Kyoto is a city world-famous for its stunning traditional landscapes, thousands of ancient temples and shrines, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, quintessential Japanese customs and festivals, and is thought of to be the cultural and ancient political capital of Japan. It served as the actual capital of Japan for over a millennium and remains a hub for both tourists from around the world and within Japan even to this day.
However, if you are lucky enough to live in this beautiful city, or if you are just visiting or on a study abroad programme and want to make the most of your downtime, checking out the nightlife in Kyoto is top of the list! Despite its reputation for being steeped in serious history and traditions, the city, of course, has its own flavor of nighttime reveries ready and waiting to be explored!
Although in many big or well-known cities around the world, the main station is usually where all the action also happens, in Kyoto, this is not the case. Kyoto Station is quite far south of the city, but the downtown area – and where most of the bars, izakayas, clubs, and other nightlife kicks off – is a little further north, closer to the Sanjo and Shijo areas and to the east by the Kamogawa River. Although there are of course other areas to go out even further up north, for example towards Demachiyanagi and Hyakumanben, known as the student area as it is near to Kyoto University and other educational institutions, the focal point of nightlife in Kyoto is in the main downtown area near Kawaramachi-Dori Street, Sanjo, and Shijo.
Unlike the intense and insatiable lights and clubbing you can find in Tokyo and other big metropolises, nightlife in Kyoto consists primarily of small, quirky independent bars, drinking by the river with friends and locals, buzzing izakayas traditional Japanese bars and a few well-frequented and busy but relatively small clubs. Here is an insider’s guide to Kyoto nightlife, compiled by a seasoned reveler who has lived in Kyoto for almost two years and is no stranger to a good time.
The Kamogawa River in Kyoto in the daytime
Kiyamachi Nightlife in Kyoto
This gorgeous street lined with a beautiful canal, complete with the occasional wooden floating boat, is where the majority of Kyoto nightlife action happens. However, not only is this where people descend to have a good time, but it is also truly a beautiful spot. In the spring, in particular, the trees along with the Kiyamachi canal bloom into full sakura cherry tree blossoms, raining pink petals on the crowds of people who come to view the spectacle. The area is lovely throughout the rest of the year as well. However, expect to see throngs of merry people milling about, especially when the weather is warm or on weekends and public holidays. Here is a list of the top bars to head to in Kiyamachi, all of which are affordable.
1. Rock ING
This eccentric bar is run by an equally eccentric gentleman who makes the scene. The Rolling Stones posters, board games (Jenga!), and cheap beers make the place feel like it got stuck somewhere in the late 80s. The barkeeper also takes any music requests.
Tucked away down a small alleyway, this counter bar has an upstairs seating area with an intimate vibe. Happy Hour lasts until midnight, before which all cocktails (and there are so many) are 500 yen and delicious. Concrete also plays lots of funky music.
Rasta is a spacious and cool hangout with a Jamaican theme. Cushy floor seating around mosaic-inlay tables, reggae music, and a large selection of drinks and food will make you feel relaxed. The owners are also extremely friendly, and there is an ‘all you can drink’ (飲み放題 ‘nomihoudai’) option with finger food included for just 3,000 yen.
4. Milan’s Bar
This dimly lit bar also features floor seating with Persian carpets. The servers are friendly and open and if you enjoy singing, there is even a karaoke set and screens around the room with lyrics!
Another karaoke bar, this venue is known as Kyoto’s international bar. It is quite a large venue and is popular with both tourists and locals. The Filipino owners are exceedingly welcoming and help create the party scene. There is no cover charge here but you must order one drink. A beer costs 500 yen.
This popular joint is Kyoto’s local pub. The bustling downstairs and upstairs area (with a long balcony) are great places to meet new people! Pleasantly affordable with a large selection of drinks. Zaza is also more of a party scene later in the evenings, and especially on weekends. Grab a shisha pipe too in lots of different flavors for about 1000 yen.
This gimp themed bar is a weird but fun location to try out something different. Sit in a caged table area lit up with red lighting and enjoy a very strong and very delicious Long Island Iced Tea.
8. Unnamed Bar
This bar literally has no name. Located above Elephant Coffee Factory, it uses zero electricity and so is completely dark, lit only by candles. The bar plays soft techno in the background and is truly one of the more eccentric venues in the city.
This elegant and chic bar is located on the second floor of the building, with a large window facing Kiyamachi Street. Dimly lit with flashy accents, Crane is perfect if you are looking for a swish place to relax. The low leather sofas add to this modern atmosphere.
Although a little bit difficult to find at first at the top of a set of stairs off Kiyamachi, this izakaya-style bar is the answer for cheap and quick-flowing drinks. With an ‘all you can drink’ option from 10pm-4am for just 1,800 yen, you are unlikely to find a better bargain anywhere else. Choose from either tables or Japanese style floor-seating, and each group is granted total privacy by the black room partitions. For big groups, you can also hire the room upstairs for cheap.
This izakaya is down a narrow flight of steps. Its traditional Japanese izakaya layout and cheap ‘all you can drink’ option (from 1,500 yen for an ‘endless’ option) with delicious nibbles you can order on top, this intimate setting is a good scene for small groups looking for a good time.
12. Bar Zero
This underground bar is the best place to go for the after party. It usually starts getting busy around 2 or 3 in the morning, and stays open past 8 or 9 am! It is an intimate setting but filled with people dancing the night (morning) away, and a good place to end your night of frivolity.
Other Kyoto bars
1. In the Moon
This stunning bar is located on a rooftop near Shijo bridge. With gorgeous market lights strung on the roof, a wooden bar and chic high tables all to the backtrack of chilled out music, this is the perfect date spot. Drinks are affordable too, with deliciously flavored mojitos (mango, orange, and passion fruit!) costing about 700 yen. Unfortunately, due to the nature of this rooftop bar, it is open only during the summer months.
2. Sour Garden (Y Gion)
Another stunning rooftop bar in Gion, Sour Garden overlooks the Kamogawa River and is a trendy place to get a few drinks and relax. The bar is very open and serves delicious fruity cocktails made with fresh fruit (cut up in front of you) for reasonable prices.
3. The HUB
A Japanese chain of British-style pubs, HUB is the go-to for a warm, buzzing atmosphere and large pints of your favorite lager. Happy Hour is from 16:00-19:00 and offers one of the cheapest good quality drinks available in Kyoto.
4. Bachiya Demachiyanagi
The same branch as the one in Kiyamachi, Bachiya in Demachiyanagi is slightly larger and tends to be less busy. This Izakaya also serves great ‘karaage’ fried chicken to go with your beer.
This restaurant bar is pleasantly located on a corner with classy outdoor seating reminiscent of a European city. Order a glass of wine or corona here and sit under the large tree to people watch.
The biggest in Kyoto, this club will not let you down with its upbeat music and clientele. The music here is largely light house, remixes of popular tracks and is pumping every weekend. Entry is 1,000 yen for visitors and 3,000 yen for locals but includes one 700 yen drink ticket. The large cavernous dance hall is lit with colored strobe lights and two bars make it easy and quick to order drinks. The large and pleasant area outside is perfect for a chat and a smoke if you want a break from dancing.
Chambers is the answer to your hip hop and RnB dreams. Just off Kiyamachi, this club is always alive with partygoers from around the world. There are two main areas with a central bar.
Another popular club, Butterfly is immediately recognizable from its long lit tunnel leading to its depths where you and friends can snap a commemorative photo. The dance floor is spacious, and there are high tables and chairs around the back for sitting too.
This multi-story club is popular as its different floors play EDM, popular tunes and hip hop and RnB. A slightly younger crowd, Kitsune is a classic Japanese clubbing experience.
Metro is located not in the down town Kiyamachi area but up towards Demachiyanagi. It is aptly named, as it is actually located down the stairs to a subway station! Come here for a more niche techno and house night with a crowd who is there just for the music. Big names have played here before, so check online in advance, also to get pre-tickets, which are usually cheaper. Other nights feature anything from jazz to disco. The last Friday of every month is Kyoto’s best drag night with classic tunes from the 90s and 2000s! Not to be missed.
Drinks by the Kamogawa River
One of the best things to do in the evening in Kyoto in the warmer months is to sit by the Kamogawa River with a drink from a combini convenience store and enjoy the gently flowing waters and social scene around you. This wide but shallow river cuts through Demachiyanagi and southwards through the Sanjo and Shijo areas. If you are up north, sit on the delta island where the river splits in two for a peaceful and relatively private drinking session. Down by Kawaramachi-dori Street, the riverbanks are alive with singing, friends meeting up, and couples on dates, people playing guitars, Frisbee… you name it! This is the best place to meet and interact with locals and tourists alike, and is also the cheapest way to go out for drinks in the city. Make sure to take any and all rubbish with you when you leave. The nearest bathroom is located on the 2nd floor of the Sanjo Ohashi road 7-Eleven.
The Kamogawa River in Kyoto
Hit the Town to Experience that Kyoto Nightlife!
So what are you waiting for? Take advantage of your time in this beautiful, historical city that is Kyoto to explore its hidden and tucked away backways and bars, alleyways and clubs and lively nightlife and meet all kinds of people to have a great night in a stunning setting you won’t forget! Cheers! Kampai!
Maia Hall // UK