Kyoto is the perfect mixture of all things old and new. Magnificent shrines and temples dating back hundreds of years are mixed in between high-rise buildings and neon lights. It’s also the best place to see traditional Geisha walking down the street, or go shopping for the latest trends from Louis Vuitton or Chanel. You’ll always be surprised by what’s around the next corner, except for the bakeries. You can count on finding one in every part of Kyoto, selling everything from traditional European pastries to modern Japanese creations.
The local specialty is Yatsuhashi; a thin, triangular shaped layer of mochi filled with thick paste in flavors like red bean, green tea, chocolate and mango. You’ll find stacks of Yatsuhashi in every souvenir shop, which offer free samples for you to try. My recommendation is to try the samples, but save your money to buy something else more interesting. It’s a very average tasting pastry, and with the variety of sweets available in this great city you have the luxury to be picky. There is also a wide selection of crispy rice treats and curved ginger wafers (sometimes also labeled Yatsuhashi) in the souvenir shops, which make a decent snack but are also probably not worth taking home. I preferred to get my souvenirs at the food markets and old bakeries hidden around the city.
Other than a few must-see points of interest, I recommend just wondering around Kyoto to discover what it’s all about. In fact, I recommend this travel strategy for most of Japan. Many streets in Japan aren’t labeled and addresses are almost impossible to decipher (although Kyoto is one of the easiest to get through). If you do aim for a specific destination, bring every map you can find since it often takes information from at least 3 different sources to get you where you want to go. A few sweet places I managed to find in my 6 days in Kyoto include:
The Philosopher’s Path
Northeast side of Kyoto. Walk north on Shirakawa Dori and turn right on Imadegawa (this will take you to the northern tip of the path which leads straight to Ginkaku-ji.)
The Philosopher’s Path is a two-kilometer long path through the hills of eastern Kyoto that a well-respected philosopher used to walk daily for inspiration. It winds alongside a stream, with the beautiful Ginkaku-ji temple at the north end, and is a very popular route with tourists and locals. It is so popular that is has become overrun with souvenir shops and bakeries, and may be more appropriately titled the “The Shopper’s Path” or better yet, “The Baker’s Path.” You’ll find the usual stacks of Yatsuhashi here, but more interesting are the local bakers who steam buns and make fresh sweets in front of you. One woman was heating red bean cakes on a grill and serving them warm, which made for a great snack on a cold day (she also hand-wrapped them in nicely decorated paper so you could take them with you for later.)
Karasuma subway to Imadegawa. Walk south and the entrance to the Imperial palace will be on the left-hand side of the street.
The inside of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace may not be worth visiting, but the outside grounds certainly are. The grounds are beautiful and provide a nice, shady resting spot in the middle of the city. The entryway is also lined with food vendors selling tea, sweets, fruits, pickled vegetables and many other local specialties. Surprisingly, our favorite find here was a bag of mixed nuts.
Across the street from the entrance to the Imperial Palace you’ll also find the famous confectionery shop, Toraya. Toraya has been supplying the Imperial family with their sweets since the 16th century, and I was really looking forward to visiting this famous shop on my visit to Japan. On our first attempt to find it we walked right by it since it does not have an English sign in front. I saw the sweets inside, but it looked like most other confectionery shops in Kyoto and I doubted it could be the one and only Toraya.
After double checking with a few locals that we were in the right place, we went in and expected to be wowed with amazing creations. I have to say I was disappointed by the selection. I bought a three-layered slice of cake, which had two layers of a sticky rice cake (pink and white) and a third layer of thick red bean paste. I picked it since the colors of the cake were beautiful and I saw a local woman buying several.
The cake turned out to be too thick and heavy for my taste, and I didn’t get the “wow” feeling I’ve had after eating many creations at the rival Minamoto Kitchoan. I also bought jellies in a nicely decorated box since I thought it might make a good souvenir, but again, the taste was just average. (Side note: I later noticed that the Toraya outlets in the food halls always seemed to be empty. Maybe Toraya’s prices are too high and the selection is too good from other vendors in the area for customers to shop at Toraya.)
Isetan Department Store Food Hall
The Isetan department store is connected to the modern, and centrally located, Kyoto train station. It is over nine-stories tall and has a particularly large food hall located in the basement, where vendors give out endless free samples. It was at this food hall that I discovered one of my favorite items of the trip: Brownies du Japon by Atenor. Unfortunately when I spotted them at the Atenor booth the display was up but they had sold out of their stock! I kept an eye out for them for the rest of my trip and was finally able to taste one at the Atre food hall in Tokyo a few weeks later. They come in chocolate and green tea flavors, and put an interesting twist on the standard brownie without going too far. The little white dots on the chocolate flavored brownie are sugar crystals, and when combined with the whole red beans on top, create a really rich brownie full of interesting textures.
Some of my other favorite finds were the green tea bread from Anderson Bakery and individual chocolate cakes with apricot jelly filling from Cafe Malebranche.
Nishikioji-Dori, 1 block north of Shijo-Dori
Nashiki Market is a long, covered market that sells all sorts of Japanese food. One of the most surprising finds here was a small stand selling freshly made donuts that rolled right off the conveyor belt and into customer’s hands. The shop also sold vanilla and green tea ice cream, making it one of the most popular shops on the street.
Sanjo-agaru 8 Ken-me, Kiyamachi-dori, Nakagyo-ku (on Kiyamachi-Dori, 1 block north of Sanjo, just to the right of the bridge)
If you visit one bakery while in Kyoto, Tsukimochi-ya should be it. Tsukimochi means “moon cake” in Japanese and this shop is credited for being the first to bake the cake, rather than steam it (as was customary at the time.) Over five generations of family members have been baking this toasted cake, known by the name “Geppei”, and it is still their most popular item. You can purchase the traditional red bean Geppei individually, or try the Hitokuchi, an assortment of bite size cakes in various flavors.
The shop also makes impressive wagashi, in all sorts of shapes and colors.
While at the shop we bought one of the white bean and fruit wagashi and the baker behind the counter asked us to sit and wait on a small bench on the side of the shop while he prepared it (of course he said this in Japanese, but we got the point through hand motions.) He then went into the back, poured two cups of cold green tea, and brought it out on a serving tray so we could enjoy our purchase properly in the shop. We then ordered a box of Hitokuchi to go, and he proceeded to ring up our order with an abacus!
The old-fashioned nature of this shop is what makes it so great, and the traditional way of doing things carries through in everything they do.