Kyoto’s food culture refined by its tradition and climate

Kyoto Prefecture is located in the center of the Japanese archipelago. The Tango region at the northern end faces the Sea of Japan. Kyoto Prefecture, which is long and narrow from north to south, is divided into two types of climate: the Japan Sea climate and the inland climate, with the Tamba Mountains at the center of the prefecture.

After the transfer of the capital “Heian-kyo” to what is now Kyoto in 794, Kyoto prospered greatly as a political, cultural, and religious center. By the order of Emperor Kanmu, the Heian-kyo was constructed by improving not only the land transportation network but also the water transportation network. Various cultures and goods flowed into Kyoto, with bases in Otsu on Lake Biwa and Yamazaki on the Yodo River. These mixed with the local culture of the nobility, samurai and monks, and laid the foundation of the present Kyoto prefecture.

Part of the video is provided by: “SHUN GATE,” the Japanese food culture information website
Cooperating store: Yamabana Heihachi Jaya (Heihachi Tea House Inn)

“Kyoto cuisine” honed by the culture of eating out

“Kyoto cuisine” developed and evolved out of these cultures. At the heart of it are five cuisines collectively known as the “Five Systems.”

The “daikyo cuisine” developed as part of the social rituals of the aristocracy; and the “vegetarian cuisine,” which used vegetables as the main ingredient in accordance with religious taboos; “honzen cuisine” was served at the hospitality of samurai families; “kaiseki cuisine” spread among samurai and townspeople and became popular as a tea ceremony dish; and “yusoku cuisine” was enjoyed by the nobility, the imperial court, and high-ranking officials of the shogunate as palace-style cuisine. These traditional techniques have been passed down to the present day and are still enjoyed at ryotei and kappo restaurants.

“The culture of eating out, which began so early in Japanese history, helped improve the art of Kyoto cuisine,” says agriculturist Yoichiro Sato. He currently teaches at Kyoto Prefectural University as a specially appointed professor in the Department of Japanese Diet Culture in the Faculty of Letters.

“In the Middle Ages, the only areas with urban functions were Kamakura in the Kanto region and Nara and Kyoto in the Kansai region. These food cultures were supported by the nobles and merchants who lived in Kyoto and the food they served at shrines and temples. Through the accumulation of these experiences, cooking techniques and efficiency were refined and became the framework of today’s Kyoto cuisine. The fact that the city was located on the border between eastern and western Japan and was a “centripetal city” made it easier to incorporate cooking techniques and ingredients from different regions. In addition, Kyoto is a city of traditional industry. A cottage industry developed to support this industry, and a “caterer” flourished for many years to support the food of its employees. Kyoto has long been a city of eating out and ready-made meals.”

Kyoto’s signature cuisine did not just evolve among the aristocracy and samurai. If we look at each region, we can see that a variety of food cultures have developed. For example, there is a wide variety of local cuisine that is refined in Kyoto and the region, such as “Zoni made with white miso,” “Barazushi,” “Taitan of Manganji Togarashi and Jako,” “Taitan of Ebiimo and Bodara,” and “Kinome-ae of bamboo shoots.” These local cuisines convey various aspects of the ancient capital Kyoto, such as “Kyoto of the Sea,” “Kyoto of the Forest,” and “Kyoto of Tea.”

Kyoto Prefecture is roughly divided into the Tango region, the Chutan region, the Nantan region, Kyoto City, the Otokuni region, and the Yamashiro region. Here are some of the characteristics and food culture of each region.

< Tango region >
“Tango Barazushi,” a dish which decorates the table on the day of celebration

The Tango region is located in the northernmost part of Kyoto Prefecture and faces the Sea of Japan. The varied coastline is designated as the San’in Kaigan National Park and Wakasa Wan Quasi-National Park, offering scenic views.

Image Source: Kyoto Life Research Group Liaison Council

The fishing industry has thrived for centuries, and seafood such as the Tango egg cockle, Tango guji (Japanese tilefish), yellowtail and snow crab adorn local tables. Mackerel, caught in the coastal waters, is a popular fish, along with sardine and horse mackerel. Many local residents enjoy eating fresh mackerel as sashimi. The mackerel is used in a local dish called “Tango Barazushi.” It is a type of pressed sushi that consists of shredded grilled mackerel sandwiched between sushi rice, and the top of the square-shaped sushi is lavishly filled with a variety of colorful ingredients such as kamaboko (steamed fish paste), kampyo (dried gourd) and thin strips of egg.

This sushi, which will brighten up your table, is served on the day of celebration. The recipe is passed down from parents to children and then to grandchildren. Some families use two-tiered sushi rice, and others use single-tiered sushi rice, and the ingredients used are unique depending on the family.

Originally, grilled mackerel was created as a means of preservation. Nowadays, when making it at home, it is usually easier to use mackerel from canned mackerel. This is why the mackerel cans sold in the Tango region are larger than in other regions.

< Chutan region >
Manganji Amato (sweet pepper), with a history of nearly 100 years

The Chutan region is located in the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture, surrounded by the mountains of the Tamba Mountains and the Sea of Japan. In the basin of the class A Yura River, which runs through the region, there have been settlements since ancient times, and thousands of burial mounds were built in the Kofun period (mid-3rd century to 7th century). Mountain temples have been opened since the Heian period (794 - 1185), and the distinctive culture of Buddhist statues, rituals and the belief in Yakushi is still alive in the region.

The region consists of Fukuchiyama City, Maizuru City and Ayabe City. In recent years, several industrial parks have been located in the area, which serve as the industrial base for the northern part of the Kansai region on the Sea of Japan side. On the other hand, urban and rural areas coexist in the suburbs, which are dotted with rural villages and rural landscapes with old houses.

Image Source: Public Interest Group Corporation Kyo-Branded Products Association

“Manganji Togarashi (sweet pepper)” is a specialty product that represents the Chutan area. The eye-popping green vegetable is large and fleshy. In summer, when they are in season, it is fairly common for them to exceed 20 cm in length. Because of its size, it is sometimes called the “King of Togarashi.”

The name “Manganji Togarashi” comes from Manganji Temple, where the ancient temple “Manganji” is located in the suburbs of Maizuru City, where the vegetable originated. At the end of the Taisho period (1912-1926), farmers grew it as a home-grown vegetable, but it gained a reputation for being delicious, and as a result of the efforts and enthusiasm of the entire region, branding of the vegetable began to progress in the late 1990s, and it began to appear on the market. Products grown in Maizuru City, as well as parts of Ayabe City and Fukuchiyama City, are shipped under the trademark “Manganji Amato.”

Because of its mild taste, it can be used in a variety of dishes such as stir-fry, baked dishes and tempura. Among them, stir-fry with Jako (dried young sardines) is a standard dish of Kyoto’s delicacies. The flavor and sweet and spicy taste of togarashi spread in your mouth, and the thick and soft flesh of Manganji Amato is so delicious that you cannot keep your chopsticks still. It is the indispensable taste of summer in the Chutan area.

< Nantan region >
A good luck food for “living diligently” that is a concentrated blessing of the earth

The Nantan region consists of two cities and one town, Kameoka City, Nantan City and Kyotamba Town. It is bordered by Shiga Prefecture to the east, Hyogo and Osaka prefectures to the southwest, and Fukui Prefecture to the north. The northern part of the region is known as the “roof of Kyoto” with a series of mountainous regions, and the plateau region extends to the west. In the southern part of the region, flat land is formed in the Katsura River basin and is blessed with cropland including the Kameoka Basin.

The village of Kayabuki (thatched roof) houses in the Miyama area of Nantan City was selected as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings in 1993. Other places such as Kameoka City and Kyotamba Town, where rural villages are surrounded by rice fields, still retain their original Japanese landscape in the Nantan region.

The area is one of the most prominent grain-growing regions in the prefecture, and its specialty rice, “Kinuhikari” has received the highest rating of “special A” in the “Rice Taste Ranking” held by the Japan Grain Inspection Association for three consecutive years since 2016.

Image Source: Public Interest Group Corporation Kyo-Branded Products Association

The Nantan area, with its large temperature difference between day and night and the occurrence of dense autumn fog, is home to high-quality beans, such as “Tamba black soybeans” and “Tamba dainagon adzuki beans.” Black soybeans have a particularly long history, and their presence is documented in books from the 10th century of the Heian period. Harvesting of edamame begins in October and harvesting of simmered beans begins in late November. They are also called “hard beans” because of the difficulty of cultivation, but there are no other products like these simmered beans, which are large, glossy, and shiny black.

The simmered black soybeans, cooked slowly over low heat, have a soft and fluffy taste. The hard work of the producers and the blessings of the earth are concentrated in this dish.

< Kyoto City >
“Deaimon” in which ingredients complement each other’s strengths

The city of Kyoto was the political and cultural center of Japan for more than 1,000 years after the transfer of the capital to Heian-kyo in 794.

A variety of goods were brought in the capital, but it was difficult to procure fresh fish in this inland area. Seafood was brought in via the Sea of Japan and the Wakasa Highway, including dried cod and herring, and salted mackerel, which were mostly processed products.

The cooking techniques have been refined over the years to make the processed products taste better. In this environment, various systems, such as kaiseki restaurants and yusoku cuisine evolved. Therefore, many of the dishes are simple and sophisticated. “‘Tai Kabura’ (simmered sea bream and turnip) and ‘Kamonasu no Dengaku’ (eggplant baked with miso coating) are typical examples of such products,” said Mr. Shingo Sonobe, the 21st owner of the 440-year-old “Yamabana Heihachi Jaya.” According to Mr. Sonobe, “Deaimon” is one of characteristics of Kyoto cuisine.

“Deaimon is two ingredients that go well together. The combination of animal ingredients such as fish and meat and vegetables, which is common in Kyoto cuisine. It can be said that Deaimon is the wisdom left behind by our predecessors.”

For example, “furofuki daikon (Japanese radish)” and “nishin nasu” (herring and eggplant), which are still eaten today, are also Deaimon. The oil and flavor of the fish and the light flavor of the vegetables complement each other, creating a unique taste.

< Otokuni region >
Kyoto bamboo shoots, known as a premium foodstuff

The Otokuni region consists of two cities and one town, including Muko City and Nagaokakyo City. It has been a key transportation hub connecting Kyoto and Osaka since ancient times, and the name of the region “Otokuni” is mentioned in the “Kojiki” (record of ancient matters) and “Nihonshoki” (chronicles of Japan). In 784, the capital was relocated to “Nagaoka-kyo” by Emperor Kanmu, and it remained there for ten years. It was the place of the “Yamazaki Battle” where Hashiba Hideyoshi and Akechi Mitsuhide vied for supremacy, and was the birthplace of “Taketori Monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter).”

Image Source: Public Interest Group Corporation Kyo-Branded Products Association

It is said that Japanese bamboo shoots originated from the Chinese moso bamboo planted in Kyoto’s Nishiyama district, and spread all over Japan. The Kyoto bamboo shoots come into season in early spring and are delivered around the country until early May.

The Kyoto bamboo shoots from the Otokuni region are sweet, thick and tender. The ivory-colored bamboo that is harvested while it remains in the ground and managed uniquely and carefully throughout the year is called “Shiroko” and fetches a high price. Fresh ones can be eaten as sashimi because there is no bitterness. If you dress the bamboo shoots with Kinome (young leaves of Japanese pepper) and white miso, you can make “Kinome-ae of bamboo shoots.” The rich flavors that spread in the mouth tell us that spring has arrived through the taste.

< Yamashiro region >
“Uji tea,” a combination of craft, taste and culture that is unparalleled in the world

Yamashiro region is located in the southern part of Kyoto Prefecture and consists of 15 municipalities, including Uji City and Joyo City. There are the Shigaraki Mountains to the east and the Keihanna Hills to the west. At the confluence of the Uji, Katsura, and Kizu Rivers, the Yamashiro Basin fans out, with the urban area around the river basin.

Image source: Ocha no Kyoto DMO

In the 7th century, “Yamashiro Province” was established, and during the Ritsuryo period (late 7th century to 10th century), it was one of the five countries that formed the Kinai district. After the Heian period, the Yodo River, where the Uji, Katsura and Kizu Rivers meet, was the key point of water transportation. As a result, various foodstuffs and goods were sent to Kyoto.

The nationally famous “Uji tea” was first cultivated about 800 years ago in the Kamakura period (1185 - 1333). Reportedly, it was started by Myoe Shonin, a priest of Kozanji Temple, located in Toganoo-cho, Umegahata, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto.

During the Kamakura period, at the beginning of the 13th century, the natural conditions of the soil and terrain were suitable for tea cultivation, so it was expanded rapidly in Uji. In the Edo period (1603 - 1867), Nagatani Soen of Ujitawara-cho in Yamashiro Province invented the Uji method, which led to the development of a new method of making sencha (ordinary green tea) and gyokuro (refined green tea). It spread throughout the country, and is still the mainstream manufacturing method for Japanese tea.

Currently, in addition to sencha and gyokuro, tencha (the raw material for powdered tea, Matcha) and many other types of tea are produced in the Yamashiro region. Gyokuro and tencha are grown by the cover culture, in which the tea garden is covered with shading material to shade from light for a period of time, especially during the growth of new shoots. These are top quality tea with a bright green color, a unique fragrance, and a mellow flavor and sweetness.
With the addition of these advanced production, processing and blending technologies, Uji tea is unrivaled in the world. It is the oldest in Japan and boasts the highest level of quality and technique.

“The people of Yamashiro use Uji tea as an ingredient,” said Ms. Chiyo Okuda, president of Kyoto Life Research Group Liaison Council, who is a tea farmer in the Yamashiro region. “Uji tea is not only drunk as a tea, but is also used in sweets and dishes, where matcha is kneaded into white bean paste making ohagi (rice dumplings coated with sweet bean paste) is also a unique food custom in this area,” she says.

The Yamashiro region is also famous for “ebiimo.” It is a kind of taro, and the name comes from its shape like a shrimp (“ebi” in Japanese). This Kyoto vegetable is characterized by its fine flesh and unique stickiness.

“Ebiimo is often used in feasts. For example, ‘Taitan of ebiimo and dried cod.’ The only ingredients used are ‘ebiimo’ and ‘dried cod.’ It is a simple dish, so I take my time and finish it with care,” Ms. Okuda says with a smile on her face.

This spirit of hospitality, which is also rooted in homes, may be the secret ingredient that holds together the traditional flavors of Kyoto.

Dr. Sato says, “When you hear the word Kyoto, most people will think of Kyoto City. However, from the Tango region to the Yamashiro region, each region has its own unique culture. You can only experience the charm of Kyoto if you expand your horizons further from the city,” he said.

It is the same in Kyoto’s food culture. You can enjoy Kyoto in a more dynamic way if you look at the local cuisine of each region of Kyoto.

Kyoto's main local cuisine