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Welcome to Kyoto, a city renowned for its rich culinary traditions and exquisite craftsmanship. I hope you’ve had the opportunity to explore the iconic temples and shrines, take leisurely strolls along the beautiful Kamogawa river, and perhaps even enjoyed a memorable meal under the blooming sakura trees. Kyoto is a city that offers a plethora of gastronomic delights, but navigating its culinary scene can sometimes be challenging, especially for those unfamiliar with its intricacies.

As a chef who has called Kyoto home for the past 10 years, I’m here to offer you some valuable tips to make your culinary exploration smoother and more enjoyable.

Do your research and make your bookings in advance

Kyoto is a relatively compact city, and as one of Japan’s top tourist destinations, it can get incredibly busy. This popularity means that securing a table at the best restaurants in Kyoto can be quite challenging, often requiring reservations made well in advance.

It’s not uncommon to hear stories of travelers resorting to fast food options like McDonald’s or Burger King due to the lack of available seats at dinner time. While it’s true that you can still find satisfying meals in Kyoto, the most exceptional dining experiences typically require early reservations to avoid disappointment.

Do use the proper greetings and manners

Saying « itadakimasu » before beginning your meal and « gochisosamadesu » at the end will greatly contribute to your dining experience. Japanese culture places great emphasis on clear-cut manners and phrases, and making the effort to use them will earn you the respect of locals. As someone who has worked in restaurants in Kyoto for 7 years, I’ll share a secret with you: restaurateurs often feel stressed by the presence of tourists.

Japan has exceptional service standards, but the language barrier can pose challenges for establishments without English-speaking staff. By showing that you’re enjoying your time and making an effort to engage, particularly when seated at a counter, you’ll witness amazing results. You’ll earn the respect and admiration of both chefs and fellow diners, and you might even make some new friends along the way!

Sushi Fukagawa, photography by Sagar Patel

Do take time to wander

This is general advice. I understand that you may have a fully booked schedule with temple visits, shrines, and other activities, but it’s important to take a breather because it’s impossible to see everything in one lifetime. Trying to grasp twelve centuries of culture in a single trip is challenging, to say the least, so save yourself the stress and leave your FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) on the plane.

If you encounter a long line at Ginkakuji, consider taking a stroll down the Philosopher’s Path instead. If you find yourself stuck in a crowded uphill street to Kiyomizu-dera, take the cemetery route to reach the top. If the soba shop at Kinkakuji is full, change your plans and try the local ramen you spotted along the way. Give Google Maps a rest and trust your instincts. The entire city is like a museum, so be confident and venture away from the crowds.

After all, you’re on vacation.

“If you blink, you might miss it. You might miss the wet floor at the threshold, symbolically cleansing you before the meal begins. You might overlook the flower arrangement in the corner, a spare expression of the passing season.”

Matt Goulding

Soba Kawaramichiya Youro

Don’t (blindly) trust booking platforms

Kyoto is bustling with tourists, and many businesses invest a significant amount of time and money to increase their exposure. However, exposure does not always guarantee quality. Kyoto is a city with an overwhelming number of restaurants that have been operating since long before the telegraph was even invented. While social media and booking platforms are tools of the modern age, Kyoto remains profoundly ancient in its ways.

While it is common for modern businesses to self-promote through the internet, Kyoto takes a more old-school approach. The culture of culinary excellence has been deeply rooted in the city since the 8th century, and its finest chefs dedicate their time to preserving Kyoto’s culinary traditions and honing their craft, as any restaurateur should. In Kyoto, great food leads to happy customers and a thriving business, without the need for excessive fuss.

The city has an immense culinary world that is hidden from the web, waiting for you to discover. Rub shoulders with locals and ask for recommendations; they know the best spots and will be proud to share their favorite addresses with you.

Don’t assume anything

Born in France, I’ve had the opportunity to spend half of my life in several countries in Asia, and I believe Japan is unlike any other country. From craftsmanship and manga to hikikomoris and the arduous working culture, the Land of the Rising Sun never ceases to amaze me.

Japanese cuisine, with its diversity and exoticism, is sure to impress both amateurs and professionals. However, I would like to clarify that one’s experience of Japanese food abroad might be quite different from what is eaten in the homeland.

I often advise my customers to take a leap of faith and try foods that may seem odd outside of Japan. I have had awkward discussions with guests, convincing them that fugu no shirako (blowfish sperm) has never killed anyone in our restaurant (yet) and is absolutely delicious.

It’s impossible for any person to enjoy all the food in the world, and chefs understand this very well. They will always highly appreciate it if you just give something a try. No pressure! Keep your mind open, and you might discover delicacies you never thought you’d enjoy.

Fugu no shirako, blowfish sperm

Time in Kyoto is always well spent

Regardless of where you land, I advise heading straight to Kyoto as your first destination. Japan’s big cities can be quite hectic with their fast pace and seemingly infinite number of things to do. If you plan on relaxing and enjoying your vacation, you might want to save the big city experience for when you’re well-rested. The calmer atmosphere of Kyoto will ease your entry into Japan and give you time to recharge. After all, it is the main cultural center of the country, so you’ll have plenty to do. Enjoy the imperial city and even consider extending your stay if you feel like it; you won’t regret it.

Experiencing Tokyo after a visit to Kyoto will give you a broad perspective of the country as a whole. Japan is home to polar opposites, and by visiting both Kyoto and the capital, you will firsthand witness the consensus between old and new, tradition and modernism, Kaiseki and Japanese-influenced Western cuisine. Enjoy and relax first, and keep the megalopolis frenzy for later.

Julien Doukhan

Founder of Makasete

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