Kyoto might be my favorite city in the world. I was pleasantly surprised to find that organic & vegan restaurants were plentiful – way more options than I have back at home! Over the next few posts I’ll be sharing with you my foodie highlights as well as the best places to sightsee in Kyoto.
Today I’ll be talking about central Kyoto, where vegan burgers are all the rage and there is plenty to do and see. I recommend staging your stay from here so you can eat at all these restaurants and shop the covered markets for treats and souvenirs. At the end I’ve included a quick tour of my favorite historical site in Kyoto, Nijo Castle.
Just off of Nishiki Market in Central Kyoto, Matsuontoko has a warm and eclectic atmosphere. Downstairs are western-style tables with a view of the kitchen where the chef & owner is busy at work. There is additional seating upstairs. The menu is short, especially for lunch, and many things are ‘d’jour’ but that ensures the freshest, local ingredients.
Matsuontoko is fully vegan and specializes in soymeat burgers, the lunch set is very affordable at 900Yen or about $8US and is chef’s choice. For dinner the menu is larger, with 5 types of vegan burgers, various drinks, and even tortilla pizza which is also chef’s choice.
We ate here multiple times because it was easy and delicious. The burgers would satisfy any non-vegan, in fact, if this wasn’t a fully vegan restaurant I would have been suspicious. The fried soymeat teriyaki burger was very authentic. I also really enjoyed the avocado burger, the patty was more like a very hearty black bean burger. The accompanying salad was so fresh, definitely one of my favorite components.
For dinner were also split the pizza-of-the-day and were pleasantly surprised. This was one of the most unique pizzas I’ve ever had! There was homemade ‘cheese’ sauce as well as chewy mochi cheese. The tortilla crust was crispy and the toppings were local mushrooms, greens, cashew nuts, and toasted nori strips. Absolutely divine! I’m going to have to recreate this pizza at home.
I would definitely recommend this spot for lunch or dinner, we were always able to find a seat, the food was consistently delicious, and the pricing is very reasonable.
The only downside is that the servers do not speak English, we observed the chef & owner sometimes taking orders for tables with foreign guests. There is limited English on the menu (just the titles, no descriptions) but if you don’t speak any Japanese you could get by with pointing at the items.
This beautiful light and airy cafe is decorated with as much care as the food is prepared. After a meal at Morpho Cafe you truly feel restored and relaxed. The owner speaks excellent English and is very accommodating. The only downside to this place is it’s size, it’s small, so for lunch we had to wait an hour then come back to be seated. But it was worth the wait!
Morpho Cafe is fully vegan and has a vegan plate of the day with a few small Japanese-style selections accompanied by rice & soup, which is great if you want a more local dish. The burger was also exceptionally good, almost like a sloppy joe, it was slightly crumbly, moist, and flavorful.
We also shared their dessert of the day which was a baked apple tart.
Mumokuteki was quite a surprise, you would never guess by it’s location that a bright & beautiful restaurant waited inside! Amongst the covered shopping arcade called Teramachi is a clothing store with a secret – on the second floor, at the back, is Mumokuteki Cafe. Luckily they have a sign and food display case on street-level to let you know.
This is a great escape from the hustle-and-bustle of the city, with a gorgeous large interior and light-filled windows out onto a small roof garden. The menu is extensive and there is an English menu available. The cafe focuses on organics, the rice and sweet potatoes are from their own farm, and it’s vegan-friendly. The entire menu can be vegan if you request vegetable broth instead of fish broth with any dish that has the fish symbol next to it, which is explained in the menu.
We heard their most popular dish is the avocado burger so we had to try it, it was delicious!! Crispy, juicy, served with a fresh salad and fries. They also have a raw juice menu, the winner was the 20-ingredient juice which was aptly named due to the 20 fruits and vegetables included.
We also returned to try some Japanese-style dishes like their soymeat tonkatsu (fried ‘pork’) dish and soymilk ramen. Both come with small traditional side dishes, rice & soup with the option of ‘okawari’ or seconds on rice. The rice choices are white, brown, or half-and-half.
The desserts are not to be missed, they have delicious soymilk shakes and parfaits. The real winner though is their sweet potato pie, made with local sweet potatoes from their organic farm! It was served warm with a side of vanilla soymilk ice cream. Seriously, save room and don’t miss dessert!
The only downside to this place is that it is quite popular, go early on weekend nights and be prepared to wait a bit.
Nijo Castle – the gem of Central Kyoto
I wanted to share my absolute favorite place to sightsee in Kyoto, Nijo Castle. So while indulging on your vegan burger tour, you have somewhere peaceful in the city center to walk it off.
Nijō Castle (二条城) built in the 17th century Edo Period is a designated UNESCO world heritage site in the heart of Kyoto city. The entire castle compound is surrounded by stone walls and a large peaceful moat. The outer buildings are covered in iconic gleaming white plaster. Pay the entrance fee and take a bridge over the moat, once inside show your ticket. As you approach the inner wall you will pass through a stunning golden gate covered in painted carvings.
I could probably spend an hour just in front of this gate. There are layers of carved paintings adorning the panels on and within the gate, including cranes, mythical creatures, butterflies, and more. The coffered ceiling, posts, and eaves of the gate are covered in opulent gold paneling.
Once you emerge, you will have your first view of the Ninomaru Palace. Unfortunately there are no cameras allowed inside, but it’s probably for the best, as you want to soak everything in with your five senses. Leave your shoes in a cubby before entering.
The legendary ‘nightingale’ floors squeak underfoot, these were designed to prevent anyone from sneaking up on the Shogun. The rooms are filled with woven tatami mats, painted screens, and gilded hardware. Each room has some descriptions available in English and even some scenes are arranged with mannequins in traditional period dress. The coffered painted ceilings are equally beautiful. I could spend all day in here!
After you return to the front and retrieve your shoes, your tour is far from over, it’s time to explore the gardens!
Next the path leads you over another bridge, through a gate to the Honmaru Palace (reconstructed after it was destroyed in the great Kyoto fire of 1788) and around to the outer gardens.
Outside the inner walls are more gardens, equally beautiful as they would have been useful back-in-the-day with citrus trees, plum trees, cherry blossoms, and a peach grove. I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of the plum blossoms and a few early cherry blossoms. This is why spring in Japan just can’t be beat.
Amongst the massive grounds and peaceful gardens you quickly forget you’re in a city till you climb the walls for a breathtaking view.
I hope you get to enjoy Central Kyoto including the covered markets of Teramachi and Nishiki Dori, Nijo Castle and these tasty vegan restaurants. Also make sure to walk the gardens around the Kyoto Imperial Palace, they are free, and you will have even more plum and cherry blossoms to see in springtime.