For most, a trip to Kyoto is not complete without a visit to Ryoan-ji – a Zen Buddhist temple that is best known for its karesansui (“dry landscape”, or Zen garden). But whilst the karesansui may be the draw, it’s a restaurant that for many provides the reason to prolong their visit. Nestled within the natural confines of the temple precinct, Ryoan-ji Yudofu is a vegan restaurant that serves shojin ryori (or “Buddhist vegetarian temple cuisine”). The setting is as beautiful as it is bucolic, with diners looking out onto the idealised miniature landscapes that exemplify the Japanese approach to the manipulation of nature. It’s calm, contemplative and wonderfully curated; the perfect setting to relax the mind and recalibrate the palate.
To get to the restaurant, you have to get to Ryoan-ji, and to get to Ryoan-ji you will probably either be coming from or going to the nearby Kinkaku-ji. Both are a well-established part of the tourist (and pilgrim) trail, and happen to be located along the same road. You can either walk between them, or take bus 59. The restaurant is located in the middle of the temple grounds, and is fairly well signposted (just follow any arrows you see). When you get there the shoes come off, the knees go down, the servers come out and the food goes in. It’s like clockwork.
One of the things that enamoured me most to shojin ryori was the fact that there were only two options to choose from – tofu hotpot or tofu hotpot with sides. No messing around, no deliberation, just a commitment to simplicity of action at every stage. It’s all about stripping away what’s unnecessary instead of adding anything extra; a philosophy that applies as much to life as it does eating. Amen.
As such, the food showcases a variety of simple, natural and very clean flavours. Kyoto is known for its silky smooth tofu, which, apart from some kelp and Chinese cabbage, was all the pot contained. The soya taste of the tofu was subtle, but easily invigorated by dunking it in the side dish of grated ginger and soy sauce.
Accompanying the hotpot was a tray of sides that included a small block of sesame tofu, some pickled vegetables and rolled beancurd skin and adzuki beans in a molasses dressing. Combined with the tofu, the meal was an exemplar of harmonious understatement. The enjoyment was as much in the relative blandness of the flavours as it was the accents. It’s not the sort of food that’s available to (or would appeal to) most people everyday, but I can’t think of a better way to regain one’s sense of taste – and of perspective – than by eating this stuff. It’s as good for the body as it is the soul.
13 Ryoan-ji Goryonoshita-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi
Open until 16:30 daily