Sakura time in Kyoto: Top 10 reasons to dine in the cultural center of Japan this spring

After the pandemic, the city of temples has returned to the spotlight to regain its status as a gastronomic destination; 22 out of 98 restaurants in the 2023 Kyoto Osaka Michelin Guide form part of TableCheck’s roster of clients

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TableCheck

Mar 1, 2023 - 5 min read

Sakura time in Kyoto: Top 10 reasons to dine in the cultural center of Japan this spring

Kyoto is set to take center stage. With the upcoming cherry blossom season just around the corner, international travelers are putting Kyoto at the top of their bucket lists. Renowned for its ancient temples and parks – 17 of which are listed in the UNESCO Heritage World site – this historic city that symbolizes old Japan is the perfect place to experience the country’s best during springtime. 

From the Philosopher's Path, Shimbasi Gion to Maruyama-Koen Park, Kyoto has the best spots for viewing these stunning Sakura blooms. But there’s more than meets the eye. While the spring season brings Kyoto back to its pre-pandemic vitality and will host a wide range of cultural events and festivals throughout the city, the food will be just as popular as the cherry blossoms.

Even though Kyoto’s sights may be a feast for the eyes, dining in Kyoto style may be one of the best ways to immerse in the culture and get to know the city and its people.

Modernizing cuisine for a new audience

If Tokyo is the dining capital of Japan, Kyoto is its heart and soul. 

Kyoto's food culture has evolved for over 1,000 years as Japan's imperial capital. Many of the gastronomic offerings are distinctly unique to Kyoto and are products of culinary techniques perfected through time. However, as a city with a rich history, Kyoto is not content to rest on its ancient laurels. Chefs today are continuously reinterpreting Kyoto’s rich culinary tradition for modern audiences. While traditional cooking methods form the basis of Kyoto cuisine, they are now blended with modern culinary techniques to create Kyoto’s distinct contemporary cuisine to satisfy discerning diners.

Kyoto’s Michelin stars

Kyoto is a hotspot for creativity. Top chefs come here to refine their skills and cooking styles. (Even Noma by Rene Redzepi is setting up a pop-up shop in the city this spring), No longer is it just known for ancient temples and traditional food, but Kyoto is making its mark in the 21st century with new chefs lining up to take on and reinterpret traditional cuisine.

More than 98 Kyoto restaurants made it in this year’s 2023 Kyoto Osaka Michelin Guide proving that Kyoto is one of Japan’s mecca in fine dining along with Osaka and Tokyo. Twenty-two of the Kyoto restaurants that made the coveted list form part of TableCheck’s roster of clients. 

“With its history and culture, traditional dishes made from seasonal ingredients, and a fine sense of service, Kyoto is a must-see destination for any traveler eager to discover and enjoy Japanese hospitality,” says Gwendal Poullennec, International Director of MICHELIN Guides during the unveiling of the Michelin restaurants in October 2022.

Kenya Sakkai's restaurant Kenya in Kyoto has been awarded one Michelin star and will be part of the 2023 Michelin Guide. Kenya, an 8-seater restaurant, serves authentic Japanese cuisine through the lens of Chinese, Western, and Japanese techniques.

Other TableCheck clients who made the list are (one Michelin star) Lurra, Hana Kitcho, Honke Tankuma Honten, Motoi, and (Two Michelin stars) Gion Maruyama, Gion Nishikawa, Ryō-shō, and Gion Matoyashi.

Springtime: Kyoto Gourmet Festival 2023

One hundred restaurants in Kyoto will participate in the “Kyoto Gourmet Tour Spring 2023”, one of the most anticipated food festivals of the year. Well-established restaurants and up-and-coming popular restaurants will take part and deliver seasonal spring gastronomic delights to attract diners back to Kyoto.

“The Kyoto Gourmet Tour Spring 2023” will help revitalize Kyoto’s restaurant industry, create back jobs, and give a much-needed boost to the local economy. We at TableCheck will continue to support this vital industry and its people,” TableCheck CEO Yu Taniguchi says.

Kyoto

Here are the Top 10  reasons why dining in Kyoto is a must:

1. Enjoy sakura viewing while dining

The city of Kyoto becomes a sight to behold during cherry blossom season. While the streets all become picturesque and Instagram-worthy, dining and viewing the ephemeral beauty of the cherry blossoms all make Kyoto a magical experience. Restaurants serve seasonal dishes with sakura flavors on-premise and in outdoor dining areas. And there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. From casual restaurants to traditional and high-end restaurants, the restaurant scene puts an extra spring in its step during this season.

Viewing passersby in kimonos under the pink and white sakura petals or walking in the nighttime in streets illuminated by lanterns make every bit of the dining experience in Kyoto truly unforgettable.

2. The colors of spring on your plate

Kyoto alone has more than a hundred varieties of sakura, making them an ideal ingredient for Kyoto's famous dishes. From February to May, authentic Kyo-ryori and the multi-course Kyo-kaiseki meal (Kyoto-style haute cuisine) may be infused with the colors and flavors of spring in the form of a cherry blossom tea, soba in the color pink, or petal garnishes. Meanwhile, during the Aoi Matsuri festival (hollyhock festival) in  May, dishes imbibe new greens like aoi and Kashiwa oak leaves and other seasonal sprouts.

3. Sustainability at the heart, spring’s produce 

Seasonal ingredients are the star of the city’s cuisine. 

Kyoto cuisine emphasizes bringing out the best qualities in ingredients, a practice that’s rooted in Buddhism, which has largely influenced Japanese culture. Many chefs in Kyoto use fresh and locally sourced ingredients in their dishes as part of their commitment to preserving the flavors of Kyoto cuisine while respecting nature. The majority of these traditional dishes use ingredients that only grow during different seasons.  For example, the popular Shojin ryori (Buddhist monks’ vegetarian cuisine) transforms its five flavors with tender shoots and flowers during spring. Spring is an excellent time to feature these ingredients as delicious produce is abundant.

Michelin-starred Honke Tanuma Honten restaurant in Kyoto delivers authentic "monmo" ("as is") Japanese cuisine, which focuses on highlighting the ingredients of the season. One can expect only spring's best ingredients to be part of Honke Tanuma Honten's sumptuous kaiseki meals. Find out more about their hospitality service in the video above.

4. A work of art: washoku on the plate

Kyoto cuisine embraces the Japanese culinary tradition of incorporating five colors and five tastes. These five principles along with the food presentation are part and parcel of what makes Kyoto cuisine synonymous with culinary refinement. Meals come in a variety of shades and colors to express the principle of washoku, where food is principally considered a  “feast for the eyes” and equally for the palate. In spring, colors come alive after a long period of winter. Just look at the Kyo-kaiseki meals served on plates decorated with images of plums or cherry blossoms to symbolize the time of year.

5. Enjoy traditional tea ceremonies, the sakura way

In spring, the weather is warmer and the cherry blossoms are in full bloom – the best time to have a tea ceremony experience in Kyoto, the tea capital of Japan. Tea ceremonies get elaborate during this season as restaurants get meticulous with their selection of tea bowls, sakura decorations plus traditional sakura sweets on offer. To top it off,  one can even rent out a sakura-colored kimono while sipping a matcha tea produced in the region.

6. Kyoto’s springwater

Since Kyoto is surrounded by mountains, its water quality has been instrumental in elevating Kyoto's cuisine. The water is soft and makes the taste of food delicate. Try the light Kyoto dashi or miso compared to a thicker broth produced in Tokyo. From tea ceremonies to tofu-making and other creative industries, Kyoto’s spring water has played an important role in the city’s cultural evolution. There’s even a documentary called “Water, the lifeblood of Kyoto” made about it!

7. Try a variety of sake, beer, and spirits along with a Kyoto dish

Kyoto is home to over 41 sake breweries, producing 17% of Japan's total sake production.

While tasting sake at a local brewery or in a shrine can be done any time of the year, light sakes or unpasteurized sakes are perfect for the hanami season. Also called ‘Spring Namas’ or ‘Nama-sake’, these unpasteurized sakes have a fresh flavor and are best consumed when chilled. The best Kyoto restaurants will have a list of these spring sakes on offer to be paired with the seasonal meal.

8. Sakura desserts

Spring is the time of sakura mochis, hanami dangos (Japanese dumplings), sakura rice balls, matcha mochis, and other desserts that reflect the flowers and plants that grow during the season. Domyoji sakura mochis are especially popular and people look forward to the spring season to try these rice cakes with sakura-flavored bean paste (anko) wrapped in a cherry blossom leaf. These can be bought in confectionary stores or eaten as a dessert in a restaurant after a main meal or in a coffeehouse.

9. Proximity to dining destinations

Kyoto is roughly more than half the size of Tokyo. This makes Kyoto a much easier place to navigate if booking different restaurants across one’s travel itinerary. Check out the neighborhood of Pontocho beside the Kamogawa River, which has a string of reasonably-priced restaurants as well as Michelin-starred restaurants. Kiyamachi-Dori, beside Takase River, has many restaurants with outdoor seating. Meanwhile, Gion (famous geisha district) and Higashiyama, have a lot of restaurants offering traditional Kyoto cuisine amidst the surrounding historical sites.

10. Take part in special events such as local food fairs and food walks

Festivals will come in full swing during spring as Kyoto rises from the ashes of the pandemic. This year two matsuris will take place during the season. The Ouka festival and the Aoi Matsuri. The Ouka festival takes place at Hirano Shrine in Kyoto on April 10 with participants donning Heian period costumes as princesses and warriors on horseback. The Aoi Matsuri, hollyhock festival takes place on May 15, where 500 participants also parade in full pomp and grandeur of the Heian period. After the dancing, archery games, and competition, spectators head out to their favorite restaurants to sample Kyoto’s savory dishes and seasonal treats.

From managing online reservations to optimizing restaurant operations, TableCheck helps restaurants provide an award-winning experience to their guests. TableCheck now has more than 220+ Michelin-starred restaurants in its portfolio.

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