seafood display at nishiki market kyoto

Kyoto’s Nishiki Market – A Food Emporium Fit for Royalty

Kyoto’s reign as Japan’s capital for over a thousand years (794-1868) seeded a rich culture that still blooms today. Haute keiseki ryori multi-course cuisine, polished geisha, refined tea ceremonies, fine textiles and ceramics – the legacy of wealthy courts competing with each other through ritualised acts of elegance and sophistication. Catching this fading luminescence is the new blood sport.

In 2015, Japan had a record 19.73 million tourists, 47.3 percent up from 2014. The government weakened the yen in 2013 to lift the stagnant economy. A foreign investment boom didn’t follow but tourist hordes did, boosted further by relaxed duty-free concessions and ‘Visit Japan’ campaigns.

kyoto japan

Bakugai” meaning “explosive shopping sprees by Chinese tourists” was a top 2015 Japanese buzzword. The most coveted products? ‘Made in Japan’ deluxe rice cookers and high-tech toilet seats.

I still recommend braving 400 year old Nishiki Market – 390 metres of food and kitchen ware shops in a narrow arcade. Go early – it opens at 9am. One shopkeeper told us it’s too pricey for most locals now but it draws dedicated gourmets and chefs.

West entrance to Nishiki Market kyoto
The west entrance

inside nishiki market kyoto japan

Typically Japanese, it’s immaculately scrubbed with meticulous displays as delectable as the goods. Many of the roughly 130 shops have been run by the same family for generations.

wasabi and apple display nishiki market kyoto
Wasabi and apples bathe in running water
bags of sweets nishiki market kyoto
Bags of sweets

Sake from Tsunoki, a shop more than 200 years old. They also sell an unusual sparkling cloudy sake, nigorisake.

sake shop at nishiki market kyoto

Packed with pristine produce, the market is strangely scentless, bar the astringent aroma of tsukemono (pickled vegetables). In Australia, these are usually measly, factory-made ginger slices, dyed lurid pink, served with sushi. Here, there’s an artisanal, kaleidoscopic bounty. Eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner, they are as treasured as rice.

pickles on display nishiki market kyoto

Honoured in religious rites since ancient times, rice commands reverence. Over 500 varieties are grown in Japan. A luxury in the 11th century, eaten as rice balls at royal picnics; today, it’s the core of most meals. This rice is displayed by increasing quality and price.

rice shop nishiki market kyoto

Yamadashiya specialises in roasted hōjicha tea.

tea at nishiki market kyoto

Sawawa offers green tea desserts.

green tea desserts at nishiki market

Hand ground sesame seeds at Gomafukudo.

sesame seed shop nishiki market kyoto

Roasted chestnuts at Kyotanba.

roasted chestnuts at nishiki market kyoto

Massive daikon radish is a much-loved vegetable but “daikon-ashi” (legs of a daikon) is a terrible insult to women!

daikon at nishiki market kyoto

Japanese knives have gained fans around the world. Internationally renowned chefs visit Aritsugu, open since 1560 and a former sword supplier to the Imperial Palace. Demand for swords fell during the peaceful Edo period (1603-1868) and from the 1860s as samurai were outlawed, so sword makers turned to handcrafting knives.

aritsugu at nishiki market kyoto
Engraving names on the knives

Alternately enticed and repelled by the barrage of familiar and alien, I balked at some of the more exotic delicacies.

Fuka is over 300 years old and sells dense, gelatinous fu, wheat gluten mixed with rice flour. Fresh namafu can be simmered, fried or grilled. Classic flavours like pumpkin or sesame sit with the newer bacon, basil or cheese.

fu shop nishiki market kyoto

There’s copious seafood – beloved in this nation of islands. Buddhism’s influence and largely mountainous terrain unsuitable for raising livestock meant most Japanese did not eat meat until Westerners introduced beef in the 1860s.

Fish roe is a challenging foe for the taste buds.

seafood at nishiki market kyoto
Molluscs surrounded by fish roe

It’s fun to boggle over eel bones, fugu pufferfish, sea cucumber entrails and other witch’s cauldron oddities, but hot, freshly cooked soy milk donuts from Konna Monja are a tasty winner.

konna monja donuts nishiki market kyoto

By lunchtime, the aisle is a monstrous, undulating millipede of shuffling feet. Swallowed one end, disgorged the other, I emerged impressed by the breadth of local and Japanese cuisine.

Travellers surge through Kyoto’s dainty streets in search of temples, shrines, gardens and a serene, contemplative beauty that might be lost forever. Look down from Kiyomizu-dera temple’s hillside platform – where monks once gazed upon battles below – at a scrum wielding selfie sticks in place of swords.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are coming. How will the Japanese experience change? You can mourn the loss of a nebulous ‘real Japan’ or watch in fascination as the country morphs, adapts and rebrands. Science fiction author Philip K. Dick once wrote, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Nishiki Market should hold its place. It’s a piquant stew of traditional and contemporary gastronomy with proud establishments, centuries old, that should withstand the tourist assaults of the future.

Nishiki Market is open daily from 9am-6pm dependent on each store. Some stores close Wednesday or Sunday.

Sources: Calza, G.C., Japan Style, Phaidon Press Limited, 2007
Richie, D., A Taste of Japan, Kodansha International Ltd, 1990
Sakamoto, Y., Food, Sake, Tokyo, The Little Bookroom, 2010

11 thoughts on “Kyoto’s Nishiki Market – A Food Emporium Fit for Royalty

  1. The food in Kyoto is great! In particular there is a Ramen place just past the market which allows you to chose 5 levels of spice. I chose the 5 and they certainly delivered

    You haven’t by any chance had a power squash energy drink have you? I found only 1 vending machine with them in Tokyo and they were the (second) best soft drink I’ve ever had.

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    1. I wonder if I went to the same ramen place – Ippudo? The gyoza there are also amazing – delicate and served with a yuzu chilli paste. Haven’t tried the squash energy drink but sounds good! I love Japanese snacks. Can’t get enough of those tonkatsu pork cutlet sandwiches from convenience or department stores. Unfortunately snacks are often limited edition items only.

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  2. I was born and raised in Tokyo so I love reading other people’s posts about my hometown! I’ve been to Kyoto several times and I still feel like there’s more to see! Thanks for joining Fly Away Friday – hope to see you again this week! xo

    Liked by 1 person

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