For some 1,200 years, Kyoto stood as Japan's former capital and seat of the imperial court. During this time, the city was a magnet for artisans throughout the country who sought to refine their skills in order to serve the Emperor. Chefs were no exception. Once referred to as the Emperor's kitchen, Kyoto boasts a rich and diverse culinary tradition and offers what it considers its own branch of Japanese cooking, kyo ryori (Kyoto cusine). Kyo ryori, which is the pride of a city home to restaurants with more than 130 Michelin stars between them, brings together sophistication, artistic impression and subtlety of taste to become an experience for all the senses. Dishes are created with an emphasis on natural beauty and local and seasonal ingredients. Kyo ryori is a fusion of four varieties of cuisine:
Yusoku ryori is a highly refined and elegant cuisine that evolved in the kitchens of the Kyoto imperial household during the Heian period, between the 8th and 12th centuries. It was enjoyed at imperial court banquets by Emperors and high ranking nobles.
Kaiseki ryori, also referred to locally as kyo kaiseki, has its origin in the Japanese tea ceremony, but later evolved into an elaborate dining style popular among aristocratic circles. Kaiseki ryori makes use of subtle flavors to bring out the taste of fresh local and seasonal ingredients. It is served in a prescribed order of courses which is determined by the cooking method of each dish.
Shojin ryori developed from the austerity of Buddhist monks who had to make do without meat or fish in their diet, as they were forbidden from taking the life of other living creatures. Though all dishes are strictly vegetarian, they are savory and filling. A common ingredient used in shojin ryori is tofu, which is a local specialty of Kyoto.
Obanzai ryori is a traditional home style of cooking passed down by many generations of Kyoto locals. Obanzai ryori consists of multiple easy-to-prepare dishes which primarily make use of locally produced vegetables and other seasonal ingredients. Dishes are made in a way which brings out the natural flavors of the ingredients used.
An indispensable element of kyo ryori, and Japanese cuisine in general, is dashi, Japanese soup stock. Two of the most delicious types of dashi are made from katsuo (dried bonito flakes), and kombu (kelp). The reason why people in Kyoto and throughout Japan are so fond of dashi is umami, a pleasant savory taste that blends well with other tastes and enriches flavors. Umami, discovered by a Japanese chemist over a 100 years ago and considered the fifth basic taste after sweet, sour, bitter and salty, has played a major role in bringing Japanese cuisine to an even greater international audience.
A great way to try kyo ryori is kawadoko, the summer pastime of dining outdoors on temporary platforms built over flowing water. From May to September, many restaurants along the Kamogawa River construct temporary wooden decks so visitors can enjoy the various tastes of kyo ryori in almost complete relief of the summer heat. Other areas where visitors can experience kawadoko include Kibune and Takao, which are located in the forested mountains just north of central Kyoto.