Kyoto is an amazing city. Its easy to cruise around on a rented bicycle and there are endless cafes and restaurants that you pass and go “oooh, I want to go there!” as you whiz by. We spent a total of 10 days in Kyoto and you may think, ‘Wow what do you even do in Kyoto for 10 days?’ and the answer is you eat. And drink. Bike, eat, drink, bike, eat, drink, sleep repeat. This is how we travel, and if you are reading this post there’s a good chance you do too. Kyoto is such a chill city with such incredibly unique, well designed restaurants and cafes that not only serve up delicious food but also make the entire experience more memorable or relaxing. I would live in this city if I could.
A few friendly tips to make your time in Japan more enjoyable: First, remember that Japan runs on a schedule and as a culture they prize punctuality. So even if you aren’t on a schedule since you are on vacation, understand that you won’t be able to do everything you want to do without at least a little planning. For example, many restaurants open for lunch only for a couple hours and then close again until dinner. If you don’t think ahead, you could find yourself hungry between the hours of 2-6pm with very few places to go.
Also, the Japanese love their reservations. Many restaurants in Japan worth going to are small with limited seating. If there is no way for you to call or book online, try to go in person a day before because there are no guarantees for walk-ins if they are already booked. That being said, Japanese are extremely hospitable people and will not only do everything in their power to accommodate you, but will communicate wait times clearly and profusely apologize if they cannot seat you right away. As a punctual nation, they respect your time as much as their own and don’t want you to waste it.
Many restaurants in Japan allow smoking indoors and this can become a problem for non-smokers, especially at night, when the Japanese are off work and hitting the izakayas to relax. When the Japanese drink, they smoke. Ironically enough, its considered rude to smoke outdoors, as this is a common space for everyone, but inside a restaurant is somewhere you've chosen to be so it’s fair game, which is a reverse of the thinking in Western countries. So don’t be alarmed when you walk in some restaurants in the evening and get hit with the smell of cigarette smoke. Some restaurants understand that as a foreigner you may be particularly sensitive to this and can at the very least seat you in a part of the restaurant that is the least smoky or may be relegated to non smokers.
Lastly, don’t stress about the language. Everything we heard and read about Japan was how no one speaks English. But upon visiting we found that many Japanese, especially in the restaurant industry, speak at least a few crucial phrases. And deeply engrained in their culture is the need to be hospitable under any circumstances. The customer service in Japan is amazing and tipping would be offensive, because giving you the very best is what they expect of themselves, not anything extra. Not once did I feel judged or unwelcome for not knowing the language or breaking the unspoken cultural rules. Even if they speak NO English, the Japanese will use a big friendly smile, google translate, or escort you personally to wherever you need to go if that’s what it takes. They go to great lengths to make sure you are comfortable and truly feel like a guest in a way that I have honestly never experienced in my travels.
That being said, it doesn't hurt to watch some youtube videos about some of the things that we might want to avoid while in Japan so as to prevent doing something their culture finds offensive, like rubbing the cheap chopsticks together before we use them or taking a business card and throwing it in our purse or pocket as if it’s worthless. But even if you forget and do some of these things, Japanese hospitality wins out and they give us foreigners a pass, so don’t sweat the small stuff.
P.S. The convenience store food is shockingly good. So if all else fails, you know you can actually eat well at any 7-11.
A darling little coffee shop near Nishiki Market we frequented where they are serious about coffee and you want to come when you have enough time to enjoy your slow coffee and the love that went into it. There’s barely any seating but they have still tried to create a relaxing standing environment with a small garden out front.
Not just one of the best places we ate in Kyoto, but one of the more memorable culinary & dining experiences I’ve ever had. From the time you walk in, chef-owner Yoshihiro has created a relaxing environment that makes you feel like you are in your friend’s house watching them cook. It’s an extremely local, seasonal, and vegetable forward menu that changes daily based on what Yoshihiro finds at the market that day. When you walk in, you notice a big pile of produce along the back wall, as the evening progresses the pile dwindles as the produce is used. There’s a wood fire pizza oven that he prepares nearly all 7 courses of food in and although plated and presented in a beautiful, elevated way, the food itself is simple and honest. He uses ingredients and flavors that perhaps you’e never tried before but in a way that is both familiar and comforting. This was the spendiest restaurant we ate at in Kyoto but it was well worth it. Monk is reservation only but you can make reservations online and also specify dietary restrictions or allergies there so he can keep them in mind when he prepares the menu that day.
While many places in Japan can feel pristine and unapproachably quiet, here you feel can free to speak as loud as you wish and get really get comfortable. It’s nestled in an alleyway with plastic sheeting as an entryway and once you’re in, you feel completely cozy. They serve rotating local craft beers on tap and a wide range of sake, but in addition to having an amazing selection of unique beers, they have a rockstar chef that is pumping out some of the yummiest food, one order at a time in his very small kitchen. It was some of the most incredible Izakaya food we ate on our entire trip, so much so that we came back a second time before we left Kyoto. We ordered a sashimi plate that was some of the softest, best quality tasting fish I’ve experienced, but the tempura, fried chicken, even the gateau chocolat were incredible. If I lived in Kyoto, I would be a regular here.
This is where you come for sushi art. This is a set menu and a truly unique experience. I came in person to make reservations and almost couldn’t find it. Sometimes I think the better places in Japan intentionally make themselves hard to find. I got us in for dinner two nights later and they took note of food allergies then. When you come, you are welcomed into a very quiet but still inviting space and they bring you a tray of 12 bite sized fish & vegetable pairings, arranged meticulously along with various seasonings, soup, sushi rice, soy sauce, and nori. This is where the choose your own adventure begins. You can pick up all these little flavor bomb combinations and roll your own sushi as you like! It was so fun and absolutely delicious; even some of the combinations I was more apprehensive about were scrumptious. I also enjoyed that it pushed me a little outside of my comfort zone and I tried things I probably wouldn’t if I had ordered for myself. At about $20 a person I felt this was extremely well priced for how much time and effort had gone into the food creations we consumed.
This was often our home away from home while we were in Kyoto. We weren’t even guests at the hostel, but this place has great vibes and we always felt welcome to come and chill. Places that are open from morning till night without closing mid-day are a rare find in Japan, and this was a space we could come between 2-5pm when everything else was closed and get comfy or bang out a few hours of work on the laptop without feeling like we were taking up a seat that someone was waiting for. They serve up delicious coffee, soy chai lattes and basic pastries in the morning, then in the evening switch to a full dinner menu. They rotate local craft beers on tap and have a full bar. Basically you can come here any time of day and be happy you did.
Kyoto is famous all over Japan for their Tofu and Yuba, or Tofu Skin. Wherever I travel, I like to try what that region is well known for, so this little vegan spot seemed like the best place to try a tofu-based meal. It’s easy to miss and a fun adventure trying to find down a little alleyway off of Nishiki Market. The bustle and crowdedness of the market makes this quiet little oasis a welcome find. We went for lunch and enjoyed a very reasonably priced set for the amount of food. There was a rice bowl with mushrooms and yuba that was absolutely delicious but what was the standout for me was the little dish of plain tofu in shoyu. It has been my experience in the past that tofu is bland and flavorless, but this tofu was silky smooth and had so much flavor by itself, it was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to really enjoy this little spot.
WIFE AND HUSBAND
Maybe the Coolest coffee shop ever? As implied, owned by a husband and wife team that happen to be the cutest. The shop is small and charming, filled to the brim with antiques but still had a Japanese minimalism to it that made me crush on every square inch of the place. They roast their own beans and use a hand grinder to grind them. They don’t have fancy espresso drinks, just straightforward coffee and tea, hot or iced but they were delicious and clearly made with love. There will most likely be a wait outside, as there are only a few seats inside. We waited about 15 mins for a table and wanted to enjoy our coffee inside the shop, but many opt to rent wooden furniture and a customized basket of coffee and toast so they can take it up to the nearby river front for a picnic. Definitely check their website for opening hours, as they are not open the same days every week. Its waaaaaay up in the northwest corner of the city, but I promise you it’s worth the trip.
Kyoto Nama Chocolat
An oasis of calm, tucked away and surrounded by gardens, this is a lovely little restaurant serving tea and desserts. The owners are another husband and wife team, the husband is Japanese and the wife is Canadian. She's a lovely woman and so easy to talk to. We came here twice as well, because by the end of the week I was craving both the chocolate and the tranquility it provided again. We ordered an iced matcha tea and nama chocolate sets on both occasions, the chocolate melts in your mouth and the tea was so refreshing. They have a few cake options as well, but you must try Nama Chocolat while you’re in Japan and I can’t think of a better place to do it than here.
These are the fluffy pancakes you’ve been looking for. We did as much Japanese soufflé pancake recon on this trip as we were able, and these were our favorite of the entire trip. Maybe not as perfectly formed as some, clearly flipped by hand, but they were huge— not just tall but wide. I was stuffed after eating my own order. The flavor was not eggy as some can be and they were wonderfully vanilla scented. Be prepared to wait at least 30 mins for these pancakes, because good things take time.
There were so many places contending for the number 10 spot in my head but what it really comes down to is how unique or memorable the experience is, and Stardust is as memorable and unique as a place can get. It’s really far North of downtown so you have to be determined to find it and get to it: even with our bikes it was a solid 30 minute ride. But once you enter, you’re glad it’s off the beaten path and not filled with tourists because its the most elegant space. Vaulted ceilings, rustic wood, candle lit, minimalistic but cozy. It’s a vegetarian cafe, so we enjoyed a chicory cafe au lait with soy and some surprisingly scrumptious whole wheat scones with tofu cream and daily jam. We didn’t plan to stay as long as we did, but ended up staying until closing and left feeling so relaxed and refreshed!
Conveniently located near Kyoto Station, they are serious about their coffee here and you can taste the love. They also make a delicious soy chai.
Traditional cold soba noodle sets and delicious tempura. Also their house cold sake was one of our favorites of the trip.
A cozy but famous ramen shop, you order from a machine but there are very few choices so it’s not too stressful. They serve tsukemen style ramen, where the noodles are served separately from the broth, so you dunk your noodles and slurp them up. The broth is super rich, a little spicy and has a unique flavor that we had never tried before. The noodles are thicker than your average ramen noodles and have a wonderful chew.
A nice cozy place to hang out late at night, lights are strung everywhere and there are beer crates with cushions for seats. A lot of fried fare to choose from, but the real gem here is a small mochi stand serving up really unique, gourmet combinations. It was my dessert of choice on more than one occasion.
Pizza Napoletana that was was right up there with ones I’ve enjoyed in New York or Italy. Come for the pizza, but check the handwritten menu in Italian with specials for the day. Save room for Tiramisu.