Kyoto tofu is the best in the world – perfected by buddhist monks over centuries. Tofu here is varied – from the skin (yuba) to the squares in broth (yudofu) – but never bland and dull. And this also has a lot to do with how Kyoto cuisine has elevated the use of the soybean. On my visits to Kyoto, I will always hunt down some good tofu focused and “shojin ryori” (buddhist cuisine) restaurants and here are some suggestions. To note, all of the restaurants below, except for Seike Yuba, required us to take off our shoes as sitting on the floor is the norm. I’ll continue to add to this list as I uncover more.
This is a Michelin starred shojin ryori restaurant which serves a vegetarian kaiseki meal. Ajiro is exceptional in my opinion. It’s not just the fun of skimming your own yuba but the presentation of the the other dishes. It’s conveniently located near Myoshin-ji, not far south of Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion). Reservations required. More pictures and info available in my earlier blog. Incidentally, you can ask for table seating if you have a bad back or knees.
Okutan Nazenji or Okutan Kyomizu
Okutan is a tofu specialist restaurant with two locations – one near Nazenji and the other near Kyomizudera. I chanced upon Okutan Nazenji as I looked for lunch on a cold winter day after visiting Nanzenji. It turned out to be one of our most satisfying meals in Kyoto. This is because it was simple, quick and tasty – one of the best ways to refuel on a busy day. We squeezed in on the tatami mat upstairs around a small table with a hot pot. Less than an hour later, we were out the door to visit another temple. There is no a la carte menu but a set lunch is served that consists of some grilled tofu with miso paste, tofu in a hot pot (yudofu) and tempura. So this is not strictly vegetarian. Reservations are not taken so the queues can be long but if your schedule is flexible, a late lunch will probably save a long wait in line. Both branches are open daily but only until 4pm.
Right inside Tenryuji in Arashiyama is a fantastically authentic shojin ryori experience. We almost didn’t make it here but managed to run in before the 2pm close. So our entrance was not zen like. Once in, we sat in a long room with tatami mats as the food is brought in on trays and placed in front of us on the floor. There is no menu – it’s just a set lunch with really good bits of tofu, yuba, vegetables, rice and soup. I’m told the monks cook the food. I highly recommend this as a great experience as it’s unique to Kyoto. I suspect that even if there are other temples serving lunch, the cuisine will not be the same. I mentioned Shigetsu as one of the places I heartedly suggest when visiting Arashiyama in an earlier post.
Seike Yuba’s Nishijin restaurant serves a good variety of tofu but it’s not strictly vegetarian since we had some duck at the end of our meal. This is a higher end restaurant serving a multi course omakase menu for dinner. It and its other two branches are open for lunch as well with smaller lunch sets available. The Nishijin branch is the open outlet open for dinner. Dinner was good and we went for the ultimate course which was priced around JPY11,000 although I suspect the JPY8,000 menu would have been good enough. The meal follows a kaiseki course with the difference being that instead of meat there is tofu and yuba. The restaurant is conveniently located near the Kyoto Imperial Palace so it’s a good option for lunch or dinner after a visit to the Palace. Reservations are recommended. To note, the restaurant is closed on Wednesdays. More info on Seike Yuba’s website.