of cooking catering to Kyoto’s Buddhist monks. Finally, taking aspects of both styles of cooking and bringing them into the home is obanzai-ryori, or home-cooking Kyoto-style.
There’s one place in Kyoto where the three styles meet: Nishiki Market
You won’t find a better place to try Kyoto’s food than the Nishiki Market. The market has a four-hundred-year-old tradition of selling to Kyoto’s cooks.
This tradition becomes evident as you stroll down the five-block shopping street. Many of the 125 stores are family-run affairs; they get handed down from generation to generation.
Luckily, you don’t have to try to guess what the food tastes like before you buy it! Many of the stores have a stall attached where you can try samples or buy snacks to eat on the go.
Foodies – Be Warned: You Won’t Ever Want to Leave!
What You Can Do at Nishiki Market: Food Shopping
The Nishiki Market is popular with tourists and Kyoto citizens alike, and it can get very crowded.
Want to avoid the crowds? I suggest you visit early in the morning as the market opens – or mid-afternoon or later.
The best way to explore the market is to start at one end and work your way to the other.
Most shops provide samples. You can spend the better part of a day walking around trying everything.
The vendors try their best to communicate with you – even if they don’t speak much English.
Pay careful attention to the signs asking you not to touch the goods on display. Other shops have signs ask you not to eat in the store.
Also, be careful if you want to take photographs. Most stall owners love it when you take pictures of their food, but be mindful of the shoppers around you. Try not to get in people’s way.
Nishiki Market: What to Eat
Kyoto’s cooking changes with the season… and so do the foods at Nishiki Market!
You’ll find many vendors selling the staples of Kyoto cuisine: traditionally prepared pickles, vegetables known as Kyo-yasai (Kyoto vegetables) rarely seen outside the city, sweet snacks intended for the tea ceremony, and freshly roasted tea.
There’s always an emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients and dishes.
I’m going to share a few of my favorite foods at the market, but please take my advice as a general guideline only. Try some different things to see what you like!
I suggest you approach the market with an open mind, an adventurous spirit… and an empty stomach!
I found the pickled vegetables very off-putting the first time I went to the market. I skipped them entirely.
It took me a while to realize these were the same pickles I couldn’t get enough of in restaurants.
You’ll see several stores selling pickles, and each has its own recipe. I suggest you try some samples to find out what you like.
I’m soy-intolerant, so I can’t vouch for them personally… but everyone I know raves about the tofu donuts!
They taste light and fluffy. You can choose from a variety of toppings (a friend suggests strawberry). People love to eat them while they’re still hot – especially in the cold weather!
If donuts aren’t your thing, you can try an amazing variety of fresh tofu. Everyone seems to love the tofu skins.
Given Kyoto’s reputation for vegetarian cuisine, I recommend trying the tofu skins… and leaving a comment below to let us know if they deserve the hype!
Want to try a truly odd snack?
Tako-tamago isn’t a Kyoto-specialty – but it’s unusual enough to deserve a mention.
Tako-tamago are baby octopus, lightly cooked and candied, and served cold on a skewer. A quail egg gets wrapped inside the octopus.
The flavor veers between sweet and salty/fishy. It tastes great if you enjoy the contrast. Personally, I like my food one way or the other!
Some people love it, while others find the texture a challenge.
Want my advice? Try one! Where else in the world can you eat something like this?
But I also suggest bringing a plastic bag with you if you plan on trying one. If worse comes to worse, you can get rid of the octopus without offending anyone. The Nishiki Market doesn’t have many trash cans (like most places in Japan).
Wa-gashi sweets are an important part of the traditional tea ceremony.
Kyoto is the wa-gashi capital of Japan – fitting when you consider how pivotal Kyoto is to the tea ceremony!
A few stalls sell these beautifully crafted sweets. They’re shaped like flowers or leaves and meant to complement the ceremony.
They look too good to eat, but the sweetness is a perfect counter to the bitterness of the tea.
Wa-gashi make great souvenirs – if you can get them home safely. These sweets are delicate!
You’ll find a variety of mochi for sale in Nishiki Market.
A mochi rice cake gets made by pounding rice into a sticky, glutinous paste.
People love mochi when it’s freshly made. Fresh mochi tastes soft and chewy, and it typically comes with a delicious filling (usually sweet red bean paste).
People rave about the market’s green mochi. The green mochi gets flavored with burdock leaves and won’t overwhelm your taste buds. It’s perfect for those who don’t like super sweet desserts.
I recommend the mochi stuffed with fruit.
Mochi with strawberries are common in Japan… but Nishiki Market is the only place I’ve seen rice-cake filled with mandarin oranges. It tastes as good as it sounds!
Other Types of Mochi
You can try dried mochi at the market.
Some have two circles stacked on top of each other. These get used as offerings in temples and household shrines.
You can also buy mochi in small, rectangular pieces for home use. One of the stores even gives you the chance to grill your own mochi. It’s well worth trying.
They offer English instructions – but the process is pretty self-explanatory. You toast your mochi over the grill until they warp and bubble, with a light toasting of brown. You then dust your mochi with sauce and spices and enjoy!
Other Types of Rice Cakes
You can also try a few other varieties of rice cakes at Nishiki Market.
The other cakes you might want to try include:
- Dango – small rice-cakes on a skewer
- Goma-dango – small rice cakes rolled in sesame seeds
- Yatsuhashi – triangular mochi stuffed with fillings, a Kyoto specialty
Yatsuhashi look a bit like uncooked wantons. They can get baked, but more often you just eat them as they are.
You can choose from an astonishing variety of fillings.
Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine
The Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine has a history dating back over 1,000 years.
The shrine has had a few different homes. It moved to the current location during the Meiji period.
The shrine is a very popular place to visit – especially for students.
The shrine features a statue of a cow. The cow gives good grades to anyone who rubs his head (supposedly).
He’s the patron saint of students.
Too old for school? You can still have some fun making a wish with a Daigan-Ume.
Most Shinto shrines have flat boards called ema (絵馬 – literally meaning picture horse). You write a wish on an ema and then hang your board in the designated area.
The Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine doesn’t offer any wish-making with ema. Instead, it uses wooden “Daigan-Ume” shaped like plums. You write your request on a piece of paper, tuck it inside your wooden plum, and hang it from a tree.
Make sure you taste the water when you visit the shrine.
The water is of an exceptionally good quality, and it’s the reason for Nishiki Market’s existence. The natural spring keeps the ground around it cool.
The cool atmosphere helps fish stay fresh longer. Fishmongers found the area an ideal place to sell their seafood. The market grew up around the fish until it developed into the Nishiki Market of today.
Is Nishiki Market Worth Visiting?
You might not think of food as being on the same cultural level as temples or art… but Kyoto’s food is as important to the city’s heritage as the temples, art, and gardens.
Nishiki Market is the best place to see and sample the authentic Kyoto. A two-hour visit should be a must on any visit to the city.
Your taste buds will thank you!
Nishiki Market Hours
The hours vary from store to store. Most open around 9:00am – 10:00am and close by 6:00pm.
Getting to Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market sits smack in the middle of Kyoto.
The location makes it very easy to reach. There are several ways to get to Nishiki Market.
The Shijo-Takakura stop sits right down the street from the market (in front of the Daimaru Department Store). It’s a 2-minute walk from the stop to the market.
I find Kyoto’s bus system harder to navigate than the city’s subway, so I usually take the subway. It’s only a 5-minute walk (or less) away from the market.
From Shijo Station on the Karasuma Line
Get off your train and go through the ticket gates. Follow the signs toward exit 13.
The exit takes you to the street level outside the Kyoto Muse. Walk in the same direction as the traffic (it’s a one-way street), and turn left at the first road.
Walk for one block and turn right. The Nishiki Market is straight ahead.
From Karasuma Station on the Hankyu Kyoto Line
Walk towards the Hankyu Karasuma Station and look for exit 13.
Once you reach exit 13, follow the directions from exit 13 of Shijo Station above (it’s the same exit).
From Kawaramachi Station on the Hankyu Kyoto Line
Take exit 9 and walk straight down the side street this puts you on.
In a few minutes you’ll reach Nishiki Tenmangu, the shrine marking the end of Nishiki Market.
Pay your respects – and then turn left and enjoy the market!
Visit the market on a nice day to avoid the crowds.
Wait… what? The market gets less crowded during nice weather?
What do you think of when they hear the term “market?” Many people picture a farmer’s market, or something similar. They imagine something outdoors, full of local produce, and very down to earth.
The Japanese take a different approach to markets. The Nishiki Market is actually a long, covered shopping street.
The roof keeps the rain out. This makes it a popular destination during bad weather.
To experience the market without the crowds, I suggest you visit on the nicest, sunniest day you can! In general, going on a weekday will be less crowded than on the weekdays.
Your Turn: Have You Been to the Nishiki Market in Osaka?
If so, what did you try there? Did you try the octopus on a quail egg, or were you playing it safe with some pickles?
What was the best thing you tried? Did we miss anything we should have covered? Let us know in the comments!
Finally, don’t forget to share the article with your foodie friends. They’ll thank you once they try the food at the Nishiki Market in Osaka!
If you guys decide to visit the market, please let me know. I want to go with you!