Snapshots from Japan: Nishiki Market in Kyoto

[Photographs: Sam Bresnick]

Though sushi, tempura, and teriyaki are well known Japanese dishes, one trip through Nishiki Market reveals just how much Japanese cuisine remains unfamiliar in much of the United States. Known as "Kyoto's Kitchen," this vibrant market features 126 vendors along its fifteen-foot-wide walkway, selling everything from dried fish and fresh produce to tea and knives. Nishiki started as a wholesale fish district around 1310, and many of its stalls have been in the same families for centuries. The crowds aren't too bad, but the market certainly is busy—many tourists visit Nishiki to get a sense of a classic Japanese market and locals flock there to buy the best ingredients.

As you busy yourself gawking at the heaps of dried shrimp, mounds of vegetables in miso, and containers brimming with brightly colored candies, make sure to stop and try samples. Free sticks of tamago and unagi, pinches of green tea and wasabi salts, and every kind of pickle you can imagine teem in the shopping stalls. Unlike the fare at regular grocery stores or malls, almost everything at Nishiki is locally produced or procured, and each little shop specializes in a single type of food or product. This specialization makes it seem as if each purveyor is selling a one-of-a-kind treat.

While the five-block market is primarily dedicated to foodstuffs, there are a few cookware stores sprinkled in. The most notable of these is the Aritsugu knife shop. Eighteen generations of the Aritsugu family have managed the store since it opened in 1560. Originally, they made swords for the ruling Shoguns before switching over to cooking knives. Their blades are extremely sharp and made of carbon steel—a material that's hard to come by in the United States. After buying a knife, the shop will even inscribe your name on the blade in Japanese.

The Nishiki Market street is one block north of Shijo Avenue, less than five minutes away from Shijo subway station. Hours vary by store, but most are open from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., and many shops are closed on either Wednesday or Sunday. Make sure to bring an appetite and more than a few thousand yen, as you can run up a hefty tab in no time. See some of our favorite sites in the slideshow!