Standing outside the Uchida pickle shop of Nishiki might lead one to believe time has reversed. In front of the building façade, a series of wooden barrels stand filled with pickles of every variety and presented with typical Japanese flair. While pickles might not be the first item on anybody’s to-eat list, they should not be overlooked. Where rice does most of the heavy lifting in a meal, filling the diner’s stomach, and miso provides the warmth of the meal; pickles create balance. And when it comes to Japanese cuisine, balance is paramount. The kind of vegetable, the way of pickling, even the shop, all determine the distinct flavor of a pickle, and therefore the balance of a meal.
Nukazuke, a kind of pickle, abounds in Nishiki. Covered with a fermented rice and salt mixture, it’s easy to spot—look for those same barrels, piled high with pickles smothered in brown paste. It may not sound appetizing but there’s a reason it’s so popular.
Most of Nishiki tends to shy away from the exceptionally sweet and focuses on savory and salty tastes of main course meals. But a few shops showcase Japanese style sweets. The most common kind one can find is “mochi”. Mochi comes from glutinous rice, prepared and then pounded over and over again. It produces a small, chewy cake with a slightly sweet taste. Mochi can come in many flavors such as green tea, soy powder, and even sakura (cherry blossom). Sometimes they are plain, or filled with red bean paste, which enhances their sweetness.
Nishiki Mochitsukiya specializes in this kind of sweet. Here you can try anything from standard mochi, filled with red bean paste, to grilled mochi and more. Stop by here and purchase a few types of mochi to sample.
Riceball in rice shop
Being a staple food, rice often gets overlooked. Its main purpose is to fill your belly, not deliver any of those delicate flavors Japanese cuisine is known for. Yet the quality of rice certainly affects the dish. And not all rice is equal. From country to country, prefecture to prefecture, even town to town, there can be subtle variances in the way rice is produced. This in turn creates subtle differences in the flavor that can affect the balance of a dish.
In the past, long before supermarkets supplanted them, rice sellers collected rice from various parts of the country and resold them. While most of these shops are no more, a few still exist.
Just across from the tofu donut stand, one of these old shops still exists. Displayed out front are a few piles of rice from different makers or prefectures. This is also a good spot to sit down for a turn and enjoy a simple rice ball with your preferred flavoring such as sesame seeds.
Japanese food always tastes better with a little sake. At Nishiki’s Tsunoki, one can find a breathtaking selection of this particular brew. With over two hundred years of operating history and a family history stretching just as far, this shop knows sake. Alcohol from most regions of Japan can be found here, but of course there are plenty of Kyoto brands on the shelves, which also have an incredible history of their own. It’s like a museum exhibit, only you get to drink the artwork. A bottle of sake makes a great gift, especially to oneself.
It sounds a bit unpleasant at first: tofu donut. The image conjured to one’s mind is that of a pale white circle that tastes like nothing. But the flavor of a tofu donut is contrarily sweet.
The little shop selling these bites of heaven amounts to little more than a hole in the wall with a few chairs and a table. You might actually miss it, as the front side of the shop facing Nishiki sells different kinds of sweets. But there is a sign announcing the existence of the donuts just above the door. The donut machine is just to the north side of Nishiki, slightly hidden from the standard passerby. They come in bags of ten or twenty-three (sorry no splitting, you’ll have to share).
By description, dashimaki may sound a bit unappetizing: a loaf of scrambled egg, essentially. Yet this dish is no mere scrambled egg, nor omlette. Through a somewhat difficult technique, the eggs are turned to form a loaf in a specialized pan. Infused with the eggs is dashi, the base soup stock of traditional Japanese meals.
The taste of dashimaki usually surprises the first timer. Where one expects the simple taste of an omlette, the savory taste of dashi comes through instead. Before moving on, be sure to try a few different types and taste the difference. It may surprise you.
For those who enjoy oysters, walk down to the far end of the Nishiki market. There, find a little shop known as “Daiyasu”. This little shop, with its littler seats, focuses upon Japanese oysters and seafood. Oysters come from all over Japan to arrive on your plate. Some hail from places as far as Hokkaido, Japan’s most northern prefecture, to Hyogo, which sits just an hour and a half away by train. They offer raw oyster and cooked, as well as a wide variety of seafood to sate your appetite. It’s a great place to stop on the way out of Nishiki for a quick rest until the next adventure begins.
Throughout the market there are several fishmongers with their wares on display. Amid the ice pack one dish in particular draws the eye of many passersby: skewered baby octopus. The image might strike somebody as odd at first, a skewer passed through the body of a plump little octopus. The red tint comes from a miso glazing and the plumpness comes from a sparrow egg that shopkeepers deftly insert into the body of the octopus.
For most, the prospect of downing an eight-legged mollusk may inspire a little revulsion, but the creamy egg mixed with the light miso redux brings this little snack together. But if you just can’t bring yourself to eat one, not to worry, Nishiki is filled with food and one needn’t look far for another popular snack.
Karaage at butcher
It looks like something taken right out of the 1960s. Trays of meat displayed in a simple, refrigerator glass cabinet. This is Torisei, a butcher shop specializing in chicken and duck. And that is all this shop has been up to for the last one hundred years. It counts among its customers some of the top restaurants around town, as well as the throngs of tourists who pass every day. Perhaps that’s what so special about this shop—it hasn’t been hidden away in some dark recess that only the most inspired foodies can find. It sits squarely in Nishiki and anyone can walk up to the counter to make a purchase.
Yet most of the meat is raw, and the average tourist probably hasn’t got a handy stove or oven to cook. But that’s no trouble. You can always try the karaage (fried chicken) which the shop makes. These juicy bits of meat are some of the best in Kyoto and quite inexpensive as well. Buy a few pieces and continue on through the market, munching to heart’s content.
So, we hope you get the feeling of what the Nishiki Market is like. If you are interested in knowing more in detail, check out our Nishiki Market Food Tour!
Optionally – Aritsugu Knife shop
Located in the depths of the Nishiki street lies a shop filled with knives of every kind and a few other assorted sharp objects. The Aritsugu knife shop enjoys a bit of fame not only because of its location but also because of its story. The original proprietors worked as sword smiths in the past. But as the peace began to sweep over Japan, the necessity of weapons faded, and the shop began producing knives instead and has been doing so for nearly 450 years.
With that kind of history, one can expect quality from this shop, and Aritsugu tends to deliver. Their knives are built to last a lifetime, and for the cooking enthusiast there’s no better place to buy. After purchasing, the shop will sharpen the blade one last time, and can even etch your initials into the metal. A good present for the chef in the family, or as something to bring home yourself.