A stroll through Nishiki, Kyoto’s favorite food market

by

Special To The Japan Times

Nishiki Market’s most famous son, the celebrated artist Ito Jakuchu, is probably best known for his elaborate set of scrolls called “Colorful Realm of Living Beings,” painted during the Edo Period (1603-1867), when Japan was not open for tourism.

While most of the “beings” on display in Nishiki are no longer living, they certainly have presence. Ito would undoubtedly be at home among the wonderful array of colors: luminescent yellows and oranges, deep browns, tie-dye pinks — and that’s just one display of tsukemono, or pickled vegetables.

This centuries-old covered market in the heart of Kyoto has two types of shops, and two types of shoppers. The first category caters to locals: homemakers, chefs and cooks. Those who know the market as “Kyoto’s kitchen” know it inside out, patronize their regular shops and treat the market as if were their pantry.

The other category of shops caters to the growing legion of tourist shoppers who stop and start every few meters, cameras and guidebooks to the ready, turning the journey of 400 meters into something like 400 km.

As markets go, Nishiki is contained. It runs the length of a few blocks; on a quiet day I imagine Usain Bolt might run its entirety in well under a minute. But, as the gaggles of tourists testify, to do so would be to miss everything.

Nishiki’s charm is in its immediacy. There are a few hundred shops, some no bigger than a kitchen, crammed into the long, narrow cavern, which runs parallel to Shijo-dori. The two streets are like chalk and cheese. Where Shijo-dori is lined with luxury stores, banks and chain shops, Nishiki is all hustle and bustle.

Competition for your senses is everywhere. The air is filled with the smell of fresh fish, pickled vegetables, roasted chestnuts, ground sesame and tofu doughnuts, as well as cries from the workers pounding mochi (rice cakes) and people speaking in all kinds of tongues. Nishiki is where you’ll find an A-Z of what goes into washoku (Japanese cuisine).

As at any good food market, the produce keeps pace with the seasons. Early autumn is the time for two of Kyoto’s (and Japan’s) seasonal favorites: chestnuts and matsutake mushrooms. Be warned: The mushrooms are a delicacy in the same league as truffles; you’ll need to raid your bank account (or a bank), so it might be best to just settle on the chestnuts.

At Kyotanba (075-212-0989; www.tanba-nouhan.com), the rich musty smell of roasted chestnuts fills the air. Tanba, a region in northern Kyoto abutting the Sea of Japan, is synonymous with chestnuts and matsutake. One of the roasters told me that the chilly mornings and hot days are ideal growing conditions for nuts and fungus.

A kilo of large Tanba chestnuts sells here for about ¥500, but you can pick up a single glazed chestnut for ¥70. Besides the chestnuts, cranberries are in abundance — turkey time is still a way away, but cranberries aren’t a regular sight in Japan, so it might be a good time to stock up.

Speaking of turkey, a friend recommended Hale (075-231-2516) for lunch; if she hadn’t, I would never have stumbled upon it. Access is via a wood-paneled entranceway off the market thoroughfare.

The food at Hale is all vegetarian, much of it derived from tofu. Yuba,the gossamer-like tofu skin, takes center stage. We had one of the set lunches, which included okara, another byproduct of tofu. This was a revelation — the okara at Hale could stand in for stuffing; my companion swore there was turkey-dripping in it.

For many years the building where Hale is located lay dormant, until owner Chiharu Kondo turned the house where her grandmother was born into a restaurant. It’s a peaceful spot, with an indoor/outdoor garden. The food is very Japanese, and there’s nice lineup of local sake, too.

The best way to get through Nishiki is to simply graze your way along. Many of the shops offer free samples, especially those selling tsukemono. My advice: Try everything — it won’t kill you.

Uchida (075-371-3195; www.kyoto-uchida.ne.jp), near the western end, has been selling pickled vegetables in Nishiki since 1937. In the process of pickling many vegetables become unrecognizable, especially naradzuke uri, a pickled gourd. This one is probably not for everyone, but there is plenty that could be, from eggplant to radish and pumpkin.

Another Nishiki old-timer is Miki Keiran (075-221-1585; www.mikikeiran.com), famous for its dashimaki (omelet) made with kelp stock. Be warned: Come New Year’s, the lines for Miki Keiran can stretch the length of Nishiki. Its omelets sell from around ¥500 to ¥1,400 — a lot for beaten eggs, but they are something special.

Staying with konbu (kelp), Nomura Tsukudani (075-253-1178; www.nomuratsukudani.com) specializes in sweetened konbu and wakame. The tsukudani (food simmered in soy sauce and mirin) is presented as if it were high-class chocolate. It is delightfully sweet and will give you a new appreciation for edible seaweed.

For visitors to Kyoto without their own refrigerator, it might be unrealistic to stock up on seafood items, but that needn’t stop you from picking up takotamago, a quail egg embedded in octopus. This skewer dish is miniature-sized, but so much is squeezed into it — just like Nishiki Market.

609 Nishidaimonji-cho, Shijo-Noboru, Tomikoji Tori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto; 075-211-3882; www.kyoto-nishiki.or.jp