Must Eat in Kyoto: Plant-based Kyo-gashi (Kyoto Sweets) at Kagizen Yoshifusa and Toraya Karyo Ichijo

Wagashi is a general term that covers traditional Japanese sweets, cakes, and confectioneries. They are usually made from plant-based ingredients such as azuki red bean paste, fruits, and starches.

They are usually very, very sweet as they first gained popularity in the Edo period (1603 – 1868) when there was no proper refrigeration; the sugar helps to preserve wagashi from spoiling especially in hot summers.

Because of their extreme sweetness, most Japanese take wagashi with bitter matcha to act as a counterbalance.

Making wagashi takes a lot of effort for they are often delicate. They are also seasonal, depending on the produce available for the season.

Kyoto is the best place to eat wagashi or Kyo-gashi (Kyoto + wagashi) because the shops exist since the 1700s.

You consume wagashi in elegant and quiet tea houses, offering a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of life. And we visited two in Kyoto:

Kagizen Yoshifusa
264 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0073, Japan
tel: +81 75-561-1818
9am – 6pm daily

Like many traditional Japanese eateries, Kagizen Yoshifusa is discreet despite its fame. There is no obvious signboard. Look out for the red noren curtains.

Kagizen Yoshifusa is located at the Gion district, a major tourist entertainment attraction to see theatre and geishas: easily accessed. Established in 1700s, Kagizen Yoshifusa is said to be the best traditional Japanese sweets tea house and they have not changed their recipes since then.

After you enter, you have to walk to the back of the shop, past the counter, to get to the cafe area.

Patrons are requested to order a wagashi each.

A good Japanese tea room needs to exude tranquility, and the best ones have a view of a garden or temple.

They are known for kuzukiri (¥1100),  cold translucent arrowroot noodles with a choice of dipping sauce, brown sugar syrup or sweet syrup. The former is more popular. It is very smooth and nicely chewy. The brown sugar syrup is extremely sweet but still pleasing. Although this is costly, the portion is ample.

Kuzukiri: you pick up the broad noodles from the icy water, and dip it into brown sugar syrup.

Also popular is the millet zenzai (¥1100), crushed sweet red bean paste with millet grains. It comes with a side of preserved seaweed, so if you choose to eat it together, the saltiness undercuts the extreme sweetness of the bean paste. It sounds weird, but it gives another dimension to the dessert.

Millet zenzai

I remember there isn’t much taxes here, so the bill comes up just slightly more than total price: about ¥2500 (S$30) for two persons.

If you just want to experience the traditional Japanese tea house experience, I would recommend Kagizen Yoshifusa for their affordability, accessibility, and delicious taste. But if you are a foodie who doesn’t mind spending some money, then go to the next tea house, Toraya Karyo Ichijo.

Toraya Karyo Ichijo
Hirohashidonochō, Kamigyō-ku Kyoto, Kyoto, 602-0911, Japan
Japan, 〒602-0911 Kyoto, Kamigyo Ward, 一条通烏丸西入広橋殿町400
tel: +81 75-441-3113
10am – 6pm

The outside of Toraya Karyo Ichijo looks rustic but wait till you step in!

Located a street west of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Toraya Karyo Ichijo was founded in early 1500s!

Toraya Karyo Ichijo interior, photo taken from their website. Coz so classy, I dare not take a photo.

Stepping into Toraya, we were impressed and shocked at how classy it is. The high ceiling is outlined with wooden beams, a contemporary take of Japanese temples and palaces. The beams are further accentuated by accent lights bounced off the mostly black decor.

Their garden is bigger than the cafe! It even has a temple!

Their garden occupies more space than the tea room itself, so much so that it houses a small temple! Don’t wear your flipflops and shorts here or you’ll find out of place.

Yokan with matcha

Their signature dessert is yokan (with sencha green tea¥1210, with matcha ¥1320), the most expensive jelly I have ever eaten. Yokan is a small, gelatin-like block made from azuki beans, sugar, and agar-agar. It’s excellent but very, very sweet, so it slows you down, giving you a chance to soak in the atmosphere.

Chestnut wagashi

We also ordered a seasonal wagashi, a chestnut sweet, very delicate, and costs almost as much as the yokan. This one is great.

Tea is a classy affair in Japan. Each wagashi sweet is named after poetry, historical events, or natural scenery. So, at Toraya, the sweets come with a poem on a bookmark that you can bring home.
According to Google Translate: “The roundness of the puffy rat is a sign of the arrival of spring and waiting for the winter field.” WAIT, are they calling me fat? #NotGoodAtLiterature
Also: can I return the bookmark and get a 10% rebate?

With taxes (and a sitting charge I think), it is super expensive. I lost the receipt but I remember that we paid about ¥4500 (S$60) for two persons. Expensive it may be, I think that should I be in the same area again, I would still gladly visit it: the experience was that awesome.

Other popular Kyo-gashi tea houses include:

Hourandou Togetsukyo Honten 峯嵐堂 渡月橋本
57-2 Arashiyama Nakao Shita-cho, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto-shi
〒616-0004 京都市西京区 嵐山中尾下町57-2
tel: +81 75-864-7573
9am – 6pm, daily
Nearest stations: Randen Arashiyama station or Hankyu Arashiyama station

Hourandou flagship store is near the photogenic Arashiyama bamboo forest. It comprises two storeys and on the second floor is the traditional Japanese tatami room.

They are famous for their warabi mochi. A three-type warabi mochi set with green tea goes for ¥756.

Ichijyoji Nakatani 一乗寺中谷
5 Ichijoji Hananokicho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8151, Japan
〒606-8151 京都府京都市左京区一乗寺花ノ木町5番地
tel: +81 75-781-5504
9pm – 7pm, closed Tue
Nearest station: Ichijoji station or Kyoto city bus Ichijoji Kudari Matsu-cho stop

Situated near the super many temples area, Ichijyoji Nakatani has been passed down for 3 generations. They are famed for Decchi Yokan (with matcha,¥650), which is a jelly of red beans and chestnuts, wrapped with bamboo leaves, then steamed.

They are also known to combine Japanese and Western styles such as green tea tiramisu (with coffee¥780) and macarons with flavours such as sakura and sweet potato.

Mitsubachi みつばち
448-60 Kajii-cho, Kawaramachi-dori Imadegawa-sagaru, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto
tel: +81 75-213-2144
11am – 6pm, closed Sun and Mon

Mitsubachi is known for its anmitsu, which is similar to our Blackball or 九鲜: jelly (agar-agar from Chiba), Hokkaido red beans, mochi balls, and fruits.  They use brown sugar from Hateruma Island, Okinawa prefecture.

Sasaya Iori 笹屋伊織 本店
Hanabatacho 86, Nishiiru, Omiya, Shichijodori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
9am – 5pm, daily
Nearest station: Tanbaguchi Station

Sasaya Iori was first founded in 1716. “Iori” was a name bestowed by the Imperial Palace; and it was a honour to be named by the palace. Sasaya Ihee was the founder, hence the shop name Sasaya Iori.

Their speciality, dorayaki, is not the modern version we see these days. It looks more like a cake: a cylinder of bean paste in the middle wrapped around by bun. Due to its immense popularity, dorayaki is only available on 20th-22nd of each month.

Tsuruya Yoshinobu Kyoto Honten
Japan, 〒602-8434 Kyoto, Kamigyo Ward, Nishifunahashicho,
tel: +81 75-441-0105
9am – 6pm, closed Wed

Tsuruya Yoshinbobu has served for Kyoto Imperial Palace since it was established in 1803.  They are famous for kyokanze comprising two types of red bean “ogura-an” and “murasame-an” rolled together, looking like a swiss roll. They are also famed for yuzu mochi (also known as yu-mochi) coated with wasanbon sugar.

You may be interested in…
Shigetsu, Kyoto: Inside Tenryuji Temple, Zen Buddhist Cuisine Is The Best Food We Ate in Kyoto
Where to Stay in Kyoto, Japan: Hotel Vischio Kyoto Review
Where to eat Kobe Beef in Kobe Japan: Kobe Beef KISSHOKICHI 神戸牛吉祥吉
Where to Stay in Osaka: Review of Hotel Gracery Osaka Namba

Written by Dr. A. Nathanael Ho.

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