Between Geishas and Gion: Bars in Kyoto
Bars in Kyoto, like the city itself, are cozy and welcoming. With less of Tokyo’s hustle and bustle, Japan’s former capital is the perfect place to take time over a well-crafted cocktail. On a recent visit, Liv Fleischhacker found plenty of bars to like and a few places to avoid.
Kyoto, unlike Japan’s other large cities, feels small and cozy, like you can walk from A to B in a couple of hours. Don’t let that fool you though. Kyoto’s tiny side streets are filled to the brim with restaurants, bars, tea houses, pastry shops, and so much more – all stacked on top of each other. It’s not unusual to find seven or eight establishments spread over just four floors. Names like Bar Romance or Gentlemen’s Bar are common, which give off more of a Japanese frat boy vibe.
On a recent visit, we dug a little deeper to try and get to know Kyoto’s bar scene – one that doesn’t involve a bunch of Westerners dressed up in kimonos, but rather something Japan is known for: well-crafted drinks.
Bars in Kyoto: Culture Shock and Cover Charges
To begin with, I am by no means pretending to be an expert on Japanese bars. A country so layered and rich with history is not easy to get the hang of. I recently spent five weeks travelling through Japan with a friend and what follows is simply one drinks writer’s impression of a week spent trawling the local bars in Kyoto.
The first impression I had of the bars in this city where you can’t seem to walk a block without stumbling upon another tea house or shrine, was, surprisingly, a bit frat-heavy. Very unlike what we’d experienced in Japan the weeks previous, nightclubs had promoters standing outside, yelling at the line through their megaphones.
Many bars in Kyoto charge for entry, which can be anywhere between ¥1,000 and ¥2,000 (€7,50 – €15,00), which is frustrating coming from Europe. Paying for the mere pleasure of sitting down, no drinks included? No thanks. However, rents are simply incredibly high and most bars in Kyoto need that cover charge to stay afloat. We tried to steer clear of the cover charge bars, if only for budgetary reasons.
Craft Beer and Natural Wine Bars in Kyoto
One of our first nights in Kyoto, we walked past Wine&beer Estre which is an incredibly cozy Japanese joint that serves (as the name would suggest) beer, wine, and sake. Freshly tapped craft beers comfortably find their place next to natural wine on the menu and Estre also offers a really lovely selection of bar snacks, which can easily double as dinner.
Craft beer has a short but significant history in Japan. Ever since micro brewing became legal in 1994 small, local breweries have popped up all over the place. Larger brands like BrewDog recognized the potential, opening their first Japanese location in 2014. Natural wine, on the other hand, has been around forever. Japan got a handle on natural wine long before it became a thing in Europe, and you can easily find niche bars and shops all over the country, including Kyoto.
Back to the bar: Estre is casual, which is rare in the surrounding Gion area. It’s run by a couple – she cooks and he pours the wine – who at first glance appear quite shy. By the time you order your second glass of wine, though, both the hosts and the other guests will have warmed up and you’ll quickly feel like a true local. During our visit, we enjoyed the easily quaffable Charles et Philippe Brand Fleurs Macération, a Alsace Pinot Gris that’s left to macerate with its skin, as evidenced by the gorgeous pink/apricot color. Well balanced, clean and very enjoyable. Hints of stone fruits and spices make for a clean finish.
Our next stop was meant to be Gion Aoi, a bar that came highly recommended. Sadly, we didn’t manage to try their drinks as we were so put off by the bartender’s obvious disdain for us that we decided not to spend money in his establishment. Lesson learned: Berlin-chic is not on par with Kyoto-chic and some people will make that very obvious, no matter the customer’s willingness to drop money on their product.
Nara’s Cocktails and Tame Deer
One can’t really write an article about Kyoto’s bar scene without talking about the nearby Lamp Bar. Located in Nara, famous for its wild deer, which are polite enough to bow to you, Lamp Bar is run by the 2015 World Class winner Michito Kaneko. Nara is a quick 40-minute train ride away from Kyoto and the cozy bar makes for a perfect space to enjoy your aperitif while reflecting on how you just spent the afternoon hanging out with wild deer. Lamp Bar is dark, with lots of wood paneling and low lighting. They also have a secret, private room in the back which one can only enter via some vintage luggage. Sounds crazy, but it’s real.
Though dark, Lamp Bar is not oppressive. Rather, it feels like a space you want to spend a couple of hours in, cozying up in the red booths and watching Kaneko work. While there, we enjoyed a yuzu and gin cocktail that came garnished with a toasted, salted sesame rim. We were also served a twist on the Negroni, which again included yuzu (we’re in Japan after all) as well as white vermouth. Both perfectly balanced and expertly crafted, accompanied by a delectable mixture of bar nuts and rice crackers. A classic cocktail bar, which doesn’t involve food and offers the perfect recluse from the bustle outside. Incredibly discreet and personal service are a given.
The phenomenon that seemed ever-present during our time in Japan: everything they do, they do well. That’s a gross generalization about the country, to be sure, but it’s undeniable that craft, no matter what it involves, is taken incredibly seriously in Japan, and bars in Kyoto are no exception.
The Whisky Drinker’s Dream
Whisky aficionados should make sure to stop by Bar Cordon Noir, which is home to more than 800 whiskies. That’s right: more than 800. Well stocked with oldies from the 1960s and 1970s, this bar is every whisky drinker’s dream. Expect to find classics such as the 1974 Clynelish and Springbank’s ‘72 Chieftains and a ‘69 Signatory. Cordon Noir has a cover charge policy, but here it’s only ¥540, a number I can stomach. Known as Kyoto’s best kept secret and best whisky bar, it’s definitely a destination visit to be planned for.
Kyoto, like Japan in general, is a place you can come back to a thousand times and still discover something new. Whether you’re interested in wine, sake, beer, or whisky, it’s got something for everyone. At first glance, it seems incredibly traditional: the geishas, the shrines, then the glaring nightlife scares you off, before you find that perfect, cozy neighborhood bar that seems like it’s been waiting for you to arrive. I’ll be back, just as soon as the wallet allows and my back can handle another 12+ hour flight across Russia.