Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on April 2007
If you’ve been to Kyoto, you know the drill. You try to visit every temple, shrine and garden within city limits, then while away the evenings quietly at your hotel, perhaps over a few beers from the conbini.
Wake up! Everyone knows the most famous sights to visit by day, but one of the best-kept secrets of the ancient capital is that it has a rocking nightlife. Focus your attention on Kiyamachi Dori, the small street that runs parallel to Kamogawa. If you’re willing to wade through the sleaze, you’ll be rewarded with some of the cheapest, most unusual bars you’ll encounter in Japan. If you’re not already convinced, remember that all the following places are located within stumbling distance of each other, so you can save your cab fare for drinks instead.
The best way to begin any Kyoto night out is at Den-en. This is one of the most spacious bars in Kyoto, and it soon becomes apparent why: their free-drink system is one of the best deals around. For the ladies, a mere ¥1,200 will buy you all the drinks you can down in two hours. Men pay a bit more (¥1,600), but keep in mind you could spend that much on one cocktail in Tokyo. While not big on décor, Den-en does have a number of board games and playing cards lying around—which are great for sharing or inventing drinking games, or breaking the ice with the regulars. The crowd is generally composed of university students, with couples and smaller groups of friends gathering in the quieter corners.
There are a few more stops not to miss on this budget booze-cruise—well, four to be exact. At all four Kyoto branches of Moonwalk Bar, every drink is a measly ¥200. The pub does charge a ¥300 cover, but even if you only have one drink, you’re still coming out ahead. The Moonwalk establishments tend to be on the cozier side, with space for about 10, max—but this is part of its charm. Though you never know who your drinking companions will be, chances are that they will be chatty and friendly.
Once you’ve had your fill of cheap drinks, you might be willing to part with a bit more cash in exchange for a room with a view. For centuries, there have been bars and restaurants along the Pontocho nightlife drag with decks overlooking Kamogawa. This is where geisha would traditionally entertain their clients on stiflingly hot summer evenings.
You can carry on in an updated version of this tradition at Ace Café, located along Kiyamachi Dori, just north of Sanjo Dori. While there is no outdoor patio, Ace does boast floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the surrounding mountains, affording spectacular views of Kiyomizudera and Ryozen Kannon.
Kyoto residents may have a reputation for being straitlaced and traditional, but the city’s proximity to Osaka ensures that they also have a sense of humor. This is nowhere more apparent than in the names of its cafés and bars. Some, like Café Tits and White Lover, are true gems well worth a visit for the scrapbook photo alone. A few of my other favorites are Shaft 65, Selfish Cream, and the inimitable Bollocks Paradium.
On a recent visit, after years of chuckling and admiring it from afar, I took the leap of faith and visited Bollocks. It turned out to be a very charming, typical Kyoto bar. It seats about 15, mainly at intimate tables, but there are a few stools at the bar as well. Candles provide romantic lighting, and the staff are attentive and friendly—though I couldn’t quite work up the courage to ask where the name came from.
For those in the mood for booty shaking, check out Club World or Lab Tribe. No late night out in Kyoto is complete without stopping by Hamid’s, where you can get kebabs and killer falafel until 3am. Hamid’s also has a great selection of Bollywood videos for your perusal.
If you go to Kyoto, take some time to do a bit of partying. When you wake up the next morning, take comfort in the fact that there aren’t many cities as serene to nurse a hangover.
Den-En B1 Vox Biru, Kawaramachi-Sanjo. Tel: 0120-071-688. Open Sun-Thu 5:30pm-midnight, weekends and hols 5:30pm-2am. www.vox.co.jp/denen
Moonwalk Bar (Kiyamachi-Sanjo branch) Tel: 075-255-7750. Open daily 7pm-5am. www.barmoonwalk.jp
Ace Café 10F Empire Bldg, Kiyamachi-Agaru, Nakagyo-ku. Tel: 075-241-0009. Open daily noon-5am. http://www.ace-cafe.com/
Bollocks Paradium Tel: 075-212-8633. Open daily 8pm-5am. Club World B1-B2F Imagium, 97 Shinmachi, Shijo-Agaru, Nishi- Kiyamachi, Shimogyo-ku (just north of Shijo Dori). Tel: 075-213-4119. Business hours vary. www.world-kyoto.com
Lab Tribe B1 Kosaten-Minami Nishikado, Nijo Kawaramachi. Tel: 075-254-1228. Business hours vary. www.labtribe.net
Hamid’s 2F Royal Biru, Nishi-Kiyamachi (south of Sanjo Dori). Tel: 075-211-5390. Open daily 7pm-3am.