If you’re a foodie or cultural traveller you need to find a little time in Kyoto to visit this historic market and give your taste buds a treat with a few unique and special tasters along the way.
As a self-confessed and unashamed foodie, it’s not surprising that we found our way to Nishiki market (Nishiki Ichiba 錦市場) within hours of arriving in Kyoto.
Known as Kyoto’s kitchen this is a market used extensively by locals to source fresh ingredients, artisan produce and everything you need to make traditional Japanese fare. It’s also a great place to go to get an overview of Japanese cuisine and an exposure to some food products that you might never have seen or tasted before.
We last visited in April, during the busy sakura season. We timed our visit for mid morning and while the market was packed at times there appeared to be relatively few foreigners. If you visit late afternoon or early evening this won’t be the case.
As we browsed in each of the stores that caught our attention we were offered samples and despite our extremely limited ability to communicate in Japanese, we had some great interaction with the store owners. Even when we did manage to communicate that we weren’t able to cook in our accommodation they were quite happy to engage and have you taste their produce without an expectation to purchase.
I think a couple might have been secretly hoping for a more entertaining reaction from us to some of the local flavours and textures but I thoroughly enjoyed everything we tasted and purchased.
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Finding Nishiki Market
The market runs for 6 blocks (400 meters) parallel to Shijo-Dori, a major shopping street in central Kyoto. To find the western end of the market walk down the alley beside Daimaru and enter on your right. Which reminds me, all foodies need to make a stop in at the basement food floor of Daimaru, it’s an experience in itself but don’t do it before the market, you must save your appetite.
The far (eastern) end of the market is opposite Nishiki Tenman-gu shrine. Established in the Heian period the shrine was moved to its current location by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the location marks the exact centre of old Kyoto. It’s a shrine dedicated to love and incorporates a number of smaller shrines within it including an Inari shrine, a sun shrine and in keeping with its retail location, one dedicated to commercial prosperity. Within the shrine is a well where the famous Nishiki water bubbles up from 30 meters under the ground. The water has been tested and has no smell, flavour or bacteria. There’s also a prominently placed large bronze cow and petting its head is said to bring success with your studies.
The nearest subway station is Shijo and Nishiki market is only a couple of minutes walk from there. Shijo station is on the Karasuma line, the subway track running north-south through the city and it’s only 2 stops on from Kyoto station. Exit the station to the street level and follow the dotted red line to the western entrance of the market.
The history of Nishiki Market
I’ve come to rely on some of our local markets that have been around for ages but nothing I’ve experienced before has come close to Nishiki Market. Fish has been sold on the site for around 700 years and it’s been an established market for over 400. The area is particularly suited to a fresh produce market with the springs of groundwater running under this part of the city keeping it an even cool temperature even all those centuries ago before refrigeration. It’s not just the location that’s well established though, some of the stalls have been in the same family for 7 or 8 generations now.
Some of my favourites
There are many great shops, stalls and restaurants as you meander along the market’s stone-paved route. Way too many to sample in one visit or even in several but we like to give everything our best shot.
I got quite excited when I saw what I thought was charcoal grilled matcha mochi. It turned out not to be matcha at all but mugwort. It’s a herb from the daisy family that’s often taken as a tonic to boost energy. While I am a matcha fiend I wasn’t complaining, it turned out to be delicious! They grill it in front of you on a little charcoal barbecue so you know it’s fresh. Then you bite into the soft warm gooey mochi to find a surprise centre of sweet red bean paste. Oiishi!!
I thought this was a fascinating method of preservation I’d not come across before. Nukazuke is a traditional style of pickled vegetables that evolved during the Edo period. Vegetables are fermented in rice bran and salt and at each store, the individual recipes will give a variation in the salty and sour balance of the pickle. There were several shops offering nukazuke, not only are they delicious but it’s such a beautiful presentation.
The knife shop
The knife shop in the market is Aritsugu and they know something about knives having been founded back in 1560! I was so tempted with some of the beautiful blades and I’ve been after a good knife for fish to finish out my set. Where better than Kyoto’s kitchen for the perfect sushi knife. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure of the issues bringing it back into Australia. Clearly, it would need to go in stowed luggage but I really wished I’d done some research first. I’d heard of swords and daggers being confiscated but I had no idea if it was because they were sharp and dangerous in the bag or because they were weapons? Perhaps next time.
At another store we tried black soybean tea, called kuromame in Japan and to be honest this is the only place I’ve seen it.
The lady in this store was so friendly and welcoming and came over with samples for us both to try. I liked it but Drew being a loyal coffee drinker was less likely to be converted.
Black soybeans are a legume native to China and used in Asian medicine to clear toxins from the body.
The beans are also supposed to help normalise body weight due to the polyphenols that are anti-aging and support lipid metabolism in the body. It also contains isoflavones that are strong anti-oxidants and again promote lipid mobilisation.
Another temptation to take home was a brick of dried bonito and a wooden plane for shaving it. Curls of katsuobushi are shaved off the dried tuna fillets and are delicious with many Japanese dishes. Along with kelp (kombu), they are an essential ingredient in dashi and when piled on top of a hot dish like okonomiyaki or takoyaki they ‘dance’ in the heat adding an element of natural theatre to the dish.
Being in its natural state, not packaged, I was almost certain I wouldn’t be able to bring it back into Australia. If you are looking for a food item to bring home some good quality sencha and matcha or the vacuum packed pickles are good options. It does need to be something that’s packaged and sealed. This, of course, is all the excuse you need to eat your fill of all the delicious foods while still in Japan.
And so much more
It’s a huge market with so much packed into each tiny stall. I can’t begin to list out everything but I can recommend the overall experience wholeheartedly.
In balance, there were two of the taste experiences that were slightly less successful for us. One was the takoyaki, it’s a snack we both normally love when it’s served up fresh off the cast iron griddle but these were disappointing and undercooked, the batter was gooey but not in a good way, and you could taste the raw flour.
The other was the distinctive bright red octopus on sticks and stuffed with a quail egg. They look and sound really interesting but having by then been told by several people not to get them as they are so rubbery you can barely swallow them we decided against it. Now normally you might say just try it and discretely throw it away if you don’t like it but in Japan, there are almost no rubbish bins in public places. It’s normal to carry your rubbish with you and dispose of it when you get home. I’m sure you’ll understand why I didn’t fancy egg and octopus in my handbag for the rest of the day. In hindsight, I’ve decided I always regret more what I didn’t do than what I did but I can’t say I went hungry without it.
How gorgeous are these wagashi, they are a modern take on a traditional soft hand made sweet. They’re often themed to the season like these spring ones and served with tea. Made of mochi they are filled with Anko (the sweet red bean paste) or fruits.
The photos of giant tuna in Japanese markets are familiar to most of us but there are far more stalls trading in small fish and other seafood that is quite unfamiliar to me and just as interesting.
The local vegetables included some that were familiar to me but many that I would love to experiment with, such fresh ingredients and vibrant colours are so enticing.
And finally these. Misozuke is another type of pickle that featured prominently where the vegetable is preserved in the salty miso paste. Doing this at home you may rest them in the miso bed for between an hour and a day depending on the ingredients used but I’ve heard that some of the artisan pickles are done over extended periods of many months. If offered the chance to try them definitely do have a taste.
Consider visiting with a local guide
Something that has really enhanced our experience with Japanese foods has been spending time with a local guide who can explain the history and culture of the market and share information about the foods on offer.
There is a Nishiki Market breakfast walking tour run by Magical Trip that takes you through the market, it starts at 9.30 am and runs for around 2.5 hours. During the time the local guide explains the food, orders for you in Japanese and introduces you to food from 4-5 different stalls along the way, it’s like a progressive breakfast as you go along with plenty of food but you might want to bring a bit of extra cash with you to pick up some treats for later or to take home.
Their guides speak perfect English and are knowable about the market, Kyoto and Japan in general so it’s a great thing to do early in your trip as you might find out a few tips, tricks and places to go during the rest of your stay too.
Opening hours: Open daily 9 am – 6 pm.
Cost: Free entry – but you are likely to want to buy some things to try
If you enjoy trying new foods and flavours I’d highly recommend wandering along Nishiki market at some stage during your visit to Kyoto city. Try some of the samples, buy a few tasters or stop in at one of the dozen or more small restaurants along the stone-paved market street.
Want to visit the market, meet the stall owners, taste the produce and learn about the local farm to market journey followed by a traditional style 7-course lunch? Market and lunch tours are available accompanied by a knowledgable English speaking guide who can answer your questions and fill in the culture and etiquette behind it all.
KYOTO TRAVEL TIPS CHECKLIST
>For all the essential tips to help plan your visit to Japan see our comprehensive and FREE Japan Guide
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>We regularly purchase the Japan Rail Pass. Here’s everything you need to know to decide if it’s worth buying for your trip. We also use an IC card such as the SUICA card daily on subways, buses and private railways.
>Free WIFI isn’t widely available in Japan. For translation, directions, timetables and other information on the go personal WIFI is one of our essentials. We look at the options in our cheat sheet to staying connected in Japan.
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Do you have a love of mochi, a hankering for matcha or is there another Japanese food that tops your list? You’ll find them all at Nishiki Market and I’d love to know your favourite Japanese dish or ingredient in the comments below.