Spring is here, and Kyoto is calling us. The old capital is ablaze with blossom, fresh foliage and the exhilaration that winter is over. This is a magical time of year — not just for sightseeing, but for eating out, too, with all the produce of the new season. There are great restaurants close to all the finest blossom-viewing spots, and here are three of the best.
The Philosopher’s Walk, which meanders alongside a canal in the eastern hills of Kyoto, is one of the most popular pedestrian promenades in the city, even after the cherry blossoms have fallen. The stroll from Ginkakuji Temple down to Nanzeji Temple takes around 40 minutes — just long enough to work up a good appetite for a full-scale multicourse kaiseki banquet at Hyotei (35 Kusagawa-cho, Nanzenji, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto; 075-771-4116; www.hyotei.co.jp).
This is one of Kyoto’s essential dining experiences, for lunch or dinner. Founded around 400 years ago, Hyotei may not be the oldest restaurant in the city — venerable soba specialist Owariya claims that title — but it’s certainly among the most atmospheric. It also boasts three Michelin stars.
Behind Hyotei’s rustic entrance lies a sprawling garden with private dining rooms built in the style of traditional wooden teahouses. Some have tables and chairs; in others you sit at low tables on tatami mats. Make yourself comfortable, the meal lasts a good three hours.
From the appetizers to the final dessert and matcha green tea, dinner comprises 12 separate dishes. Don’t be surprised that the hassun (a tray of mixed seasonal foods) also includes a simple but perfect hanjuku (soft-boiled) egg, little different to those commonly served with ramen. The egg is Hyotei’s signature dish — a recipe more than a century older than that at any noodle shop.
Each course is ferried from the central kitchen by waitresses in kimono. We were able to savor not just the cuisine but the serving vessels, the setting and the timeless sense of wabisabi, the aesthetic of rustic refinement that permeates Hyotei.
Much closer to the center of Kyoto, the leafy precincts of Yasaka Shrine offer welcome relief from the crowds and tourist shops around Gion. Further back are the famous cherry trees of Maruyama Park. A few minutes walk south from here, down a quiet backstreet, is Gion Nishikawa (473 Shimogawara-cho, Kawaramachi-dori, Yasaka Torii-mae-sagaru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto; 075-525-1776; r.goope.jp/gion-nishikawa).
A mere five years old, Nishikawa is a newcomer in the hierarchical world of Kyoto restaurants — but it’s far from unknown. How could it be, after already winning two Michelin stars? Even so, just finding your way there the first time feels like a considerable discovery.
The entrance is pure, inscrutable Kyoto: Visitors pass through a latticed wooden gate underneath a timber townhouse and down a dark alley of carefully moistened flagstones. Inside and out, there is a stylish mix of modern and old that adds a frisson of theatricality to your meal.
Owner-chef Masayoshi Nishikawa was just 33 when he opened here and he brings a youthful energy and subtle contemporary touches to the classic kaiseki canon: He serves the sashimi’s wasabi on an ice-plant leaf; he sometimes uses a gas blowtorch to sear fish, rather than his charcoal grill; and he even adds sweet corn to his summer rice.
He may only be 38, but Nishikawa still cooks in an age-old way using a heavy donabe (clay pot) on a mud-walled kamado (traditional stove). And the dashi soup stock in his suimono clear soups is superb and profound.
Travelling across town to Arashiyama in northwest Kyoto, you’ll see some of Kyoto’s most scenic riverside views and beautiful blossoms. But rather than linger at this major tourist magnet, head downstream (one stop by train) to nearby Matsuo Taisha. Our destination is one of Kyoto’s most unlikely and least heralded restaurants: Tempura Matsu (21-26 Umezu Onawaba-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto; 075-881-9190).
The name is misleading. When it opened in 1974, the specialty was indeed tempura — at least ostensibly. But veteran owner-chef Shunichi Matsuno has always set his sights higher. Over the years he has developed extended menus that are creative, complex and, often, inspired.
It has always been a family-run business and, these days, his son Toshio is in charge. Drawing on the experience he gained working with chefs Alain Ducasse (a regular visitor here) and Grant Achatz, the younger Matsuno is bringing an extra level of finesse.
He uses premium ingredients — Tsuiyama snow crabs; line-caught tuna landed in Aomori; lobsters from the Seto Inland Sea; wild eel from the northern tip of Lake Biwa — supplementing them with seasonal wild plants and serves it all on beautiful tableware, some of it made centuries ago.
From the very first course — sashimi-grade otoro tuna or kanburi yellowtail lightly seared over red-hot binchōtan (charcoal), prepared in front of you — you’ll be invariably wowed each time you visit.
The counter seating may be cramped but the warmth of the hospitality makes up for that. Tempura Matsu is as special as the blossoms lining the banks of the river outside. In fact, it’s even better — there’s no need to wait till next spring to return.
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