Features 11 December 2019

Brief encounter: Kyoto

Its ancient architecture preserved by a miracle, Kyoto is also a gastronomic paradise, second only to Tokyo and Paris when it comes to Michelin-starred restaurants

Words by Andy Hayler

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The name Henry Stimson may not be known to most visitors to Kyoto, but they have reason to be thankful to the former US Secretary of War. Stimson had honeymooned in the city and intervened to remove it from the list of atomic bomb targets during the Second World War, thus ensuring it avoided the fate of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Today, the city embodies traditional Japan. The capital until 1868, Kyoto is the spiritual centre of the country. With 1,600 temples and seemingly endless ornamental gardens, it is a delight to visit, offering a vivid insight into old Japan and its culture, from the geisha district of Gion to the charming shops of the old town. And with mountains on three sides, Kyoto also offers a wealth of natural features, not least the astonishing bamboo forest at Arashiyama on the outskirts of the city. 

Pontocho district
A lantern in the Gion district

Kyoto is the home of kaiseki cuisine, the most formal of the Japanese styles of cooking. Originally a part of the ancient tea ceremony, kaiseki is a multi­stage menu focused on seasonal produce, each course featuring different culinary techniques. Western tasting menus were inspired by kaiseki. The exact length and sequence of the meal is decided by the chef, but you will usually encounter sashimi (raw fish), a course involving a simmered dish, a soup, a flame-grilled dish and an ultra-seasonal dish. A kaiseki meal always ends with rice and pickles before a simple dessert. 

Kyoto is awash with Michelin stars – the highest density per capita of any city in the world

Kyoto is awash with Michelin stars. There are seven three-star restaurants, 22 two-stars and 75 with one star – the highest density of Michelin stars per capita of any city in the world. The most famous is Kitcho, where you dine in a large private room with a view out over an attractive garden with a waterfall. In common with many other top kaiseki places, there’s no communal dining room at Kitcho; the point is to make you feel as if you are the sole guest. The service is so carefully choreographed that you’ll never see another diner during your visit. Another of the three-star places, Mizai, set within a lovely park, has just half a dozen diners per service, with its reservation list stretching out over a year ahead. So rich are the culinary pickings in Kyoto that Tempura Matsu, a kaiseki restaurant that for me compared well to most of the three-star restaurants in the city, does not even get a single star in the Michelin guide. Meanwhile, the chef at Nakahigashi, a two-star restaurant, pioneered foraging decades before René Redzapi made the practice famous at Noma in Copenhagen. 

Chef Hitoshi Ishihara at Mizai
Noddle dish hour soba at Honke Owariya

Although Kyoto is noted for kaiseki, you can find pretty much any style of Japanese eatery here, from tempura to sushi to ramen and beyond. An example is Honke Owariya, a 16th-generation restaurant that has been selling soba noodles for centuries and dates back to 1465. Although less cosmopolitan than Tokyo, Kyoto is also home to some excellent dining options that offer foreign cuisines, such as the French food at Embellir or the exceptional Spanish food at Aca. You can even find a curry, at the popular Mughal Indian restaurant.

Kyoto’s culture, shaped over many centuries and thankfully preserved, is unique. If you’re a first-time visitor to Japan, you should aim to spend the majority of your time here. As you wander through the gorgeous ornamental gardens or explore the Gion area in the twilight among exquisitely dressed geishas, you feel as though you have been transported to an earlier, magical time.

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