Exploring Kyoto’s Unique Sushi Heritage

  • 03/23/2024
  • 03/23/2024
  • Food

Sushi is a dish that’s become synonymous with Japan, and when you’re visiting Japan’s cultural capital, you might think it just wouldn’t be right to leave without sampling some Kyoto sushi. In fact, while the best sushi can certainly be had in Japan, Kyoto’s traditional sushi offerings are a bit more unusual than your typical rolls and nigiri. While you’ll certainly be able to find these, fresh and delicious, in the city, you should also take note of some of Kyoto’s very own types of sushi. Read on to find out more about the unique sushi types that developed in largely land-locked Kyoto City, where to eat sushi in Kyoto, and more.

Types of Sushi Unique to Kyoto

Mackerel Sushi (鯖寿司, Saba-Zushi): Mackerel sushi is a Kyoto specialty that has been enjoyed for centuries. The mackerel is marinated in vinegar and then pressed onto a block of rice, creating a flavorful and aromatic dish. You can also find grilled mackerel versions of this sushi. 

Historically, mackerel was carried into Kyoto on boats through the gorges of Kameoka to the northeast, down the Hozu River, so this fish has a long history in this former capital city. This sushi is a testament to Kyoto’s connection to the sea and its history as a cultural and economic hub.

Temari Sushi (手毬寿司): Temari sushi is a type of sushi shaped like a small ball. Said to have first been created in Kyoto, it’s thought that these bite-sized balls were made here especially because they are easy for a maiko or geiko to place in her mouth in one-bite, and without smudging her makeup. Nowadays, this type of sushi is served at special occasions and is known for its beautiful presentation–not just for being delicious!

Funazushi (鮒寿司): Oldest of them all, funazushi is an unusual type of sushi that hails from just north of Kyoto, in neighboring Shiga Prefecture. Shiga is home to Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, whose crucian carp were historically used to make funazushi. But funazushi isn’t exactly sushi like we think of it today. Long before modern conveniences like refrigerators, fish products had to be preserved by other means. In this case, the fish is salted for months, and then fermented, and served in slices. It has a strong, distinctive flavor and is often considered an acquired taste. Nonetheless, it’s an important part of the area’s culinary heritage, and a great dish to sample for the adventurous!

Types of Sushi Eateries in Kyoto

Throughout Kyoto, you’ll find opportunities to sample sushi in a range of different settings. If you’re in the mood for sushi, keep an eye out for these types of eateries:

Kaiten Sushi (Conveyor Belt Sushi): Conveyor belt sushi has become popular in many Western countries, and you can certainly find it here in Kyoto as well. These are often nationwide chain restaurants, fun for an inexpensive sampling of different types of sushi.

Department Store Sushi: A department store may not be where you’d first think to look for a meal, but many department stores in Japan (like Kyoto’s Daimaru or Takashimaya) have an underground level floor dedicated solely to food offerings. Sometimes these are ingredients, sometimes they are pre-cooked pieces to take home for dinner, but they are also a good place to find some quality take-away sushi.

Izakaya: Often translated as pubs, izakaya are also typically restaurants that serve a variety of food, and many offer sashimi as a dish to compliment your drink. They may not spring first to mind when you’re ready to sample some sushi dishes, but check their menus and look out especially for Kyoto izakaya that specialize in fish dishes.

Sushi Specialty Restaurants: These will typically be more expensive, higher-end eateries, but the place you’ll want to pick if you want to taste some really quality sushi, and especially to sample some more unusual sushi varieties unique to Kyoto, like temari sushi.

Kyoto’s unique sushi heritage is a testament to the city’s rich history and culinary traditions. Though the most local of sushi dishes here might be unlike the sushi you’ve tried before, anyone who calls themself a sushi lover shouldn’t miss the chance to try them.

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