Kyoto Nightlife: Local Bars and Nighttime Strolls to Enjoy!
- Published: Mar 12 2020
- Last updated:
Kyoto is full of bars and izakaya (Japanese-style taverns) to enjoy some of Japan’s most delicious drinks and dining. But what Japanese foods go with what drinks? Is there beer at izakaya? Armed with a bit of local knowledge, you’ll be able to enjoy your meals even more. Where will you go for drinks in Kyoto tonight? Let us help you answer that question with this handy guide to the best local bars and izakaya in Kyoto! As a bonus, we'll tell you some of the best spots to sightsee at night so that you can walk off all that delicious beer and food!
Otoshi: The Dish That Arrives Without Being Ordered
When you arrive at an izakaya, the first thing that will be served to you is a small appetizer known as the "otoshi". What this dish consists of will vary by restaurant, but the otoshi is typically between 300 and 500 yen per person, and is typically served at the beginning of a meal without having been ordered.
The otoshi comes from a practice of hospitality and a desire not to keep the customer waiting until the items they’ve ordered arrive. If you’re not really interested in having this little dish, ask the staff if they can serve you something else, or let them know if you’d rather not have it (note that some restauants may still charge you for the otoshi). You can also contact the restaurant in advance to ask about otoshi before you arrive.
To Start With, Beer! But in Kyoto, It’s a Toast with Sake
When Japanese people get together to drink, they often order the same drink for the initial toast in order to keep others from waiting. It’s common for people to start with beer, which takes the least amount of time to prepare. You’ll probably notice groups of people getting excited for their night with a chorus of, “To start with, beer!” It’s not a bad idea to try this izakaya practice yourself!
In Kyoto, however, locals begin with a glass of Japanese sake. To follow Kyoto manners, try starting with a taste of some sake!
Typical Japanese Menu Items to Pair with Drinks
You’ve come to a bar or an izakaya to enjoy yourself! Start with an appetizer of salad or sashimi—something with a light, fresh flavor. As your drinks come, try ordering some dishes with heavier flavors: stewed, fried, or grilled dishes are great options. Of course, the best drinks and food will vary from restaurant to restaurant, and you’ll probably want to try them all. For that, head to what the Japanese call the "niji-kai", or “Round Two.”
What Is the “Shime” Eaten After Drinking?
In Japan, people often go to izakaya not just to eat their fill, but to enjoy a chat while having drinks. After having a few drinks, you’ll start to want to settle your stomach down by having some kind of carb-based dish. Japanese people call this ending dish the shime, or “tie-up” in English, and it’s often composed of rice or noodle-based dishes.
Typical shime dishes at izakaya include rice porridge, ochazuke (rice with hot tea poured over it), or grilled rice balls. It’s also not uncommon for people to follow up an evening of restaurant-hopping with some ramen. The way Japanese people go about dining may be a bit different from home, but for one night, why not try dining like the locals do?
Some visitors might find it difficult to enter a very traditional Japanese izakaya, but not to worry. An izakaya is a kind of bar, but it’s also a place to try a variety of dishes at a reasonable price. Many establishments allow smoking, however, so an izakaya may not be the first choice for non-smokers or for those visiting with children. Be aware, too, that the legal drinking age in Japan is 20.
Gion-shijo Station & Kawaramachi Station Area
If you walk along the stone-paved street of Hanamikoji, you’ll see the entrances to teahouses. Gion Rumble is built on one of those corners. Enjoy your meal while you look out on the shop’s inner garden. Gion Rumble has all the ambiance of Kyoto, and the cooks prepare wonderful meals with Kyoto vegetables and seasonal ingredients.
Yuki Gion Branch
Yuki is a store directly managed by Okamura Honke Brewery, which produces Shiga’s famous “Konki” (Golden Turtle) sake. Here visitors can enjoy both delicious sake direct from the brewers and authentic Japanese dishes. Yuki is popular amongst both locals and foreign visitors. The shop has a sense of retro Japan, in which customers sit cozily brushing knees at the counter seats, from which they can see back into the kitchen.
BEER PUB ICHI-YA
ICHI-YA is a beer pub produced by Kyoto’s Ichijoji Brewery. The pub serves barreled craft beer directly from Ichijo-ji Brewery, and also regularly serves barreled craft beer from across Japan. Come taste a variety of flavors, from those with a sweetness like black tea, to beers with a bit of spice.
TEPPAN TAVERN TENAMONYA
This izakaya is a place to casually enjoy a bite to eat, not far from Yasaka-jinja Shrine. The owners, a couple who speak English, are known for their customer service, as well as their reasonably-priced and delicious A5-grade (the highest ranking) Japanese wagyu steak and fluffy okonomiyaki.
Kyoto Gatten Tempura Pub
Enjoy meat, seafood, and vegetable tempura, as well as sashimi and grilled dishes prepared in small portions before your eyes. Gatten offers the dining standard, beer, Japanese sake, and Gatten’s own original matcha beer for a Kyoto twist. The restaurant interior is spacious for a comfortable dining experience.
Karasuma Oike Station Area
This stylish tempura bar along Karasuma Street serves piping hot and crunchy tempura within a stylish interior. Perfect even for a solo female diner.
Shijo Station & Karasuma Station Area
Higashinotoin Sou is located close to Kyoto’s Shijo Station, and within, the restaurant interior is stylish and refined in tones of black and gold. Most tables are private booths, so Higashinotoin Sou is perfect for dates or private drinking parties. Meals here are made using carefully selected ingredients, each prepared with the utmost care.
Enjoy small dishes and the daily obanzai dish, all made with local Kyoto meat and vegetables, as well as fish bought fresh at the market.
Best Places to Go for Nighttime Sightseeing in Kyoto
Shops tend to close fairly early at night in Japan, but in Kyoto, many shrines and temples put on special light-up events during the autumn leaf and cherry blossom seasons, and open their doors for special nighttime openings! There is always an illumination event being held somewhere in Kyoto, so you’ll have plenty of chances to enjoy Kyoto at night!
- January: Hatsu-mode (The First Temple or Shrine Visit of the Year)
- February: Setsubun Festival
- March: Higashiyama Hanatouro
- March-April: Cherry blossom light-ups
- May: Noryo Yuka Riverside Dining
- June: Summer Purification Rituals
- July: Gion Festival
- August: Tanabata Star Festival, Fire-Walking Festival, Gozan-no-Okuribi Ritual Fires, Manto-e Lantern Festival, Rokusai Nenbutsu Festivities, etc.
- September: Moon watching festivities
- October - December: Autumn leaf light-ups, Kurama Fire Festival
- December: Arashiyama Hanatouro
See the following links for the latest information on events and things to do during Kyoto’s various seasons:
It’s also lovely just to take a walk through some of Kyoto’s backstreets at night!
Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Around the Yasaka Pagoda (Hokan-ji Temple)
This temple road is bustling with tourists during the daytime, but at night, the number of visitors suddenly drops. It’s the perfect time to enjoy walking about this beautiful and mysterious stone-paved road. In the distance, you’ll be able to see the Yasaka Pagoda (part of Hokan-ji Temple), which is a popular target for photographers. At night, it’s easier to take your own shot!
During three special nighttime openings in spring, summer, and fall, you’ll be able to experience all the wonders of Kiyomizu-dera Temple at night, too.
Hanamikoji is a street lined with the teahouses where geiko and maiko live and work, and as such, it’s a location with all the charms of Kyoto. At night, the stones of Hanamikoji are lit atmospherically with lantern light, creating a scene that looks very different from its daytime counterpart. It’s also a wonderful location to discover a sense of traditional Kyoto, since the area is home to many geiko and maiko coming and going about their business.
* As you take a walk, please be advised that Hanamikoji and Gion Shirakawa are residential areas. We ask for your cooperation in following local manners and refraining from photographing the local residents.
- Do not touch the maiko.
- Do not lean on the fences.
- Do not smoke while walking.
- Do not eat while walking.
- Do not litter.
- Do not use selfie sticks.
Nishiki Food Market
Nishiki Market is known as Kyoto’s kitchen. It’s also become popular with foreign visitors, and is always bustling with shoppers. At night, long after the shops have closed, you can see paintings by 18th century artist Ito Jakuchu on their shuttered fronts, almost like the market is an Ito Jakuchu museum.
Ito Jakuchu was born in Nishiki Market, and an event to celebrate 300 years since his birth was held here in the market.
Nijo-jo Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a very popular sightseeing location in Kyoto. The castle usually closes to visitors at 5:00 pm, but it is open past then during the cherry blossom season, which is when it puts on a light-up event. The 200 cherry trees within the castle grounds will be illuminated in a beautiful display that looks very different from the castle gardens as seen during the day. In recent years, the latest technology has been employed to put on events featuring projection mapping. If your timing is right, you may just be able to see such an event, which combines the historical Nijo-jo Castle with the latest video technology.
Kyoto Station Building & Kyoto Tower
The Kyoto Station Building is the gateway to Kyoto, and at night, its grand staircase is specially illuminated from 4:00 pm to 10:00 pm. If you climb to the top of the stairs, you’ll find a space like a dance floor, from which you’ll be able to see a wonderful view of Kyoto Tower, as well as the city nightscape! Few tourists visit this location, and it’s the perfect place to snap a shot of Kyoto Tower!
If you’re interested in experiencing Kyoto’s izakaya culture for yourself, try visiting some of the izakaya introduced above. If you’re interested in getting to know Kyoto’s izakaya and sake culture on a deeper level, consider taking part in one of the following tours (offered in English only).
* Please be advised that business hours, prices, and menu items of the aforementioned businesses may change. Prices listed are for reference for the average budget (without tax) necessary.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.