Vegetarianism, veganism and organic food have become increasingly popular as diners’ concerns about their own health and that of the planet grow. To ensure that visitors’ food needs do not hold them back from exploring the Kyoto that lies outside of the cosmopolitan Kyoto City, here we share unique local eateries in each of Kyoto Prefecture’s four regional areas that range from lush tea fields south of the city, over mountains and woodland, to the Sea of Japan in the north.
These restaurants are highly recommended for everyone, even meat lovers. They each create a space that expresses their owners’ own principles and larger view of life and connection.
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Relish Shokudo – Kyoto Otokuni Bamboo Grove district
Relish Shokudo is an organic-food café created by cooking school instructor Kaoru Mori. Her aim is not just to feed customers Japanese homestyle meals, but to also teach them how to make them. Near the entrance, next to a drawing of this month’s lunch set is the recipe for the main dish. In the four years that the café has been open, Mori says she has never repeated a recipe.
What Mori creates each month is washoku, the Japanese term for traditional Japanese cooking that UNESCO registered as intangible cultural heritage in 2013. It follows the “one soup, three dishes” format, to which a bowl of rice is included. The Relish lunch adds a cup of organic hoji tea—the roasted green tea—and perhaps just a mouthful of something sweet.
The main dish alternates by month between meat and fish, and the overall contents change with the seasons, but here is an example of the main lunch set. The main dish is deep-fried cod with a starchy sauce with spring onion and three types of mushrooms, and a side salad of mizuna greens, sweet potato and apple. One side dish is furofuki daikon, in which the slight bitterness of the radish is balanced by the sweetness of a white-miso paste on top. Another small plate holds burdock stewed with beef and sansho pepper. A sliver of cucumber and of carrot fermented in rice bran gives a touch of sourness. It accompanies tsukudani, which is the konbu kelp and fish that has been used in the soup stock, now boiled in sweetened soy sauce. The dessert is a smooth, plant-based jelly containing small chunks of preserved citrus fruit. It is a perfect, delightful example of the range of colors, flavors and textures of Japanese cuisine.
All the dishes have what is described in Japanese as a “gentleness” of taste—a purity that the body understands. It is what draws children to peek around the corner into the kitchen, sniffing in the scent of the stock as they come, says Mori.
That purity comes from the locally produced organic vegetables, and from Mori’s dedication to ingredients like soy sauce, miso and vinegar, that are made the old-fashioned way, without additives. Fermentation of the ingredients in the local way not only makes them rich in flavor, but also helps maintain intestinal health, she says.
Along with two dishes tailored to children, the only other eat-in lunch dish Relish serves is curry made with dashi broth, because things are kept simple here.
Open: 11 a.m.–3 p.m. (order by 2:30 p.m.)
Closed: Mondays, second Tuesday of the month and Tuesdays that follow a public holiday Monday
Address: 1F, 20-14 Oyamazaki Kagamida, Oyamazaki-cho, Otokuni District, Kyoto Prefecture 618-0071
Organic Cafe Tentomushi Batake – Kyoto by the Sea district
This relaxed café in the far north of Kyoto Prefecture is located on one of the first farms in Japan to embrace the organic movement and serves meals that feature homegrown vegetables. Even people who profess to not like vegetables can’t get enough of the vegetables served here. From growing through to cooking, the café uses a simple, natural approach that allows diners to savor the rich taste of pure, seasonal vegetables.
Osamu Umemoto established the farm in 1997. At first, the organic section of it fed just his family, but when his eldest child entered elementary school, he began educating people about the health benefits of organic food and started supplying his vegetables for use in the school’s catered lunches. Kids from those days know the difference between organic vegetables and non-organic ones and sometimes visit him at the farm with their own children.
The café, whose name means “field of ladybugs,” was established in May 2020. It offers a variety of dishes, including pizza, risotto, fish and meat dishes. One of its most popular lunch options is a sampler plate, the contents of which vary in line with the vegetables that are in season, but here is an example of what you can expect. Small portions each of pork with balsamic sauce, sweet potato stewed in orange juice, smoked chicken with grilled cheese on potato, pickled carrot, a green salad with a seasonal homemade dressing, vegetable omelet, and sautéed vegetables such as snow peas, daikon radish, potato, carrot, sweet potato.
The set includes local organic rice, which this time was topped with a sauce of Manganji sweet Japanese pepper, and soup, which was a smooth potage of butternut pumpkin. Vegans can enjoy the vegetable curry—just ask for the poached egg topping to not be included. The café also has a selection of yummy cakes that contain vegetables. Umemoto-san’s vegetables are so good that they are delivered not only to supermarkets through Kyoto Prefecture, but also to customers throughout Japan.
The café says its principles for making delicious food are good ingredients, simple seasonings and lots of love. Fallen leaves and straw are laid on the fields to help enrich the soil with microorganisms. The café makes its own sauces and ketchup and also values the fermentation process in making basic condiments. In particular, it uses a homebrewed soy sauce and miso paste.
Surrounded by rice fields and trees, the café is only about a 15-minute walk from the nearest bus stop.
Komorebi Cafe is a vegan restaurant that serves a signature Japanese egg dish using only plant-based ingredients. The dish is omu-rice; an omelet laid over fried rice. Japanese television shows regularly fixate on how to create the soft, creamy texture of the omelet. Komorebi achieves it by using yuba, the bean curd sheets produced by boiling soy milk.
The result is not a wannabe omu-rice, but a dish with a character and texture all its own. The fried rice contains seasonal vegetables from local farmers. This day’s mix is eggplant, shishito peppers and myoga Japanese ginger. It’s an unusual combination that creates a unique and captivating flavor.
This is done again with a side dish of unohana; soybean pulp that, unusually, has been flavored with basil. A small salad of cooked napa cabbage and miso soup with sweet potato and shimeji mushrooms complete the lunchtime set.
In the kitchen at Komorebi are Hiroyuki and Aya Yamanouchi. The journey to where they are now began when Hiroyuki, a reggae musician, discovered veganism in 2009 through a friend and found that it improved his health and mental wellbeing. Aya came on board, too.
They became vegan when little was known about it in Japan and consequently, they had to learn to cook for themselves. They applied this training when they opened the café in August 2016, taking over what had been Hiroyuki’s father’s café. But it was tough, he says. At first they opened only in the morning, worn out just by that effort.
“At last we’ve gotten to where we are now,” he says. “It’s only possible because of connections.”
Those connections include local farmers. Their crops may not be certified as organic because accreditation is a costly and involved procedure, but Hiroyuki has direct connections with the farmers, has seen their crops and how they are grown, and because he knows and trusts the growers personally, he trusts the product as something he wants to serve his customers. The local tofu maker is another valuable connection.
Both these local producers are having trouble finding a successor for their business, and Hiroyuki hope his patronage can help keep them running and support the local community.
As well as an eatery, Komorebi is a community space. There’s a play corner for children and various events, music, workshops and lessons happening.
The word “komorebi” means sunlight filtering through trees. It conveys a feeling of contentment, positivity and comfort that suits the atmosphere here and its owners’ conscious decision to prioritize personal and social wellbeing.
Café open: 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Closed: Mondays & the 1st, 3rd, 5th Tuesday each month
Address: 19-9 Nishiyama Waki, Yawata City, 614-8352
Vegan Life Soisoi – Woodland Kyoto district
Hirotaka and Shizuka Chida are sharing the flavors of the world at their café in the natural surroundings of rural Kyoto Prefecture. They use spices from the Middle East, cooking techniques from Europe and recipes from Asia. In their own little corner of the world, they’ve created an unusual and original dining experience that for many customers is their first taste of vegan food. Customers are often surprised to learn there is no meat in what they are eating.
The restaurant also offers surprises for seasoned vegans. That includes its creation of a plant-based fried egg. It is served on top of the Middle Eastern dish shakshouka, which is eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, garlic and spices. Soisoi serves it over rice. The white of the vegan egg is made from soy milk, water and kanten plant-based gelatin. Carrot is used to make the yolk.
The shakshouka is part of a set lunch that includes a soup and a plate of side dishes. The menu changes every two months, but here is a taste of what you can expect. The soup at this time was a spicy blend of tomato and onion, with lemon and grilled eggplant. It also contained large, pearl-sized couscous. The side dishes reflected Hirotaka’s time spent backpacking around the world and living in Israel and in Greece. This time, they were falafel, stewed tomato and okra, a salad of pumpkin and cinnamon, a salad topped with sesame dressing and dukkah, and the Turkish spring roll called sigara boregi, which contained shiitake and king trumpet (eringi) mushrooms.
Another of Soisoi’s key set dishes is the schnitzel plate. It gives us three schnitzels, one made from beet, one from enoki mushrooms, and one from tempeh. As well as the same soup and salads mentioned above, there is hummus and flat bread and a richly spiced rice dish in the style of the Middle Eastern maqluba, which means upside-down.
Soisoi also offers a range of vegan desserts, including smooth and creamy cheesecake made from soy milk.
Hirotaka came up with the idea of opening a café with a multinational menu while backpacking—and eating—throughout the world. Shizuka was also a backpacker and their travels have honed their English. They can be contacted by phone for bookings or requests for gluten-free food, or by Instagram, in which case three days’ advanced notice is needed.
Soisoi uses produce from local organic farmers. It opened on the ground floor of their home in April 2023.