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Sunday, June 12, 2005


Feast your eyes and more

Staff Writer

When it comes to food in the Kansai region, Kyoto is not the first place that springs to mind. Kyoto folk, the saying goes, spend their money on good clothes, whereas people from Osaka spend their money on good food.

News photo
Tofu on display at a specialty shop in Kyoto's Nishiki shotengai

Traditionally, this was due to Kyoto being a long way from the sea, meaning that fresh fish was not as readily available there as in coastal cities. However, Kyoto has nothing to be ashamed of gastronomically -- and there is no better proof of that than a visit to the city's famed Nishiki Shotengai.

Located just north of, and parallel to, Shijo Street in central Kyoto, Nishiki Shotengai runs for about 400 meters until it bisects another shotengai called Shinkyogoku. A walk along it takes you past nearly 160 shops and food stalls. The finest green teas from the Uji region, numerous traditional Kyoto spices for dishes ranging from tempura to unagi (eel) and fish from Lake Biwa packed in brine and Kyoto's famous soft tofu, which comes in huge white bricks are all on display.

And then there are the pickles. Dozens and dozens of varieties of tsukemono (pickles) in all shapes, colors and sizes, ranging from almost bland to super sour. "Pickles are to Kyotoites what cheese is to the French. A true Kyoto gourmet will know exactly which pickles go with which dishes. The top restaurants and ryokan in Kyoto are very fussy about ensuring that just the right pickle goes with just the right foods," says Mineko Hasegawa, who manages a small shop that specializes in tsukemono from the Shiga region.

Nishiki shotengai's orgins date back to the early 1300s, when the area began selling fish from both Lake Biwa and from the Osaka region. Many of the shops have been in business for centuries, and have provided fare to the same inns, restaurants and local families for just as long. Like most food markets around the world, Nishiki is usually busiest in the early morning, as chefs, restaurateurs and innkeepers jam the market.

The great thing about Nishiki, and probably the main reason it is one of the city's top tourist attractions, is that you can enter the shotengai on an empty stomach and exit completely stuffed without having spent a single yen. The foodstalls give away samples to passersby, and you can also sample something before you buy it. Whether it's crunchy prawn tempura, the first rice of the year with a couple of pickles on the side, broiled eel, yakitori or kushi katsu skewers -- or one of the many different kinds of Kyoto sweets -- here there really is such a thing as a free lunch. And to wash it all down, try some of the various local sake brands that several sellers carry.

There are prices to fit every budget, as evidenced by one store carrying a bottle of a very rare local sake priced at 645,000 yen. Recently, some sho chu has also become available in some sake shops, too.

While Nishiki is primarily in business for food and drink, it does have other shops. Some of these are tacky tourist traps and best avoided. Others are small dry goods stores that serve the needs of the surrounding neighborhoods. Many of these have gone into business very recently (in Nishiki, that means in the last half-century), having been sold to outsiders after previous owners died.

The influx of shops in Nishiki catering to the tourist trade has been greeted with mixed emotions. While many merchants, like Hasegawa, feel that as long as the traditions and customs of the market are respected, anybody should be able to set up shop, others worry that their long-term customers will go elsewhere if there are too many tourists.

"Recently, Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market announced it was going to restrict tourists. That's because it is not a tourist attraction but a place of serious business," said Masaharu Kubota, who works at a fish shop there. "I'm not sure about the wisdom of the restrictions, but, in Nishiki, we need to be able to take care of our traditional customers without having to worry about tourists coming to gawk." (E.J.)

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