Best Kyoto Nightlife – Bar, Club, Maiko, Night View
I would hazard a guess that most people who plan a trip to Kyoto only ever get as far as deciding which temples and shrines they want to see, or finding out where they can best see the city’s geisha scampering about on their business through narrow streets. Few ever give serious consideration to the excitement and romance Kyoto nightlife might have to offer.
Of course, it’s quite understandable that visitors to Kyoto should wish to immerse themselves in its rich culture, fascinating history, and picturesque views but, I assure you, Kyoto’s nightlife is every bit as immersive and rewarding.
- Kyoto Nightlife Overview
- Where to Find Kyoto’s Nightlife
- For Serious Beer Drinkers Who Want to Enjoy Kyoto’s Nightlife
- For More Sophisticated Drinking at Bar in Kyoto’s Nightlife
- Who Wants to be Staying Alive at Club and Enjoying Kyoto’s Nightlife as Much as Possible?
- The Maiko Experience in the traditional way
- Night Views of Kyoto
- In Conclusion
- Even foreigners can now have access to Geisha and Maiko
Kyoto Nightlife Overview
I’ve lived and worked in Japan for over 25 years and my connections to Kyoto are such that I visit friends in the city at least once a year. These days, I’m less likely to seek out the cultural haunts but I never turn down invitations to see what’s new to Kyoto’s nightlife. I think one would have to go to Tokyo or Osaka to find a more exhilarating scene after the sun goes down.
Kyoto is renowned for traditional culinary arts, such as kaiseki – Japan’s haute cuisine – and the hospitality of kappo style dining, whilst traditional entertainments provided by the city’s geisha continue to draw appreciation from foreign and domestic visitors alike. Yet it’s Kyoto’s large student population that has revolutionized Kyoto’s nightlife, creating a market for modern, stylish and inexpensive distractions.
Where to Find Kyoto’s Nightlife
Kyoto’s main areas for nightspots include Gion, a small, somewhat understated area of mostly austere wooden buildings, close to some of Kyoto’s most famous religious sites, and wherein the city’s dwindling geisha population entertains visitors in a variety of traditional contexts. It’s also a good place to find ochaya (tea houses) and kaiseki restaurants, though advance bookings are usually required.
Because most of Kyoto’s cultural and religious sites close quite early – as early as 4 pm, or 5 pm at the latest – it’s common, when one goes to an area like Gion, to see foreign tourists wandering around aimlessly, still awed by the city’s daytime spectacle, yet not knowing quite where to go or what to do before bedtime. So let me give your evening stroll some purpose and suggest you go to Pontocho instead.
Pontocho is a narrow street that runs parallel to the Kamo river between Shijo Dori and Sanjo Dori. It used to be another well-known place for geisha establishments, but today is packed with clubs and bars, eateries and other attractions. Whether you’re looking for a meal, drinks or nighttime street photography, the bright lights of Pontocho are where it’s at. Check out too the adjacent Kiyamachi, another small street west of Pontocho.
In this article, I hope to suggest a few venues where you can unwind after a hard day’s sightseeing, some that I know, others that I only know by reputation. Let’s begin with a favorite pastime of mine: drinking beer.
For Serious Beer Drinkers Who Want to Enjoy Kyoto’s Nightlife
Back in the 1990s, the Japanese brewery industry was deregulated and the monopoly of the big four brewers – Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory – was broken. Almost overnight, a plethora of micro-breweries sprang up all over Japan, and today, Japan’s independent brewers are winning awards worldwide with some extremely palatable brews. I’ve visited two craft beer bars in Kyoto:
Bungalow offers a good selection of beers on a regularly rotated menu. The bar is actually on two floors of what appears to be a former warehouse building on Shijo Dori and has a really lively atmosphere. If you’re unfamiliar with Japanese micro brews, try Minoh W-IPA, Swan Lake IPA, Hitachino Nest White Ale, Yona-Yona Ale, or anything from Baird Brewing company, when and if available.
Bungalow is open from 3 pm to 2 am – yay! – and their sitemap can be found here: http://www.bungalow.jp/
Beer Komachi is a much smaller bar located near Higashiyama station in the Furokawa-cho shopping arcade and also rotates its craft beer menu. It closes at 11 pm but, due to its really excellent bar food, makes a great place to end the evening, or start late night escapades!
For More Sophisticated Drinking at Bar in Kyoto’s Nightlife
Okay, rustic real ales on tap aren’t to everyone’s liking – even I like something a little more upmarket from time to time! So here are one or two choice bars guaranteed to provide the lounge lizards and barflies among you with a suitably laid back or sophisticated atmosphere:
Atlantis is an immensely popular bar with young couples, singles, groups and even business people, not least because of its very reasonable prices compared to other local establishments. Found in Pontocho, by the river, Atlantis is perhaps best visited in the summer when outdoor seating is available, though I found its intimate bar counter more to my liking. Atlantis is open from 6 pm to 2 am (6 pm to 1 am Sundays). The website is in Japanese only, but the bar’s easy to find just walking around Pontocho.
Touzan Bar: I’ve stayed in enough hotels around the world to know to avoid the bar whenever possible, but when I arrived late one night to Kyoto’s Hiyatt Regency, after a long journey and in need of a nightcap, I discovered the exception to the rule. The Touzan Bar is, in a word, delightful; the rich traditional ambience – all wood beams and quaint antique decor – is so immediately snug and inviting that I almost wanted to curl up in there and go to sleep. I’ve been back a couple of times since to sample their wide selection of premium local sake, but they also serve cocktails and local beers. Open from 5 pm to midnight, with a half-price happy hour until 7 pm. Dress code is smart casual. Closest station, Keihan Shichijo.
Sent James Club (sic.) has two branches in Kyoto, but most agree that the Pontocho location has the edge for atmosphere. It’s a while since I was there, but I recall it being intimate, with very subdued lighting, and piped, discrete easy-listening jazz that barely filters through to the outdoor terrace by the Kamo River. Cocktails are the bar’s strength, though as a whiskey drinker, I found nothing to complain about. Open from 7 pm to 2 pm, St. James (surely?) is a welcome watering hole amid Kyoto’s narrow alleys. There’s a table charge of ¥500. Again, the website is in Japanese only, but it should be easy to find referring to the map on their access page: http://www.sentjamesclub.com/pontocho/map.html
Who Wants to be Staying Alive at Club and Enjoying Kyoto’s Nightlife as Much as Possible?
The older I get, the less appropriate it seems to even think about going nightclubbing; besides, there’s something inherently seedy about someone of my age propping up the bar in a throbbing disco because they can no longer cut it on the dance floor without having a coronary. So for this bit, I’ll have to rely on what I’m told, rather than what I’ve experienced.
Butterfly is, apparently, a high-class nightlife space to rival anything Tokyo has to offer, or any other major city for that matter. With its creative top notch LED lighting design that illuminates the pure-white walls in seven different colors; an easy-access island bar, allowing you to order drinks from anywhere; and sumptuous VIP seats, it’s the ultimate clubbing experience. And Butterfly attracts an impressive line up of TOP DJs from all over Japan and the world too.
Open 10pm to 5am Friday & Saturday, 10pm to 3am weekdays. See the Butterfly website in English for further details and location map: http://butterfly-kyoto.com/
Two other noteworthy Kyoto nightclubs include:
And Now For Something Completely Different…
I suppose that part of the excitement of visiting any major world city is seeing a show. Now, I’m sure that Kyoto isn’t a city that springs to mind when most of us think of stage shows, but actually, it’s home to one of the most creative combinations of dramatic and visual arts you can find anywhere:
Gear is a wholly unique non-verbal performance suitable for all the family. Set in a future fantasy world, Gear weaves its story in movement and spectacle alone, making it universally comprehensible. Using traditional stage designs, hi-tech special effects and CG Production Mapping technology, Gear’s award winning steam-punk set is guaranteed to blow the mind. The performance is all the more immersive because the space, being limited to 100 seats, brings the audience closer to the action, allowing one to more intimately experience every nuance and emotion of the characters.
For more information and tickets, see the Gear website in English: http://www.gear.ac/en/about/
The Maiko Experience in the traditional way
Many foreign visitors are content if they can catch a glimpse of a Maiko in her finery as she flutters along Hanami-koji-dori in Gion, but wouldn’t you like to actually meet her and be entertained by her? Well, Kyoto is all about once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and an evening in the company of a maiko is one you’ll never forget:
Enchanted Time With Maiko offers a fascinating maiko tour experience that includes a traditional maiko performance of great elegance and beauty, and a meal of traditional Kyoto cuisine. You’ll have the opportunity to talk to a maiko and learn about her life, with an English speaking tour guide/interpreter on hand for those who don’t speak Japanese.
One of the highlights of the tour is an “ozashiki asobi” party, when you can play games with a maiko and, of course, there’ll be lots of photo opportunities throughout the tour program. The main dinner tour takes place every Tuesday and Thursday from 6-8pm and the tour price includes an all-you-can-drink plan!
For a complete explanation of this unique and sophisticated experience, please visit the Enchanted Time With Maiko website in English: http://www.travel-kyoto-maiko.info
Night Views of Kyoto
Kyoto is beautiful during the daylight hours, but it can be positively magical at night when the city’s historic sites are lit up; even the normally dour wooden buildings that line the narrow streets of Gion take on a romantic air. In the Spring and Fall, Kyoto’s carefully lit cherry blossoms and autumn hues are breathtaking, for the Japanese are masters of illumination.
Yet two of the best ways to experience Kyoto’s illuminations are very modern locations: Kyoto Tower, and Kyoto Station building.
Kyoto Tower is the tallest structure in Kyoto with a central spire 131m in height, and an observation deck at 100m above the ground, offering splendid panoramic views of the surrounding city, even as far as Osaka on a clear day. Just a short walk north from Kyoto Station, the tower gives visitors a quite different perspective on the many surrounding historic sights at any time of day, though it is the night view of Kyoto that is most impressive.
The tower is supported at its base by a 9 storey building housing the Kyoto Tower Hotel, a public bathhouse (sento), a variety of restaurants and the Sky Lounge bar which, at 45m above the ground, gives drinkers their best view of the city!
For more information and opening hours, see this useful guide in English: https://www.keihanhotels-resorts.co.jp/kyoto-tower/en/
Kyoto Station Building boasts one of the most creative applications of graphical illumination this writer has seen in Japan. Covering almost the entire 171 steps of the station’s grand staircase are around 15,000 LED lights programmed to depict scenes that complement the current season or traditional holiday season. You have to see it to really appreciate the display, then walk up or down the steps through an amazing and immersive experience in light.
For more information and the annual lighting schedule, see this website in English: https://www.kyoto-station-building.co.jp/english/graphical_illumination/
As you can see, Kyoto’s nightlife is something you might want to plan to experience just as much as you would a tour of temples and shrines or glimpses of geisha in their finery, and the above few suggestions are just scratching the surface of all the options available. So don’t just relax in your hotel room after a day’s sightseeing; make a night of it in one of Japan’s loveliest and wildest cities!
Even foreigners can now have access to Geisha and Maiko
We are proud to offer an excellent opportunity for foreign visitors to Kyoto to meet and interact directly with Geisha, at an exceptional price, every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday from 6 pm to 8 pm. This tour includes dinner, an English guide, watching a traditional dance performance, and be able to play a unique game with the Geisha.
Are you curious about this tour? Check the detailed information, and make an online reservation now to meet an authentic Japanese Geisha in Kyoto!