Kyoto is a study in contrasts, a city where shrines, ancient townhouses and gorgeous rock gardens share real estate with flamboyant triumphs of modern architecture, like the futuristic Kyoto Station building, and a flashy downtown shopping and nightlife scene.
The strip of cafes and bars along Kiyamachi Street, very close to the Kamo River, exemplifies Kyoto’s propensity for hiding obscure treasures. On a night on the town, keep your eyes peeled for fetching weirdness. Searching out the good spots is part of the fun. Not much larger than a Manhattan apartment kitchen, Pretty Space and Bar Mushroom (Rokkakukado Shainkaikan 2nd Floor, Nishi Kiyamachi, Chu-gyo-ku, Kyoto; 075.255.1711), a Nintendo-themed shrine to the, shroom, sits socked away in a windowless chamber two floors up in what looks, from the exterior, like a dreary office building. Outside, a faded sign bears the bar’s logo; inside, a jolly bartender with a mushroom-mop hairdo presides over one booth, one table, and a tidy row of stools. Other bars inhabit even less trumpeted digs along the side-streets and alleys running from Kiyamachi to Kawaramachi, between Sanjyo and Shijyo, like Rasta (Kawaramachi Sanjyo-sagaru Nichyo-me, Yamazakichyo 246, Chyu-gyo Ku, Kyoto; 075.256.3355), an eccentric izakaya serving up really cold beer and roast fish heads amid an endearing soundtrack of reggae-fied American pop hits.
Many of Kyoto’s oldest and best restaurants do not take reservations; some don’t even bother hanging a sign on the front door because they’ve been in business for a few hundred years and only serve friends. In Kyoto, money and careful planning don’t necessarily afford a visitor all he desires. Thankfully, many venerable eateries are quite accessible. Kawamichi-ya (295 Shimo Hakuzancho, Sanjo agaru, Fuyacho dori, Nakagyo- ku, Kyoto; 075.221.2525) is a 300-year-old noodle mecca specializing in a body-warming one-dish hot pot prepared at the table, and designed to be consumed in stages: first, a mountain of chicken, prawns, fish cakes, fu (a steamed wheat gluten product popular in Kyoto) shaped and shaded to look like tiny pink cherry blossoms plus thin, rolled yuba sheets, mild green onion slices, mushroom caps and hunks of cabbage simmer and puff in dashi. A course of soba steeped in the same broth comes next, followed by udon and greens.
In Kyoto, as in most of Japan, you can eat pretty well outside of proper restaurants. The basements of the Isetan, Takashimaya, and Daimaru department stores are dazzling food courts overflowing with regional specialties. Graze freely on samples and buy cylinders of cured mackerel sushi, eggplant and celery pickles, octopus croquettes, and fusion-y wonders from the French-inspired bakeries to eat on a quiet bench by the river.
Over 1,600 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines sit within the city limits. The famous gold-leaf-lacquered Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavilion, once the centerpiece of a wealthy shogun’s decadent villa, became a zen temple in the late 14th century. Often overlooked, and truly even more stunning to behold, especially at sunset, is the Fushimi Inari Shrine, a rambling two-hour hike’s worth of tunnel-like torii gates and bronze fox statues bunched in clusters along the wooded mountainside.
When you come, you might want to bunk at a traditional Japanese ryokan like Tamahan in the Gion District. If you’d prefer something much, much newer, stay at Hotel Screen, a sleek boutique not far from the Imperial Palace.
Home to both small, secret spaces and larger, very public ones with crowds of locals and tourists alike, Kyoto feels comfortable, somewhere to settle into—whether you’re window-shopping, enjoying a leisurely late morning breakfast of honey-buttered sweet potatoes at Nishiki market, or following, with no clear destination in mind, the leashed akitas skipping down the cherry blossom-lined Philosopher’s Path. It’s a precious place to
spend real time.