Kiyamachi, Kyoto's biggest nightlife strip, is a one kilometre stretch running parallel to the central Kamo River between two main boulevards, Sanjō and Shijō. On one side of the narrow street, slick-fronted concept restaurants promise cheap drinks and no cover charge. On the other, a shallow, tree-lined canal is laced by arched bridges. It sounds romantic, but the strip is nothing in comparison to Ponto-chō, just one block over.
Ponto-chō is what you want Kyoto nightlife to look like: wooden buildings lit by the soft glow of lanterns and women in kimonos disappearing through low doorways. It can also be exclusive, expensive and intimidating. Many establishments practice ichi gen sen o kotowari, meaning they refuse entry to first time visitors who have not been introduced by a regular customer.
Kiyamachi is the inverse. It is accessible, with big, back-lit signs and touts reassuring that anyone is welcome. But that does not mean that Kiyamachi is completely without local flavour. It is wedged into the cracks, in the alleyways around the noisy cabarets. Tucked away in these authentic haunts is a side of Kyoto that is warm, down-to-earth and stubbornly independent.
Renkon-ya (236 Sanjō-sagaru, Nishi-Kiyamachi; 075-221-1061) has been serving up home-style Kyoto cooking for 60 years. The restaurant’s old wooden building dates to the late 19th Century -- one of few such structures in the area. All the produce comes from the local market: the bulbous sora mame (broad beans) grilled in their pods, the tofu lightly battered and fried, the salted, slightly dried karei (flounder). The dishes are prepared in the kitchen behind the counter on a two-burner gas hob by the third-generation proprietor. She shuffles around the bare floor in plastic slippers, greeting customers by name and doing all the cooking and serving herself.
There is more unpretentious food to be found down the street at Takonyūdō (204 Shijō-agaru, Kiyamachi; 075-221-1443). The specialty here is akashiyaki, chunks of octopus enveloped in an egg batter and grilled on a hot plate. Lining the horseshoe shaped counter are bowls of obanzai, a catchall term for quintessentially Kyoto side dishes. Among these are pond snails simmered in soy sauce, fried potato croquettes and beef stewed with devil's root jelly. The mastā and mama-san (the man and the woman, respectively, who run a bar or restaurant) hold court in the central kitchen, dishing up plates along with friendly banter.
For a peek into a more bohemian side of Kyoto, head to Hachimonjiya. Professional photographer Kai Fusayoshi has been running this Kiyamachi bar for 28 years (and has been documenting life in Kyoto for even longer). Piled on the ends of the bar, on tables in the corner and on the floor are mountains of photo books, magazines and exhibition flyers -- the steady accumulation of decades. The bar stools are dangerously unstable and the beer tap rattles violently, but the hard-drinking regulars do not seem to mind -- they are too busy lobbing provocations across the counter. Presiding over all of this is Fusayoshi himself, in jeans and sweatshirt, still boiling water on the stove in a saucepan for every glass of oyuwari (shōchū liquor mixed with hot water), instead of using a kettle.
There is no better place to wind up an evening in Kiyamachi than Eiraku (365 Kamiya-chō, Shijō-agaru; 075-212-2555), otherwise known as the ochazuke bar. Ochazuke is a dish of rice topped with fish, seaweed, pickled plum (or any number of savoury toppings), drowned in hot green tea or broth. In Kyoto, the dish is often called bubuzuke, and when a Kyoto native asks if a guest wants to eat bubuzuke, it really means that the person has overstayed and is being politely asked to leave.
For those who would like to finish the night with a belly-warming bowl of ochazuke, Eiraku stays open past dawn. The barman, with shaggy bleached hair and a cotton kimono tied loosely over a t-shirt, believes his bar is the only one of its kind. His endeavour has earned at least one nod of approval from the Ponto-chō version of Kyoto nightlife: a single, signed maiko (apprentice geisha) fan rests on at top shelf -- a sign of patronage.