Dec. 27, 2017 UPDATE
Time to change to a kimono and go for a walk in Gion!
Traditional kaiseki restaurants in the alleys of Gion
There are many restaurants located in the alleys of Gion, most of them offering Japanese cuisine. The traditional kaiseki cuisine is what Kyoto is famous for, and many of the greatest in this style can be found in Kyoto. Kaiseki restaurants take the four seasons of Japan seriously and change their menu and even the plates the dishes are served on seasonally. The way the dishes are presented is incredibly pleasing to the eye, you often almost feel bad eating these works of art; they’re just so beautiful. Many politicians and CEOs also frequent their restaurants. So here you have a list of a few of them! They’re so great that some of them have gotten Michelin stars!
Gion MaruyamaGion Maruyama is located close to Kennin-ji Temple, and it has not just one Michelin star, but two. This restaurant is located in a wooden house that doesn’t stand out, but that still looks elegant. After you go in through the gate, you get to see a beautiful Japanese garden and enjoy the calming sound of flowing water. The feeling here is of calm luxury, and it feels like time passes more slowly inside.
They use seasonal ingredients, some of which you suualyl don't see at other restaurants. The dishes are made in traditional Japanese style, but at Gion Maruyama they just taste a bit better. Their grilled ayu is a famed dish, and it's something everyone should try when in Gion.
Gion MoriwakiGion Moriwaki is a kaiseki restaurant in an alley just a short walk from the famous Hanamikoji Street. The restaurant just opened in August 2014 but already in 2016, it got its first Michelin star. The restaurant offers incredible kaiseki at rather reasonable prices, so it can be difficult to get to seat unless you make a reservation.
The dishes you’re served here are all very refined and look great. From the simple brown rice soup you’re served in the beginning, through the sashimi and sushi in the middle, the seasonal hassun-platter which gives you surprisingly a lot to eat, all the way to the soba noodles you’re served at the end before the dessert, everything tastes just right. Normally before the dessert you’re served a rice dish, but soba noodles are the specialty and actually the idea behind this restaurant, so here you get to taste their soba noodles which are some of the best in Kyoto.
Gion Uokeya UGion Uokeya U is located in a small alley in Gion, and it’s easily recognizable from its sign with the Japanese character for u (う) written to look like an eel. This restaurant offers eel, but the eel here is cooked in Kanto-style, not the Kansai-style most restaurants cook their eel in Kyoto. In Kanto style the skin of the eel is grilled first, then the meat, and after this it’s steamed. After the steaming, the eel is dipped in tare sauce and grilled again. This makes the eel tenderer. The sauce from the eel also drips onto the rice when it’s put in the bucket, and makes the rice a delicacy in itself.
But before you eat the main, the eel bucket, consider ordering some eel omelet. The Japanese style omelet is soft and fluffy, but you have the saltiness of the eel to compensate, and the taste is fantastic. This restaurant has a Michelin star, and it’s easy to see why.
Sushi MatsumotoWhen you come to Kyoto, you may want to try some local delicacies, but this sushi restaurant with a Michelin star, Sushi Matsumoto, is also a choice you shouldn’t forget. This sushi restaurant in Gion only has a few seats at the counter, and some tables, so you should definitely make a reservation. And of course, it’s best to sit at the counter where you get to see the chef make the sushi. The tuna here is an absolute treat, it looks red and firm, but when you put it in your mouth, it just melts away. Highly recommended.
One other special thing about this restaurant is that they don’t use vinegar and sugar in their sushi rice, but instead use red vinegar which makes the color of the rice a bit brownish. This makes the taste of the rice a bit more sour than usual, but the sourness is not too strong, and in fact, makes the taste of the fish stand out more. The taste of this sushi is something you have to try at least once in your life.
Tempura Endo YasakaThis restaurant is located in a stately-looking historic wooden house. Inside they have a bar counter and private rooms, but from both you can view their beautiful Japanese garden. The tempura they serve here is of the highest quality; there is none of that greasiness often associated with tempura, but here the tempura butter just makes the ingredients themselves stand out more. I especially liked the corn tempura; the sweetness of the taste made this tempura a lasting memory for me. Besides this, I also really liked the nori tempura, the surprising sweetness of high-quality seaweed for new for me.
Lastly, you get to choose between “tencha” and “tendon,” tencha is green tea over rice, this time of course topped with tempura, whereas tendon is a bowl of rice topped with tempura. The taste of tencha is elegant and not too strong, whereas tendon packs more punch. Even though tendon has a stronger taste, compared to many other restaurants it’s still much more elegant than many other restaurant’s offerings. If you want to have tempura in Gion, this restaurant should be your first choice!
Yasaka Enraku and Enchanted Time with MaikoDo you want to see a maiko up close? Yasaka Enraku and Enchanted Time with Maiko can let this come into reality. In a traditional tatami room, you get to see a maiko perform a dance, play games with her, and even talk with her. The atmosphere is surprisingly welcoming and merry.
Most of the customers come from overseas, and while the maiko may not speak English that well, there is always an interpreter present to help you communicate. The way you get to see a maiko smile to you up close is something I’m sure you won’t forget. If you are coming to Gion, remember to make a reservation online and go meet a real maiko!
The prices in Gion may be a bit on the expensive side, but if you go to the restaurants mentioned here, you’ll also notice that the taste is different too. When you look at the careful work of the artisanal chefs and enjoy the great heartfelt Japanese service, you’ll almost feel at home in Kyoto. If you are coming to Kyoto, going to a kaiseki restaurant should be on your itinerary.
In Gion you get to wear a kimono to the shrines and temples, enjoy some kaiseki cuisine, and make the experience an unforgettable one. The old buildings of Gion and the “omotenashi” of the restaurant service are sure to be great, but when you also get to talk to a maiko it becomes something even better.