Freelance travel and food writer based in Asia. Beach lover and pizza addict.
We arrived in Kyoto on one of the hottest days in the city’s history. The temperature crept up to 39 degrees Celsius every day for a week. So instead of venturing out in the blistering hot sun, we decided to take a night tour through Japan’s cultural capital.
Our tour started at the famous Gion Corner, where we met up with our Urban Adventures tour guide, Morgane. She explained this was a place to see an authentic maiko, Kyoto’s word for geiko or geisha in training, perform.
Strolling through the main street of the Gion district of Kyoto, famous for geikos and authentic wooden buildings, it felt like we were transported back in time. As the sky grew darker, lanterns started to illuminate either side of the street. We stopped at the Yasui Konpiragu Shrine, covered in hundreds of papers with wishes on top and a hole through the middle. Morgane explained that if you want to end a bad relationship you must crawl through the hole going one way, and if you want to start a new relationship or strengthen an existing one, you climb through the other way.
Walking further into Gion we saw the towering wooden Yasaka Pagoda as the sky turned a perfect shade of pink and purple. I quickly realised escaping the daytime heat was smart, but the lanterns and the lighting of a night tour were the real advantages.
After everyone got their photos, we walked down Ninen-zaka path. Morgane filled us in on another local superstition: if you fall down these stairs, you’ll die in two years. So everyone paid a little more attention on the way down.
At this time of day, all the souvenir shops and hawkers selling matcha ice cream were shutting their doors. This meant that a street typically packed with tourists was mostly empty and peaceful as we walked down idyllic alleys past expensive private homes and ryokans.
We ended up in the heart of Kyoto, Yasaka Shrine. The oldest and most important shrine in Kyoto was lit with hundreds of lanterns. The shrine glowed beautifully as Morgane explained it is dedicated to the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. Although the lanterns were magical, she let us in on the surprising fact that they are no more than an old-school marketing tool for local businesses to buy and advertise their name.
Like most visitors to Gion, our group was eager to see some real geiko or geishas moving between houses to entertain clients. So Morgane took us to the door of a dark, but functioning geiko house and explained the plaque outside has all the geikos’ names written on it. Nine geikos were living there, and although it was prime geiko-spotting time, we didn’t see any rushing to meet guests at a local private teahouse. But if you’re going to see any, Gion is the place to do it as it has more working geikos than any other place in Japan.
After walking up and down the cobblestone streets, we stopped at one of the quirkiest restaurants I’ve ever visited. An izakaya, or a Japanese pub, opening up after 5pm and located on the second floor of a nondescript building. We walked in, and it was immediate sensory overload with old-timey American music and action figures everywhere. We got our own little room decorated with Christmas tree lights, an old black-and-white TV playing some Clark Gable flick, and photos of Marilyn Monroe. It was a serious blast from the past and oozing with kitsch.
A frozen orange highball, a Japanese blended whiskey drink, was the most refreshing way to cool off from the heat of a hot summer’s night. We started off the meal with fresh cabbage. Yes, cabbage. A strange concept for Westerners, but a ubiquitous snack for dinners to help digestion in between courses. You dip the crisp piece of cabbage into the dark, salty sauce. But remember, no double dipping!
While the steamed beef, pig or sheep uterus on the menu caught everyone’s attention, we played it safe with kushikatsu or kushiage, fried food on a stick, instead. The beef and chicken were tasty, but the fried cheese was the winner. Finishing off with “boob” ice cream, vanilla ice cream in the shape of breasts was a great way to end a very quirky, fun izakaya experience.
After hugging Morgane goodbye, we all meandered out of the restaurant, bellies full, into the warm Kyoto night. There was a strong breeze in the air because a typhoon was on its way. By that time, we’d take a typhoon over a heat wave any day.
Want to discover local life at dusk in Kyoto? Hop on our Lanes & Lanterns tour to see the city’s magic after dark.