Kyoto is a city we absolutely love to visit. We’ve stayed here regularly on our travels through Japan. There is so much to discover in its small alleyways and there’s a thriving Kyoto food scene, although it can be difficult to uncover as a first-time visitor. Finding some new spots to dine in the central city was top of our list on this trip and our reason for searching out a food tour run by locals.
As we were joining an evening tour we planned to spend the day exploring Uji, an area just south of Kyoto city that is synonymous with green tea. I’d wanted to get out there for a few years and it was as beautiful as I’d imagined but I’ll share our tips for exploring Uji in another post.
Getting to the meeting point
We headed back into Kyoto in the late afternoon and needed to make our way to Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Line which is adjacent to the meeting point. If you are using a JR line from south of the city (e.g. Uji, Fushimi Inari or Nara), you’ll jump off one stop before Kyoto station at Tofukuji and take the Keihan Line to Gion Shijo. You can also use this station directly from Osaka.
The nearest subway station is Shijo station but you’ll want to allow time to walk around a kilometre straight down Shijo Street to the meeting point. If you aren’t sure which exit you’ve come out of just ask someone to point you in the direction of Yasaka Shrine. It’s easy to find your way but there are a few controlled crossings that might slow you down.
We were excited to meet up with our guide, Taka, for the Magical Trip Kyoto Night foodie tour. The tour starts at 6 pm near the Izumo no Okuni statue. Izumo was a famous performer in the 1600s thought to have been the founder of Kabuki theatre and she practised by the river near here. Ironically after she retired a law was passed prohibiting women from performing Kabuki so it’s good to see her recognised for her contribution to the art.
If you’ve been to Kyoto before you will probably know this statue, even if you don’t know its history. It’s right beside the canal and next to Gion-Shijo station. They’ll usually be a crowd here and maybe even a musician playing as it’s a popular place for locals to arrange to meet. It’s not only well located for transport but it’s convenient for shopping, restaurants, shrines and sightseeing spots.
It’s only a 10-minute walk along the river from Gozan Hotel and apartments, one of our favourite places to stay in central Kyoto so we know and love this area.
We were staying at Namba in Osaka for this section of our trip and still found the location very convenient getting an express Keihan train through to Yodayabashi station in Osaka and then hopping the subway back to Namba. Even though we had the JR Pass it was easier and faster to do it this way than to head back to Kyoto Station and take the bullet train through to Shin-Osaka. The Keihan line is usually our choice for getting between the two cities. I’d wondered how practical it would be to include the tour given we weren’t staying in Kyoto on this trip but it was no problem at all.
Everyone found the meeting place with no problem and after Taka explained a bit about what we were doing and we all introduced ourselves the 6 of us headed out down Shijo Dori towards the shrine.
Our Kyoto Food Tour experience
We’d only been walking a few minutes down the main street when a maiko, a Kyoto geisha under training, appeared from an alleyway to our left. Moving quickly with her young companion she crossed the street and disappeared into the maze of alleys in the heart of Gion. We’d barely had a chance to appreciate the elaborate obi and the quality of her kimono and she was gone.
With so many shops offering tourists the chance to dress as a Geisha, how do you know if it’s a real Maiko (apprentice Geisha) that just passed you?
In this case I’m reasonably confident she is a maiko based on: the quality of the obi, the dark kimono combined with the formal ‘2 mountains’ design on her neck, the speed and elegance with which she navigated the streets in her high geta (shoes), the crest of the Okiya Nishimura (geisha house) in Gion Kobu where she was headed and the poise of her young assistant.
We were headed in a similar direction with Taka pointing out areas of interest in the Gion Streets and before we knew it we had arrived at our first destination for the evening. We’d been told we’d be going first to a more traditional restaurant, then a typical izakaya and a modern sake bar so we weren’t surprised when we brushed aside the curtain to find ourselves in a small genkan (sunken traditional entrance) and needed to remove our shoes before stepping into the restaurant.
Our first experience of Kyoto food on the tour was a great choice. Located in a traditional wooden building in the heart of Gion it offered a variety of seasonal choices. We were led into a tatami matted room at the back and all ordered our choice of dishes from the tour menu.
Our table was loaded up with grilled fish, sashimi and katsu chicken. There were local specialty items too such as yuba sashimi a light and delicate layered tofu skin, Kyoto oden with vegetables and fishcake in a light and refreshing soup, and nama-fu, a gluten cake glazed with miso. Taka ordered a plate of dried squid tempura that he also shared around the table, it’s an addictive combination of savoury flavour and crunch, an ideal snack to go with beer.
As an izakaya, there are a variety of drinks on offer and on the tour, there was a good variety that we could choose from. There was Japanese beer, sake, plum wine, shochu, lemon sour or a highball. If you prefer non-alcoholic drinks there were those options too. The lemon sour is a popular summer drink for women made with shochu, a clear spirit. It’s quite refreshing so I went with that option, while Drew chose the Sapporo draft beer.
As we left our first venue to walk back through the streets of Gion it was getting dark. The streets were still crowded but the wooden buildings were bathed in the warm light of the street lamps and the crowd seemed more subdued. Taka told us a bit more about the area, pointing out features as we passed and our second geisha of the day turned off into one of the narrow streets in front of us.
Crossing the street we headed in the direction of the Shiragawa canal if you’ve taken our self-guided walking tour of central Kyoto you will be familiar with the area.
We stopped briefly at Tatsumi-Daimyojin shrine. It’s a tiny shrine alongside the canal in the heart of the geisha district. It’s dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten who is a goddess of the Arts amongst other things so it is a popular place for the maiko (trainee geisha) to stop by and pray as they perfect their artistic abilities.
The second Kyoto izakaya we headed to is across the river in the Pontocho district. It’s quite a spacious restaurant for Kyoto and again offers a wide variety of food and drink options. Having spent the day in Uji, known for its premium green tea we make the decision to try the matcha beer from the area. In reality not our best green tea or beer of the day but the Mio dry sparkling sake that Taka ordered for the table was delicious and I’ll be keeping an eye open for that distinctive blue bottle.
The tempura here is delicious, the vegetables and meat are perfectly cooked, and crispy on the outside and the flavour is fresh. This is another one that will go on our list to revisit next time we’re in the city.
Feeling pretty full by the time we leave the izakaya we wander further into Pontocho diverting off into an even smaller alleyway to our final destination. It’s a small standing sake bar. They serve a variety of small plates but it’s sake tastings we’re here for.
Most of our group opted for the tasting panel of 3 different sake and enjoyed the selection. Being a bit of a lightweight myself I went with the frozen strawberry chu-hi. It’s still pretty potent but the strawberries were sweet and delicious.
The tour runs for around 3 hours. We started promptly at 6 pm and it finished just after 9 pm. We ended up in Pontocho in central Kyoto and it’s pretty easy to continue your evening from there. Hint: Don’t be shy about hitting up your guide for tips on the next stop, Taka lives in the city and could suggest everything from whisky bars to where to get the best budget ramen.
If you’re headed back to your Kyoto accommodation from here it should be straightforward and if you’re staying in Osaka as we were that night it’s not a late night, we were back in Osaka using the Keihan Line just after 10 pm.
What we really enjoyed about this tour was the relaxed style and having such a friendly and knowledgeable local guide. There are only 3 main destinations on the tour which we would normally feel was low but we had the ideal amount of time in each one, we felt neither rushed nor that we’d stayed too long in any of them.
Kyoto can be a difficult city for visitors to find the best spots and get a true feel for the local restaurants and life after dark when they don’t speak the language. While we have eaten in and around the Gion area many times in the past Taka took us to laneways and places we’d never been before and left us with a desire to try out a few of the other areas and places he mentioned in passing.
Continuing on to explore Kyoto
Kyoto is a unique city to visit but we do understand that many feel ‘templed out’ after a few days so we have a few of our top picks here that might interest you and provide some diversity to your itinerary.
For the foodies, and I’ll assume you do like good food if you’re reading this article, I highly recommend a visit to Nishiki Market which you’ll find further up Shijo Dori. There is so much to do here but do go when you’re hungry as you’ll definitely want to try out some of their specialties.
If spotting a fleeting glimpse of a Geisha has increased your curiosity about this fascinating art and lifestyle we have a guide to Kyoto’s 5 geisha districts and the Miyako Odori, Gion’s famous annual dance performance with a long history in the old capital.
If your budget is running a little tight we have some great ideas of free things to do in the city while you are here and there are some very moderately priced options like a visit to Nijo Castle or a day out in Arashiyama or Uji for different experiences around Kyoto.
If you enjoyed the cultural side of the tour we’d highly recommend visiting a few of the temples in the city, their history and gardens really do make an interesting day out. Some have tea houses within them and all are a great way to get the vibe of this fascinating city. We, of course, recommend all of our top 15 temples in Kyoto, a list that took a lot of culling to keep it to that number but the linked article might help you choose which ones interest you the most.
Interested? The images below can be saved to Pinterest to read later and for others to find.