I knew I had found it as soon as my eyes trailed upwards to catch the brightly colored ceiling panels that resembled traffic lights in red, green, and yellow. My nose was consumed with all sorts of scents from the acidic tanginess of tsukemono (pickled goods), sweet savoriness of tamagoyaki (sweet egg omelet), to perfectly salted oil from fried fish. I’ve visited a great many food markets before, but none have left an impression on me quite like the Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan. This market is also known as Kyoto’s Kitchen, rightfully nicknamed as so, since it is frequented by chefs and tourists alike for its offerings of high-quality ingredients. Even if you aren’t hungry (but you really should be) you will still enjoy the atmosphere. Bring a camera, because it’s practically impossible not to take an interesting photo along this shopping arcade.
The Nishiki Market started with humble beginnings in the early 1300’s as a fish market which relied on the freezing water underground to keep the meats fresh. Over time, the stalls along this 400-meter shotengai (shopping street) have slowly evolved like the lifespan of a coral reef over decades and even centuries. While some shops have come and gone, others such as Aritsugu founded by a master swordsmith has been firmly planted in the arcade since 1560. It’s younger counterpart Tsunoki, has been selling premium sake, shochu, and Japanese whisky for 8 generations over 200 years. That’s incredible considering the United States of America was founded around the same time.
What to eat at the Nishiki Market?
This market has been around for so long, that it feels as though every shop has been carefully curated, much like natural selection. Only the best of the best get to stay around on the fixed stretch between Takakura and Shinkyogoku Street. While you may see multiple vendors selling similar items such as seafood, you will be hard pressed to find more than two vendors specializing in the same items. This is one of the aspects I appreciate most about this market; you can walk the entire stretch and avoid repetitive goods. We’ve all been there before– some markets can seem like deja vu, but this one is far from it.
I would recommend coming here with an open mind and clear sinuses. Sniff out items that appeal to your senses and go for it. Don’t be afraid to sample or purchase food from here– Japan has insanely high standards for hygienic food preparation practices. There is one shop in particular, that sells an impressive collection of fish cakes on a stick. You can try cakes with cheese, potatoes, octopus, squid, and vegetables. Although I’m not crazy about fish cakes myself, I did enjoy tasting all of the varieties they had to offer.
Just across from the fish cake stand is a tiny cove that could easily be overlooked if you are walking too quickly. This stand is about 4 feet wide and recesses into the wall 5 or 6 feet deep with just enough room for one person. A lone man runs a simple operation of selling A5 grade wagyu beef on a stick. According to the American Wagyu Association, Grade A5 is the “creme de la creme” of beef determined from a rigorous standard and judged for things such as marbling, meat color, brightness, firmness, and quality of fat. If you’ve ever tried to order Wagyu beef from a normal steakhouse, you’ll know firsthand how painful it can feel to your wallet. At ¥1000 apiece, these A5 wagyu sticks are a bargain!
How do I find the Nishiki Market?
If you are traveling by train, the closest stations are the Karasuma Station, the Kawaramachi Station, or the Shijo Station in Kyoto. From there, you can type in “Nishiki Market” in Google Maps and you’ll be directed to the street. If you are navigating offline, you can also identify Nishikikoji Street and highlight the area between Takakura Street and Shinkyogoku Street. As a point of reference, Nishikikoji Street runs parallel and is just a few blocks away from the busy and metropolitan Shijo Dori street. It’s a bit of a culture shock to walk from one place to the other because it almost feels like time travel with the contrast of a traditional-style marketplace to high-end shopping malls.
I would recommend beginning at the intersection of Nishikikoji Street and Takakura Street and then slowly working your way down the blocks until you end at the Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine at the end of the shotengai (shopping arcade). The market is generally open every day of the week from 9:00am – 6:00pm, with certain shops closed on Wednesdays. Keep in mind that this is a specialty market so you are mostly going to encounter ingredients found in traditional meals. This is also a superb place to buy souvenirs or gifts, as much of the items are locally sourced and prepared in Kyoto.
What are other stores I should visit in the Nishiki Market?
- Aritsugu sells hand-crafted knives and has been a fixture in the market since 1560. It was founded by a master swordsmith named Aritsugu Fujiwara and known for its knives made from traditional steel. This brand is overwhelmingly popular in western Japan, which is a testament to its quality and rich history. These days, the shop is led by the 18th generation of store owners.
- Tsukemono (pickled vegetables) is a meal staple in Japan. Uchida’s pickle shop is easily identifiable by its large wooden barrels of pickled goods with it’s vertical red and yellow signs. I find Japanese pickles are easy to like (the flavor profiles are generally mild) and most delicious when paired with a simple bowl of rice.
- If you like sesame, Goma Fukudo might just be your type of paradise. A large mortar and pestle sits at the front of the store and is used to hand grind sesame seeds. You’ll find all sorts of sesame products sold in here including freshly made sesame mochi dango, manjyu, and croquettes.
- For those with a sweet tooth, you must try these little bites of tofu heaven at Konnamonja. They sell a variety of items including ice creams and croquettes, but the real star is their crispy tofu donut. You’ll know you’ve come to the right place when you see a swarm of people hovering to catch a glimpse of the donuts coming out on the little conveyor belt.
- Tsunoki offers an excellent selection of fine sake produced in Kyoto. They have friendly service and will help find you the bottle you never knew you needed (but really did) in your life. There are also plenty of options for whisky drinkers.
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