Kyoto has a thriving dining scene. As well as ochyaya where you can experience the performance of maiko and geisha, there is a myriad of other experiences to be had. Dive down tiny alleyways framed by ancient temples to find upscale yakitori, slow fusion gastronomy, ryokan dining and exquisite Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. We take you to four of our favorites.

Chef’s Choice

It’s been open little more than a year, but newcomer Cainoya has already snagged a Michelin-star for its slow food ethos. Chef Yasushi Kawashita made his name in Kagoshima, creating haute Italian. For his new restaurant, near Nishiki Market, the focus is on seasonal, slow-cooked, farm-to-table omakase (chef’s selection) that packs an umami punch. There is more than a nod to classic Italian fused with Japanese flavors. Think snow crab arancini in kombu crab broth, Spanish mackerel simply paired with curry vegetable tempura or miso-infused yellowtail on a pillow of black radish puree. The wine pairing is excellent, as is the dramatic black space with its communal table and front row seats to all the theatre of the kitchen.

Alleyway of Nishiki Market
a man cooking chicken skewers

Skewered chicken is a favorite regardless where you go in Kyoto

Live Like a Local

Yakitori (skewered chicken) is the star at Sumibi Torito, an upscale izakaya (informal bar) popular with locals. The buzzy dining room, with its large wooden counter and funky black walls illustrated with birds, is a bustling spot most nights. The sake and draught beer flows freely, the wine list is good, and the izakaya sizzles on hot coals until golden. Perch at the bar to watch all the action or snag a table and graze a neck-to-tail menu of traditional and more inventive yakitori.

Think chicken thigh with quail eggs, liver paired with pickled garlic and jellyfish, or crispy skin wings. Adventurous palates can order the ‘popcorn’ chicken cartilage or raw chicken yakitori, a delicacy in Japan. Don’t miss the signature tsukune – two moist chicken meatball skewers served with raw egg yolk for dipping.

Kyo-royori on small plates

Kyo-ryori, a traditional cuisine developed in Kyoto

Go Zen

In a city with more than 1,600 temples, there are plenty of places to try shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine) but Ajiro is one of the best. The Michelin-starred fine diner near Myoshin-ji temple complex has been around for more than 50 years, dishing up beautifully presented root to leaf degustation that is both seasonal and local. In any season that could mean a dollop of seafoam shiso sorbet, a tiny square of goma tofu (sesame ‘tofu’) topped with grated ginger and a sprig of pepper flowers, or a rich broth of shiitake mushrooms, ginkgo nuts and creamy silken tofu.

The bento lunch is a relaxed affair, but dinner is a highlight for its soymilk hotpot. The yuba (tofu skin) is a Kyoto speciality and a delicious bite between courses. Expect traditional tatami mat seating, though table dining is available on request.

lanterns hanging in a market

Stay and Play

Yoshikawa Tempura is popular for good reason. The intimate 12-seat counter restaurant near the Imperial Palace fries up light-as-air tempura that’s as crisp as it is fresh. Wafer-thin prawn, hamo (sea eel), sweet figs, a harvest moon of creamy pumpkin, tender asparagus or baby corn make up a multi-course kasekei, served with a side of rice, soup and pickles. Part of a luxe ryokan hotel, Yoshikawa has history in spades. It was built from a tearoom salvaged from the 1964 Olympics and sits within a 100-year-old merchant building and ornamental garden that dates to the Samurai. The views are sublime, as is its old-world charm, but it’s the tempura that’s the real star – heavenly bites of seafood and seasonal vegetables fried to perfection by an artisan tempura chef.