Dodging tourist traps in Kyoto

You know how it goes. The phone rings at 3 a.m., and you tumble out of bed, mumbling a sleepy “moshi moshi” into the receiver.

“Hi there! This is a former classmate / the guy you met in Thailand last spring / your dad’s best friend. Guess what? I’m in Japan next week and was wondering if you could show me around Kyoto.”

Great. A trip to Kyoto, dragging somebody you barely know around temples and shrines neither they nor you really have much interest in. A trip to a cranky dentist would be more fun.

For those passionate about Japanese art and history, decades in Kyoto are not enough to discover all of its treasures. But as someone who lived for nine years in Kyoto and was inclined to play over-enthusiastic tour guide, I learned quickly that the city can be overwhelming for those just passing through. Initial admiration for aesthetic beauty and ancient history can quickly give way to numbed exhaustion at the huge crowds, as well as irritation at the tacky touristy aspects of Kyoto’s well-known sites.

Better to take visitors to only one or two or maybe three really nice temples, and then find something else to occupy their time. And after you’ve been to whatever temples your guest wants to photograph, the best way to see Kyoto is to pick a small neighborhood or two and spend your time there.

One of the more interesting — and quiet — neighborhoods off the beaten tourist track is the Ebisugawa district, just a couple of blocks north of Kyoto city hall. It begins at the corner of Ebisugawa and Kawaramachi streets, and is marked by the Yamanaka tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurant, which serves the finest tonkatsu in Kyoto.

Ebisugawa has a vast array of small shops that sell dozens of varieties of high quality green tea and traditional Kyoto sweets, as well as bric-a-brac stores that are a bargain-hunter’s delight. Indeed, the prices in Ebisugawa are often cheaper than the tourist traps in other parts of the city. But the main draw here is that it’s the furniture district. If you’re looking for a tansu (dresser), a beautiful dining-room table or something to make your home look more Japanese, this is the place to go.

While I promised you a temple-lite guide to Kyoto, I’m not going to exclude a certain church. In Ebisugawa is one of the more unusual sites in this city of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines — a Russian Orthodox church. Built at the turn of the 20th century, the church is a monument to Kyoto’s historical tolerance for, and interest in, different religions.

After you’ve strolled around Ebisugawa, hop in a taxi and head over to the Kyoto Handicraft Center (15 minutes and about 800 yen away). But don’t linger there with the busloads of tourists gawking at the fake ukiyo-e prints. Instead, go about 50 meters to the west of the Center, where you’ll see two signs, one for Second House, and the other for Zac Baran. Second House is an excellent cake and coffee shop, which is the perfect place to relax and chat. But Zac Baran, located right below Second House, is more famous.

Zac Baran is one of the oldest jazz bars in Kyoto, with thousands of old jazz and blues records and the occasional live performance on weekends. Many years ago, the bar was also supposedly the unofficial headquarters for the Kyoto branch of the Japanese Red Army, where students and professors from nearby Kyoto University met and plotted world revolution. It’s everything a jazz bar should be: dark, fairly quiet except on weekends, and slightly grungy.

Zac Baran sits just south of Kyoto University. On the northern side of the university, about a 15-minute walk away, is the Hyakumanben district. Here, one can find dozens of bohemian cafes, cheap restaurants, used book shops and all of the other kinds of places you would associate with a university town. Vegetarians can feast at Peace Cafe, on the north side of Imadagawa Street, which is well-known among local foreign residents and a meeting place for activists of all kinds.

Weather-wise, Kyoto is a city of extremes. Summers are long, hot and can be brutally humid, although it can quickly cool off at night. By mid to late November, the humidity is down as the fall colors appear. If cool, dry weather with glorious days are what you’re looking for, come to Kyoto in late November or early December.

Kyoto cuisine is, depending on your mood, either a delicate arrangement of subtle tastes (the Kyoto view) or the triumph of form over substance (the view of many outside of Kyoto). But no trip to Kyoto would be complete without a dinner at one of the famed tofu restaurants beside Nanzenji temple. Nanzenji is a five-minute taxi ride from Zac Baran, or a highly recommended 20 minute walk through the beautiful Okazaki park. Enjoying tofu prepared several different ways in a traditional setting might be touristy, but it’s well worth it.

Finally, there’s the Kyoto nightlife to sample and the scene is varied. The main area, at least for those without tens of thousands of yen to spend, is the Kiyamachi district just west of Pontocho, which is on the west bank of the Kamo River and north of Shijo Street. Among the places open late are Rub a Dub, a reggae bar just south of Sanjo/Kiyamachi streets. It’s open until about 7 a.m. and is packed at weekends. Jazz lovers will appreciate Rag, which is on Kiyamachi Street between Oike and Sanjo streets.

Also, a stroll through Pontocho brings you to a host of traditional restaurants. Most are expensive tourist traps, although close to Shijo Street there are several excellent and cheap kushikatsu (cutlet-on-a-stick) restaurants, which are highly recommended.

Far better is to go one block west of Pontocho to Kiyamachi Street, and head south across Shijo. After about 100 meters, on the left you’ll see a sign, in katakana, for Kaorokan — more commonly known as “that lamb restaurant in Kyoto”. Reasonable prices, superfriendly owners and superb service (somewhat rare in Kyoto) as well as soft, tender lamb prepared a dozen different ways make this a favorite of those in the know.

Afterward, cross the Kamo River to the famed Gion district. Unless you have good connections and deep pockets, forget about getting into the best teahouses of Gion. Two of the most exclusive have reportedly refused entrance to both former U.S. President George Bush and Steven Spielberg simply because they were not introduced by a trusted patron.

Peter MacIntosh, a Kyoto-based Canadian who is actually married to a genuine Kyoto maiko (apprentice geisha), is, however, a trusted patron of many of the teahouses. For those on a limited budget, Peter operates tours of the Gion district through his company, Kyoto Sights & Nights. For those with hefty wallets, he can even arrange a private party with maiko.

Finally, what better way to end a day of contemplating the quiet elegance of traditional Japanese culture than with a pint of Guinness at a lively Irish bar? Tadg’s Irish Bar is located in Gion, just across the street from the Minamiza theater. The open, informal atmosphere draws long-term expats, Japanese of all descriptions (including kabuki actors and even the occasional maiko) and those who are just passing through, making it not only the most interesting Irish bar in Japan, but also the perfect place for you and your weary friend to unwind.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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