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Kyoto Cuisine

What is now known as Kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine) has been perfected, refined and updated for over 1,200 years, starting from the time Japan's capital moved from Nara to Kyoto. It is typically defined by multi-course meals that highlight the freshest local seasonal produce, subtly flavored so that the essence of each ingredient is enhanced, but not overpowered. Special care is taken in the presentation of each dish, on which small portions are artfully arranged on carefully chosen tableware.

The origin for this is interesting. Kyoto’s subtle seasoning was initially born out of necessity. Because Kyoto is a landlocked city surrounded by mountains, salt had to be imported from afar, and being expensive, was used sparingly. Likewise, true Kyo-ryori typically features less fish (especially ocean fish) than the rest of Japan, although river fish, such as ayu, appear in the mountains. Various methods of preserving fish have led to special kinds of sushi, which we will talk about in another section.

The city of Kyoto is situated on a dried lake, with many natural springs, two main rivers and many streams, and it has long been known for its fertile land and its excellent supply of fresh, sweet water. This lucky confluence produces some of the best vegetables in the world, as well as the most delicious tofu, as both are dependent on a fresh supply of good water. Thus, Kyo-ryori features a vast array of vegetables and tofu, cooked in a multitude of ways; humble ingredients elevated to the level of art. Visitors may notice that there is a reverence given to Kyoto vegetables amongst Kyoto-ites that is unusual, almost approaching a religious devotion. The availability of cheap imported vegetables holds no sway over a true devotee.

This low-salt, low-fat diet, based on such a high consumption of vegetables and tofu, makes Kyo-ryori one of the healthiest in the world. If you believe, like I do, that you truly are what you eat, it is no wonder that Kyoto’s residents, long reared on such an ideal diet, are some of the world’s most beautiful people as well. On top of this, Kyoto’s long textile- and kimono-producing tradition has added a sense of style and refinement to this natural beauty that is amazing to behold. I always feel like a country cousin when I visit.

In addition to fashion, Kyoto has long been a center of the arts and crafts, and the elegance of its ceramic and lacquerware is world famous. A typical Kyoto family owns a large collection of ceramic, bamboo, lacquer and wooden tableware that has been handed down for generations. It is a point of pride to display each course in its most appropriate setting: the shape, color, and texture must highlight and enhance the food and hence, its enjoyment. It is where the cook becomes the artist, and the guest is encouraged to eat with the eyes as well as the mouth and stomach.

Today, Kyoto is a fascinating mix of old and new. While you are more likely to see people dressed in kimono here than in other parts of Japan, you are just as likely to see the latest trends in fashion as well. Since Kyoto’s rents are more affordable than Tokyo’s, and since it largely remains a city of neighborhoods made up of low-slung buildings, tiny storefronts abound, making it possible for young, talented chefs and artists to open galleries, restaurants and coffee shops. Some of these are in beautiful machiya (traditional townhouses). With Kyoto’s reputation as a premier destination, tourists and visitors abound, bringing a steady stream of customers. Yet, because competition is so fierce, prices are kept low in comparison to Tokyo.

There are many different categories of Kyo-ryori, such as Kaiseki (formal multicourse meals) Cha-kaiseki (meals to be served as part of a full tea ceremony) and Shojin-ryori (vegetarian temple cuisine).

Above: the starter course at Kinmata Ryokan. Kyoto cuisine features subtle flavors, locally produced seasonal ingredients and artful presentation on elegant tableware.
Kyo-yasai (Kyoto vegetables), including red Kyoto carrot and mitsuba, at Nishiki Market.
A colorful array of kozara (small dishes) include Kiyomizu-yaki, a local specialty. These tiny covered dishes are meant to hold small portions of rare and expensive delicacies.
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