Stalls, samples, skewers and specialities: Kyoto’s Nishiki Market is a treasure trove of delicious treats, hearty produce, history—and even a Snoopy Cafe.
In the down-town district of Kyoto you can step straight off the smart, spacious Shijo-dori and into a thriving shopping street filled with locals, visitors and everyone in between. From grandmothers buying pickles to toddlers chewing on skewered octopus heads, there’s something charming about this place, and plenty to explore. And it’s been here, in one form or another, since around 1615 (perhaps even earlier).
With over 100 stalls and shops lining the covered street, Nishiki Market offers a real mixture of produce, although almost all of it is locally-grown and made—usually by those selling it. The growing attention the market receives means that traditional family-run shops stand side by side with newer stores aimed at tourists, although most sell Kyoto-based speciality items in an attempt to fit in. As well as food, you can find plenty of kitchen-related things—from tableware to knives to personalized chopsticks—meaning you can stock your cooking area as well as your fridge.
Nishiki Market: The basics
The 400m-long stretch can take a long time to explore, with each step offering new sights and smells—and an overwhelming choice of food and drink. Shop assistants call for your attention and the passing scents draw you towards them; this is an experience to be enjoyed. While Nishiki Market could be squashed in on the way to nearby Yasaka Shrine, try to give it all the time you can. The market keeps regular hours; it’s up and running by 10am and closed at 6pm, so schedule it during the middle of your day if possible—it’s perfect for lunch or an early dinner.
In keeping with its traditional shotengai (shopping street) style, the area is quite dim; the brightly-colored roof does allow a bit of light in, but mostly lends the street a sense of permanent evening. Although Japan traditionally looks down on eating in the street, there are exceptions, with skewers of meat and fish often offered in more relaxed areas—and here at Nishiki Market, you can feast on them.
Snacks on the go
One of the best ways to explore Nishiki Market is by taste—and there’s certainly plenty of opportunity to do so. There are some snacks you might recognize, while others are a little more unusual. Depending on how adventurous you feel, there’s enough here for a feast, so you can stroll and snack as you like. Some shops have small seating areas where you can take a break if the market is busy. Here are some of the best snacks to try:
A small baby octopus with a quail’s egg inside the head. The little skewered treat is candied and has a strange combination of salt and sweet.
Small balls with a variety of flavors, these are sweet or savory, with cheese options too. They’re a crunchy treat and a great way to try the local sesame flavors. Black sesame is especially delicious, but pick and choose, they’re well worth a try!
Japanese fish cakes
A traditional snack here in Japan and across Asia, fish paste is flavored or given a filling, mixed with flour and deep fried. You can try a variety of flavors, from cheese to mochi, and get a feel for your favorite.
Fresh grapefruit juice
After all this food and especially in summer, a drink is needed, and fruit juice freshly pulped is far better than a vending-machine bottle. At one of the small stalls near Nishiki Shrine, you’ll see a mountain of grapefruit and can have one pulped, juiced and served with a straw as is!
Not originally Japanese, true—but delicious nonetheless. You can try a few freshly-made dumplings to fill you up, with traditional meat fillings.
Mochi in many forms
A sweet you’ll have seen across Japan from supermarkets to street stalls, the sticky rice cake that is mochi comes in many forms, and should be tried in all.
Much like tofu, if you’ve had one type of mochi you didn’t like, don’t let it put you off. Sweet, soft mochi dusted with kinako powder (a sweet toasted soybean flour) has a peanut-like flavor, whereas the chewy dango (balls on a stick) is often dipped in a sweet/salty soy-sauce glaze. If it’s pink and in a leaf, you’re looking at sakura mochi, and if it’s white, it’s kashiwa mochi which is filled with red bean paste and wrapped in an oak leaf. Try one, try all and find your favorite.
Rice crackers with different seasonings, senbei are surprisingly filling and always delicious. You can choose from soy-sauce or a sweet plum-sugar, as well as miso and plain salt. Made for street-eating, nothing beats a freshly-made senbei!
Foods to take home from Nishiki Market
If you’re living in Japan, staying somewhere with a kitchen or have people to give gifts to, then there are some amazing foods to take away with you. To be honest, even if you just try them on a park bench somewhere—they are worth the effort. With a sea of locally-grown, pickled and produced foods, you can’t go wrong, especially if you ask for recommendations from the shop owners. You’ll see plenty of amazing-looking foods on display, but it can be a bit intimidating if you don’t know quite what they are, or how to eat them. So—here is a mini guide to what things are, and what to do with them.
Tsukemono: Pickled vegetables
A side dish with centuries of history in Japan, these pickled vegetables are sold from barrels and trays, still sitting in the brines and rice-brans they were pickled in. With strong flavors and bright colors, they are often very decorative and add a nice sharpness to a meal.
There are two kinds of tsukemono: a short, one-night pickling and a longer one, with the pickling process using miso, salt, soy sauce or rice bran. Some of the most famous types to keep an eye out for are turnip (senmaizuke), turnip leaf with red perilla (suguki), and (among other ingredients) eggplant and cucumber (shibazuke).
Kyoto is the home of tofu, often appearing in the kaiseki meals and as a main feature of the Buddhist vegetarian food of Shojin Ryori. Made from soybeans, tofu has many forms, and if you have been put off in the past by one (usually soft tofu), don’t give up hope yet. Try the thin, fried sheets of age-tofu or the thicker atsu-age tofu. Alternatively, there’s the softer oboro-tofu or yaki-tofu which is grilled—all have their own charm. At Nishiki Market, you can see trays of fresh tofu which can be eaten as is or taken home for dinner, as well as cooked snack versions too!
Tamagoyaki: Japanese omelette
Made by rolling layers of cooked egg together to form a hefty-looking block, tamagoyaki should be fluffy and a little sweet thanks to the mirin used in the cooking.
Not necessarily a Kyoto-speciality, but perfected thanks to the local focus on a more vegetarian cuisine, you will see plenty of small stalls offering boxes of tamagoyaki for a few hundred yen. It makes a great snack, a perfect side dish and is ready to eat.
Kyoyasai: Kyoto vegetables
Believed to have more minerals, vitamins and fiber than other vegetables, Kyoyasai are revered. There are 41 kinds designated as traditional vegetables. With unusual shapes, bright colors and hearty flavors, these veggies are a real speciality and are often the focus of vegetarian dishes in the prefecture. Cultivated since the Edo period, they are highly prized and have noticeable differences to what you may be used to. For example, the Kamo eggplants are deep purple and round, and especially delicious when grilled. The Kyo takenoko is a hand-farmed, sweet-tasting bamboo, and its fresh shoots can be eaten uncooked and dipped in vinegar-miso sauce, as they are in the Rakusai area of Kyoto.
Wagashi: Japanese sweets
Part of tea ceremony, wagashi are traditional Japanese sweets designed to represent the seasons or elements of nature. Often featuring mochi and anko (sweet red bean paste), wagashi are usually made from plant ingredients and are delicately crafted.
Kyoto being the heart of Japanese tea ceremony, there is nowhere better to try wagashi—and at Nishiki Market you can try individual sweets or buy some beautiful selections as gifts to take home.
You will no doubt see mountains of tiny dried fish with scoops beside them, and these are some of the more pungent offerings of Nishiki Market—as well as the most beautiful. Although they may be an acquired taste, you can eat the fish as snacks, or use them for broth or toppings.
A couple to look out for are:
Niboshi: Dried young sardines. These are either eaten as snacks and toppings, or used as soup stocks—they are the most common base for dashi (traditional Japanese stock). You can also see them during New Year’s, where they make an appearance in osechi ryori: cooked with soy sauce and sugar to make tazukuri, and symbolizing a good harvest.
Sakura ebi: Small, pink dried shrimp. These little creatures are named after the pink cherry blossoms that are so loved in Japan. They offer a sweet, umami flavor unlike the fresh ones, and are used in a wide variety of dishes.
Furikake: Rice toppings
A sprinkling of furikake on a bowl of rice brings the meal to life. Made with a mixture of dried seaweed, sugar, salt, chili, sesame seeds, dried fish, dried miso and dried fish flakes among a huge variety of other options, packets of furikake are a great souvenir or treat to take home.
There are a few different sellers here and they all let you try samples—so get stuck in, especially if you aren’t familiar with the tastes. The packages are often nicely designed and flat, which is super for those short on space! It’s also a brilliant idea if you’re on a tight budget and foresee many a meal of rice in your future.
Aritsugu are the purveyors of some of the best knives in Japan, with a history spanning all the way back to 1560. Opened by Fujiwara Aritsugu, the shop has been passed down from generation to generation and has now reached the 18th in line.
Originally sword-smiths to royalty, the decline in the need for swords led to the family focusing their skills on kitchen knives—and they now produce some of the best in the country. Although they are most-definitely not cheapo-friendly, if you’re after something special, this may be the place for you. With speciality knives and more all-round models, you can select a blade and have your initials engraved if you like. If properly cared for, the knife can last for generations.
Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine
When you wander out of Nishiki Market, you’ll be faced with a wall of lanterns for the beautiful Tenmangu Shrine. Moved a few times during its life, the shrine was originally built over a thousand years ago, and was eventually separated from Kanki-ji Temple during the religious separation of the Meiji Period.
It is a popular place to pray for luck in studies, as the god of learning is enshrined in the main shrine. The water here is believed to be of especially high quality and is another reason many visit. Keep an eye out for the small plum-shaped amulets hanging from trees, which you can buy for 500 yen. You simply write your wish, place it inside the plum, and hang it from a tree.