Exploring Kyoto: Nishiki Markets, Gion and Kaiseki

It’s been a while between Japan posts but I’m trying to get through everything before I head to Japan again in less than 30 days! (not that I’m counting). After travelling through Hokkaido and catching a quick flight to Osaka, we used Osaka as a base to explore other areas in the region. After travelling through Hokkaido and catching a quick flight to Osaka, we used Osaka as a base to explore other areas in the region.

Entrance to Remm Shin-Osaka

We stayed at the remm hotel in Shin-Osaka station which was a clean and ultra modern hotel within the station building. Being at a major train station that had several train lines going through it meant that it was a great location to travel easily to other cities via the shinkansen, which also made good use of our JR passes.

We had to be quite ruthless in whittling down our itinerary seeing as we only had a few days in Osaka. Since neither Sir D nor I were particularly interested in sightseeing temples and stuff, we decided to do a couple of touristy sightseeing things before spending time on the more important things – food!

1000 torii gates

On our way to Kyoto, we stopped at Inari station to see the Fushimi Inari shrine. As we walked up the mountain, the torii gates became smaller but more numerous, until we got to senbon torii (thousands of torii gates), where the trail split into two pathways. It was quite a breathtaking sight to walk through a tunnel of bright orange, with the rays of sunlight filtering through the small spaces between the dense torii gates and reflecting off the wood to give an orange glow.

Inscriptions on each torii

The shrine is dedicated to the god Inari, the god of kitsune (foxes), fertility, rice, sake, agriculture and industry. It’s no surprise then that there are fox souvenirs and statues scattered around the shrine.

Kitsune fortunes

From there, we headed to Kyoto where we visited Nijo Castle, home to the shoguns of the Tokugawa shogunate from 1603 onwards. In 1939, the castle was no longer used as an Imperial Palace and was donated to Kyoto city. Since then, the castle and its lush garden surrounds have been preserved, and it is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Nijo Castle

Entry to the castle grounds costs 600 yen, which allows you to walk through the castle grounds, up to the keep, and inside the buildings when they are open.

Looking over the castle grounds

After all that walking, we were pretty hungry. Luckily our next stop was Nishiki Market, a long arcade of small shops selling all sorts of food-related goods, from rice and pickles, to knives and chopstick holders.

Inside Nishiki Market

While there are restaurants within the market, we decided to stroll leisurely through the arcade while eating bits and pieces of whatever took our fancy – fishcakes, fried things on sticks and the most amazing warabi mochi ever!

Pickled and preserved vegetables
Fried snacks
Knife store
A store dedicated to mochi
Eating warabi mochi

We later made our way to Gion, an area in Kyoto known for its well-preserved ochaya (teahouses) and wooden machiya (merchant houses) as well as geisha sightings. We walked down Shijo-dori, the main street running through Gion, before making a turn onto Hanami-koji-dori, which had a high concentration of these wooden shopfronts. It almost felt like we had walked into a different era, and though many of the shops have now turned into restaurants, there are still a some ochaya interpersed amongst the buildings.

Traditional wooden merchant house on Hanami-koji-dori

One of the main reasons tourists come here is to see geisha or maiko. This actually proved quite difficult as there were soooo many tourists who had paid to be dressed up as a maiko that it was difficult to tell who was just in costume and who was legit. Our theory was that a true maiko or geisha would probably be alone, or with other maiko/geisha (as opposed to other people dressed in Western clothes).

Sakura along Hanami-koji-dori

As dusk approached, we did spy a few who we thought were real maiko or geisha – walking alone and with a great sense of purpose, which is probably something you would be doing if you were on your way to a client engagement at an ochaya compared to sightseeing as a tourist. We’ll never know whether they were real or not, but luckily they weren’t being chased down by paparazzi tourists trying to take a photo with them as we’ve heard can happen in tourist areas.

A real geisha?

Later that night though, we saw a swarm of tourists, cameras in hand, crowding outside what we presumed to be a teahouse on Hanami-koji-dori. We assumed that they were all waiting for a poor maiko or geisha to walk out so they could ambush them with flash photography, and Sir D even got told off by a tourist for simply standing outside the teahouse as he waited for me to snap a couple of photos of the street!

Hanami-koji-dori at night

For dinner that night, we decided to have a kaiseki meal in the Gion district. We had no idea where to go for a good kaiseki meal, so a quick Google search led us to one Michelin-starred Gion Nanba, a kaiseki restaurant on a very-hard-to-find alleyway off Shijo-dori, just near the Yasaka Shrine.

Spring vegetables, baby squid, shellfish and tomato

An 8-course kaiseki menu set us back 9500JPY per person (about 100AUD), including a 10% service charge. While the staff spoke limited English, they made their best attempts to explain every dish to us, even resorting to using a Japanese-English dictionary to translate! A nice gesture which we very much appreciated.

Fishball with broad beans, prawn, carrot and bamboo shoot

The kaiseki meal revolved around seasonal ingredients, so there was liberal use of sakura seeing as it was cherry blossom season. We also noticed that there was lots of red sea bream or madai on the menu, also known as sakuradai due to the seasonal availability of this fish which coincides with sakura season. The fish is considered to be an auspicious and is highly prized in Japan, and eaten particularly during celebratory periods.

Assorted sashimi: katsuo with ponzu, squid, tuna, sea bream

The produce is extremely fresh and prepared expertly, and there’s no doubt that there has been a lot of time and effort into showcasing the ingredients in the best way possible.

Saba (mackerel) sushi, cherry salmon tempura, sea bream roe, whitebait, miso vegetables with octopus

This course is one of the most visually appealing, with small portions of each dish arranged artfully on a plate with cherry blossoms.

Saba sushi and cherry salmon tempura

My favourite section of the course is the saba sushi and cherry salmon tempura. The saba (mackerel) has been marinated in vinegar and pressed on top of a small rectangle of sushi rice. The cherry salmon tempura is a piece of salmon wrapped in a cherry leaf, and deep fried in a light tempura batter. The flavour of the cherry leaf permeates through the salmon flesh, and it’s simple an amazing piece of fried fish.

Sea bream roe and whitebait

This funny looking stuff is sea bream roe – we ate it but to be honest I don’t think I really knew how to appreciate it…

Grilled sea bream with broccolini
Sea bream in a rice ball with cherry leaf

Sea bream and cherry leaves make another appearance in this soup dish. Hidden underneath the thick soup is a small rice ball filled with fish and wrapped in a cherry leaf. There’s also the subtle floral flavour of cherry leaf and blossom in the soup itself.

Rice with beans, pickles and red miso soup

By this stage I am seriously full, so feeling kind of relieved that it’s our last savoury dish of rice with beans, a side of pickles and red miso soup.

Sakura ice cream with mochi and strawberries

Dessert is a simple and light affair, with cherry blossom ice cream, a small ball or mochi and sliced strawberries.

The whole meal took a couple of hours, but it was a couple of hours of enjoying carefully, skilfully and artistically prepared food, with each dish a feast on the eyes and the tastebuds. We were a little undecided whether to splurge on a kaiseki meal but I’m so glad we did because it was such an amazing experience.

One day in Kyoto was too short to see and do everything, so the next time we are in Japan (and not solely focused on skiing!) there will definitely be a return visit. Until next time, Kyoto!

Fushimi Inari Shrine
68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho
Fushimi Ward, Kyoto
Kyoto Prefecture 612-0882 Japan
Ph: +81 75-641-7331
Open all year round. Free entry.

Nijo Castle
541 Nijojocho
Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto
Kyoto Prefecture 604-8301 Japan
Open 7 days, 8.45am to 4pm. Entry 600 yen.

Nishiki Market
609 Nishikikoji-dori
Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto
Kyoto Prefecture 604-8054 Japan
Ph: +81 75-211-3882
Opening times vary by store, typically 9am to 6pm with shop closures on Wednesdays or Sundays

Hanami-koji Street in Gion

Gion Nanba
Hanami-koji Higashiiru, Shijo,
Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Kyoto Prefecture 604-8167 Japan
Ph: +81 75-525-0768
Lunch: 11.30am-2pm, Dinner: 5pm-10pm

6 thoughts on “Exploring Kyoto: Nishiki Markets, Gion and Kaiseki”

  1. We only did one day in Kyoto too…. After experiencing a kaiseki meal (in Tokyo), I’d have to say Japanese casual / street eats are much more my cup of tea.

    It’s hard to go wrong anywhere in Japan, but all the specialty ramen, soba, katsudon, yakitori(!) places – SO good!

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