Food tour, Kyoto

Eating and drinking in Japan

I love getting to know different cultures and I don’t think that there’s a better way to do so than through food.  I got the perfect introduction to both Japanese food and sake through a tour that I had booked with Jason, an American from Minnesota who has been living in Kyoto with his Japanese wife for the last 13 years.

It was a great way to unlock some of the mysteries of Japanese food.  We walked through a local shopping street, popping into around 11 different destinations.  It seemed to me that shopping local, and shopping at specialty stores was still the norm in Japan.  Many of the stores we visited had been in the same family for multiple generations.  We stopped in at a tea-house that is over 430 years old, currently being run by the 13th generation.

Food tour, Kyoto

This tea store has been in the same family for 13 generations

Food tour, Kyoto

Roasting tea

The New Year holiday is the most important holiday in Japan, where families come together and spend a few days together, so food is particularly important.  We were able to try some of the food special to the New Year period.  One of my favourites was a tempura fish sausage with a quail egg inside.

Food tour, Kyoto

Making tempura

I was interested to learn that tempura just means it’s deep fried.  So while I have had vegetables lightly battered and deep-fried that’s not the only type of tempura.  We tried deep fried fish sausages, made from cod and nothing else, and then served cold, which is also referred to as tempura.

Japanese food is about simplicity, often only one ingredient to enjoy the maximum flavour of each dish, with meals made up of several small dishes to taste and enjoy.

Food tour, Kyoto

The fruit and vegetable shop only stocks local produce. Photographs of the local farmers are on the wall.

One of my favourite discoveries was takoyaki, a kind of Japanese street food.  Tako means octopus and yaki means cooked, so these were tiny little cooked octopus balls.  We also tried okonomiyaki, a kind of pancake with seafood, vegetables, in fact anything you fancy. It was really delicious – or oishi in Japanese.

Food tour, Kyoto

Fried octopus balls, absolutely delicious


Food tour, Kyoto

Pancakes with sweet fillings – custard, sweet potato, red bean or white bean

We stopped off at the butcher, and Jason pointed out the pictures above the door of a pig and a cow, letting people know what they sold.  We tried “croquettes”, made from meat and vegetables, covered in panko crumbs and deep fried. I had the pumpkin one and it was sensational.

Food tour, Kyoto

The pig and the cow above the entrance lets you know what the butcher sells

Food tour, Kyoto

Making croquettes

Obviously we stopped in at the fish shop, the traditional source of protein for Japanese. We tried more raw fish, and learned that it is customarily served with wasabi because wasabi has natural antibiotic properties in it.  I had to laugh at the 80-year old woman who runs the shop who doesn’t eat raw fish because it’s “too fishy”!

Food tour, Kyoto

The 80 year old lady in the shop on the right. Note the Sumo calendar at the back!

We learned all sorts of interesting things.  Before World War 2 rice was not common, as it was expensive so not an everyday meal item.  Sushi is a finger food, so yes you can eat it with your fingers! We tried some that is a specialty of Kyoto, which was pressed rice with mackerel on top. I was also fascinated to discover that something resembling a block of wood was actually dried fish.  It is shaved and then used to make dashi, a stock to add flavour – umami, a savoury taste – to dishes.

Food tour, Kyoto

The food tour wasn’t over yet – we tried a variety of pickles, kelp “lollies”, and some sweet gelatinous rice balls flavoured with matcha and served with a cup of tea.  True Japanese food is incredibly healthy and good for you and it struck me that I didn’t see any fat Japanese people.  I guess it’s hard to get fat on raw fish and seaweed!

Kyoto, Japan

Tea and sweets

Fully sated, it was time for the sake tour.  I had no idea how much there was to know about sake – all I knew was that it was made from rice. It can be filtered or unfiltered, the rice can be milled to different degrees affecting the flavour, and sometimes it is aged.  However by and large they are all a similar price, so it is really just a matter of taste.  We sampled a number of different styles, including a sparkling sake.  One thing we also tried was called “rice cheese” a by-product of the sake.  It’s fair to say that this got the thumbs down from our group!

It was fascinating and a great opportunity to understand more about this popular drink.  For me though, I’ll stick to red wine!  However both the food and sake tour was a fantastic experience.  I would recommend it to anyone.

Sake tour, Kyoto, Japan

Rice and Sake available at the same shop

6 Responses to “Eating and drinking in Japan”
  1. Jackie says:

    The food tour looks great. I have tried sake once and it is fair to say that it is not for me. We are off to the west coast first thing in the morning so we will only be available by cell phone until 18th January.

  2. Campbell says:

    Did they serve the fish sausage in white bread with tomato sauce?

  3. I haven’t been to Japan yet and would love to go! One of the things I really miss about living in Australia is the variety of Japanese food available. The food in Japan looks amazing! B

    • Hi Brooke, definitely put Japan on the list, it’s fascinating! Yes you’re right, since being back I’ve been able to enjoy a wonderful variety of Japanese food to transport me back there. Well at least bring back some nice memories!

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