How to Find Hidden Pubs in Kyoto at Night Only Locals Know About | The Invisible Tourist

“A frog in a well does not know the great sea.” ~ Japanese proverb.

Kyoto at night has a beautifully mysterious and alluring atmosphere. Have you seen gorgeous images of Kyoto at night, either in books, online or depicted in movies? The vision that usually springs to mind here is Pontocho (Ponto-chō 先斗町) or Pontocho Alley.

Located alongside Kamogawa River’s western banks opposite the geisha district of Gion, this traditional area is crammed with local eateries and bars, most of which only locals tend to visit. It’s a must to add to your Kyoto itinerary.

Dark wooden buildings illuminated by soft lantern light dominate this seemingly secret area of Kyoto. Geishas briefly appear like rare butterflies before disappearing down the narrow alleyways.

The promise of intrigue, delicious Japanese pub-style food and local beverages make Pontocho the perfect place to embark on an exciting pub crawl in Kyoto at night. As a foreigner though, where do you start? All the buildings look so similar!

It can be a little tricky at times to discern what a building in Pontocho could be from the outside if you can’t read the store signs in Japanese. Is it a teahouse? Restaurant? Izakaya (Japanese pub)? To add to this, without local knowledge how can you determine where to find the best places to dabble in sake tasting or whiskey sipping?

If you want to experience bar hopping like a local, nothing can really beat having an actual local with you to unlock some of the area’s best-kept secrets. Without knowing any locals in Kyoto, how did I find a friendly one to take me on a Kyoto night tour that revealed hidden bars and izakaya? Read on for more!

 This guide to taking a pub crawl in Kyoto at night will cover:

  • What is MagicalTrip?
    • Types of experiences available through MagicalTrip
  • How to enjoy Kyoto at night according to a local
    • What is a pub crawl? 
    • BAR 1: Enjoying “sakana” in Kyoto at night
    • BAR 2: More local sakana and rare sake tasting
    • BAR 3: Geisha spotting, cocktails, whiskey & more beer
  • Final thoughts on my bar hopping tour with MagicalTrip
  • How to book your own Kyoto bar hopping tour

This post contains affiliate links, at no extra cost to you. I may make a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

How to Find Hidden Pubs in Kyoto at Night Only Locals Know About | The Invisible Tourist
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What is MagicalTrip?

Magical Trip is a platform that allows travellers to connect with locals through small, guided group tours. Local guides are carefully selected for their friendly and outgoing personalities, which makes the tours fun and enjoyable!

Also very keen to meet travellers, the local guides love to share their knowledge about Japanese culture. This win-win concept for tourists and locals is one I’m very passionate about, especially for first-timers to Japan who are a little unsure of what to expect.

TIP: Exploring a city with a local is the perfect way to “be invisible.”

 

  Types of experiences available through Magical Trip

There are many types of experiences available in major cities throughout Japan, if you’re travelling solo, as a couple or with kids. From tea ceremonies to cycling, foodie tours to cultural walks, there’s something for every type of traveller (even hidden hiking tours of Fushimi-Inari to escape the crowds).

Sampling local sake is one of my favourite things to do in Kyoto and as an Australian (where bar hopping is in my blood), I couldn’t pass on this opportunity. Which would you choose?:

Click here for prices & book a bar hopping Kyoto night tour

For even more small group experiences in Kyoto, click here

For information and prices for all Japan experiences, click here!

 

Pontocho, Kyoto at Night

 

 NOTE: Sake vs Nihonshu & -san
 Before we begin, I’d just like to clarify two things you may notice in this article:

  • It’s good to know what it means in Japan when you ask for sake (pronounced sa-keh ). By asking for “sake” you’re actually referring to alcoholic beverages in general including beer, plum wine and whiskey. If you want to ask for what English-speakers call sake in Japan, be sure you ask for “nihonshu” (pronounced nee-hon-shu 日本酒), literally meaning Japanese alcohol made from rice. For the purpose of this article, I just refer nihonshu as sake for my Western readers. I hope that makes sense! You can check my article about Japanese for tourists to learn useful phrases for your trip.
  • In Japan, it is correct etiquette to add san after someone’s name to be polite. This is why you’ll see me mention -san when addressing the local I met below.

For my bar hopping tour of Kyoto at night, my local guide was Taka-san. He’s lived in Kyoto for many years and knows the city like the back of his hand.

I experienced this tour as press invite from MagicalTrip, but as always this did not influence my opinion in any way and all thoughts in this article are my own. So let’s jump into the review!

How to Enjoy Kyoto at Night According to a Local

Although on the surface Kyoto’s geisha districts may seem all historical with temples and architecture, there’s also fun Kyoto; a side that many locals enjoy on the daily yet most tourists don’t get the chance to experience.

As Japan’s former capital for over 1,000 years, Kyoto has perfected the art of creating top-notch culinary delights and beverages for today’s enjoyment.

TIP: Japanese food + local nihonshu = the perfect formula for a great night in Kyoto.

After numerous long days exploring the city’s many temples and shrines, I know better than anyone how much fun it can be to go on a pub crawl in Kyoto, especially in Pontocho, to take the mind off weary feet.

In saying that, some of the ambiguous structures can be a little intimidating for tourists, which is why it’s a good idea to have a local like Taka-san show you the secret spots, enjoy authentic Japanese local specialties and even learn about sake-making along the way!

Yep, that’s actually RED sake pictured in the middle!

What is a pub crawl?

In simple terms, a pub crawl simply means visiting one pub after another to enjoy different atmospheres. On visiting one, you enjoy a drink or two, some local food then move on to experience the next pub.

I can only guess, but I’d say the reason why “crawl” is in the name is because that might be the way you get from one pub to another if you’ve had too much to drink!

With a local guide to show you the ropes, there’s no need to wander aimlessly around Pontocho’s maze of narrow backstreets in search of izakaya bars.

Your local guide is on hand to show you exactly where to find what your heart desires, whether that be delicious tempura, locally-brewed sake, Japanese whiskey or beer.

TIP: Although the tour is structured, your individual experience will be a little different to mine below. This Kyoto bar hopping tour is customised to YOU and what you like! My review is here to give you an idea of what to expect.

The meeting point for this Kyoto pub crawl is at the Izumo no Okuni statue. Being the founder of Kabuki theatre, she’s in a pretty dominant location in Kyoto, just outside Exit 5 of Gion Shijo Station.

Demonstrating she was a master of the arts, she proudly wields a samurai sword in one hand and traditional folding fan in the other. As well as my guide Taka-san, there was one other lady accompanying me on our bar hopping tour (ironically she was Australian, too!)

READ MORE:

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Hida No Sato Folk VIllage: Takayama’s Delightful Crown Jewel

The Venice of Japan: Amazing Things to Do in Kurashiki

Hiroshima to Miyajima: Here’s Why it’s Worth a Day Trip by Ferry

BAR 1: Enjoying “sakana” in Kyoto at night

Our first izakaya was an-open plan pub with a large bar up front. The second I walked through the door I realised this place was packed with locals and had a fun, inviting atmosphere. Huge lantern decorations adorned the ceiling , which were pretty cool.

Over the sounds of chatter and laughter, Taka-san ordered our first drinks and sakana 肴 (snacks to accompany alcohol). I opted for the tempura vegetables. Of course, they had the perfect amount of crunchy batter encasing soft, tasty eggplant. Yummo.

For my drink I chose a green sake cocktail… its name has escaped me! I was too busy absorbing the atmosphere to take note of what it was called… and I had already started nibbling away at my tempura before I remembered to take the below photo.

Nope, I could never be a food blogger because I am too keen to jump in – sorry!

After we’d finished our first drink, I was super excited to see that Taka-san had already ordered a bottle of one of my favourites — Mio Sparkling Sake — for us to share. Yes, it was just as good as I remembered!

TIP: If you’re not up to the strong punch that regular sake can have, Mio Sparkling sake could be for you. Slightly bubbly and sweet, it’s a great beginner’s sake being much lighter on your palate and only 5% alcohol (rather than the average 15%).

Bar hopping in Kyoto at night

 

 

NOTE: Earlier that day I had taken the Kyoto tea ceremony & Kiyomizu-dera private tour with Yuki-san. He had mentioned to me that as a sake lover, I absolutely HAD to try a special “rose sake” brew unique to Kyoto. It doesn’t even get exported outside the region, so I knew this was a must-do for me during my visit!

I mentioned this to Taka-san and he knew EXACTLY where we could go to enjoy this rare Kyoto treat, so that was our next stop. I was SO excited!  

Click here to book your own Kyoto bar hopping tour →

 

BAR 2: More local sakana and rare sake tasting

Taking the lead to guide us through the beautiful backstreets of Pontocho, Taka-san pointed out some interesting facts about things we saw along the way. We briefly stopped out the front of a small sake brewery. But how to tell sake is sold inside?

Taka-san explained stores selling sake have a large ball of cedar leaves hanging on display out front. These sugidama , literally “cedar balls” are hung at the beginning of the year when a new batch of sake is brewed.

It’s said they are all created from special cedar leaves found in Nara and hung when the cedar leaves are green. The age or browning of the cedar leaves signifies the age of the sake.

TIP: The quality and craftsmanship of the cedar ball is also said to represent the quality of the sake sold.

Sugidama Cedar Ball (Sakabayashi)
 
Where to find sake vendors in Kyoto at night
 

Out of nowhere we arrived at our second stop. Had it not been for Taka-san I would have walked right past it. This 100-year old townhouse in the Nakagyoku area serves delicious sakana, sake, Japanese beer and whiskey.

Suddenly I saw a large bottle of RED sake and knew that was the one I needed to try! Taka-san guided us to a small booth where the three of us could sample the next round of drinks and sakana.

The first snack was sake kasu cream cheese. A delicious flaky cheese much like fetta, but it’s been pickled in sake residue to give it a unique flavour.

Pictured below on the right, the second snack is called namafu dengaku. These are little cakes made from gluten, cooked over a flame grill then topped with a sweet miso sauce. For the record, they are absolutely delectable and I could have eaten more!

Moving along to the drinks… Behold, the “rose sake” I was dying to try, having mentioned it in my Kyoto tea ceremony article! This special blend of sake is known as Ine Mankai. Made from unique red rice and highly polished, it is exclusive to Kyoto and does not get exported outside the region.

It has a sweet, lightly toasted flavour and was easy on my palate. I was so appreciative that I got the opportunity to try this during my visit. If it wasn’t for Taka-san there was probably little chance I would have known where to find it in Kyoto during my brief visit.

Ine Mankai

Kohaku Izakaya
TOP & MIDDLE: Finally, the incredible red sake – my goodness, what a special treat to try in Kyoto! ~ BOTTOM: More sakana snacks to be had at Kohaku izakaya

You can’t fully appreciate sake without knowing the process of how it’s been made, right? As we were discussing this, Taka-san whipped out an iPad to show us a really cool diagram of what’s involved brewing sake.

To be honest, I’d never really thought about how sake was created until now. I just knew how to enjoy it! It was great to learn about this so I could be more informed in my future sake selections. We finished off our drinks and were ready to hop along to Bar 3.

TIP: The more expensive the sake, the more the rice granules have been polished to give it a smoother, pure taste.

BAR 3: Geisha spotting, cocktails, whiskey and more beer

On the way to our final stop, we were fortunate enough to encounter a maiko (geisha in training) on her way to work. Dressed in a pale yellow colour with stunning red accents, she quickly brushed past us and vanished into the night.

Passing through more lantern-lit pathways, we made it to our third bar. This Kyoto craft beer and whiskey bar has over 100 kinds of Japanese whiskey! I ordered a peach cocktail (and a glass of water was a good idea at this point, haha).

The bartenders were so chatty and loved practising English. We enjoyed our drinks, laughed alot, exchanged stories of our time in Japan and got chatting to some locals sitting alongside us at the bar. I had WAY more fun than I thought I would! 

The overall experience was around 3 hours. I would have loved to continue on into the night with my new-found friends but my ryokan had a strict curfew of 11:30pm so I had to make the journey back.

Maiko in Kyoto at night

Final thoughts on my Kyoto night tour with MagicalTrip

I was absolutely impressed with my Kyoto pub crawl! Here are my overall thoughts on things I loved and the benefits of using a local guide with MagicalTrip:

  • The tour was structured yet personalised in the sense that I was after a specific kind of sake and Taka-san knew exactly where to find it
  • The ability to ask my guide questions about anything to do with cultural traditions or things I saw that other guides or expats might not have been aware of, or known the answer to. It’s all about the benefits of local knowledge
  • The absence of awkwardness in meeting a new people! Sometimes it can be hard to break the ice, but if your guide is anything like Taka-san it’s like speaking with an old friend who lives in the area and is excited to show you around their hometown
  • My guide had a genuine interest in getting to know what I liked about Japan, what I’d done so far during my visit and learning about our culture, too. Taka-san now knows all about Australian Drop Bears, so make sure you ask him if you get the chance!

How to Find Hidden Pubs in Kyoto at Night Only Locals Know About | The Invisible Tourist

 

How to book your own Kyoto bar hopping tour

Is a bar hopping tour in Kyoto at night on your list of experiences to have in Japan? Booking is really simple and only takes a few steps:

  1. Head on over to MagicalTrip’s Kyoto Bar Hopping Night Tour
  2. Choose your preferred date on the calendar
  3. Click the “Book Now” button and enter the number of guests
  4. Enter your contact information
  5. Make your easy payment through PayPal or by credit card

That’s it! You’ll then receive an email confirmation and more details about your experience. The hardest part is waiting until it’s time for your trip to roll around!

 

 

As a solo traveller to Japan during this visit, I knew the Kyoto night tour would be a perfect opportunity for me to meet friendly locals and other travellers. The somewhat intimidating barrier of not knowing where to find hidden local spots is non-existent as your guide will know exactly where to take you to ensure everyone has a great time. 

TIP: I am a firm believer that small groups with a local are a sustainable way to experience a new city in a more personalised, authentic way that large tours just don’t have the ability to offer.

A huge thanks to MagicalTrip for kindly inviting me on this exciting tour of the Pontocho area. I was so appreciative that I had a fun local to share their knowledge and love of Kyoto with me.

Have I provided you with some insight as to what you can expect at a bar hopping tour in Kyoto at night? Would this be something you’d like to try someday? Let me know in the comments below!

If you found this helpful please share it with your friends or take a look at all my travel guides and itineraries for Kyoto & Japan. I’d also love if you could join me on Facebook, PinterestInstagram and TikTok for more Japan inspiration!

Until next time,

The Invisible Tourist

Do you love Japanese sweets, snacks and candies?
Read my Tokyo Treat Review and get popular Japanese snacks delivered here, or read my Sakuraco review and get traditional Japanese sweets delivered here


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How to Find Hidden Pubs in Kyoto at Night Only Locals Know About | The Invisible Tourist

 


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2 Comments

  1. Hello! Can you please tell me the name of bar number 1? I’ve been looking everywhere and cannot find it on google either ! Such a cozy vibe.

    1. Hi Anissa,
      The location is revealed on the tour for you to enjoy the full experience 😊
      I wouldn’t have found it on my own!

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