If you’re in Kyoto in the summer, this bar is exactly what the doctor ordered – a laidback, friendly bar with outdoor seating by the Kamogawa river. It’s also quite a rarity in Pontocho, known for its expensive food and drink options, by being an affordable place frequented by young people and groups of women. Outside of the summer period, from May to September, the outdoor seating isn’t available and Atlantis is somewhat less alluring, even if the cocktails are still top-notch.
This dimly-lit and atmospheric bar, inspired by machiyas (traditional Kyoto wooden townhouses), is equally popular among locals and tourists alike. K-Ya offers a sleek, sophisticated and tranquil environment, aided by a view of a leafy and peaceful courtyard through its windows. Grab a high wooden stool at the bar and let the wizards behind the counter do their thing – expect an enormous range of single malt whiskeys and cocktails made with freshly squeezed fruit juice. It’s a singular highlight in an area that’s full of good bars – don’t miss the Craftman beer bar if you’re going on a pub crawl.
One of the country’s top bars, Calvador is justly renowned for purportedly having the world’s biggest collection of calvados. The owner is just a little bit obsessed – there are bottles here dating back to the nineteenth century, and the liquor is perfectly pourable. The French apple brandy, produced from distilled cider and matured in oak barrels in Normandy, gives the bar its name – but it’s by no means the only drink on the list. They stir great cocktails and there’s a solid list of non-calvados spirits too. It’s a tiny place and the owner Hiroyuki Takayama is a great character.
An unexpected yet fruitful combination of Nordic cool and Kyoto tradition, this Finnish-themed bar and restaurant has brought new life to a former geisha house. The fusion concept extends to the drinks list, on which you’ll find curious concoctions such as wasabi vodka. Indeed, vodka dominates the proceedings here, as one might expect from a bar named in honour of Finland’s leading vodka brand. There’s a Kyoto-style tatami room on the second floor and another room available for group bookings.
Welcome to the mother of all Kyoto bars: there can barely be a single bar lover in this city who hasn’t stepped into this temple to quality drinks. It’s famed for its vast collection of sakes, around 1,200 different varieties, and Scottish whisky is well represented too with approximately 600 single malts including some extremely rare bottles. The menu extends the Scottish theme in a slightly bonkers fashion – the haggis pizza is an acquired taste – while the cocktails are pretty great too. It’s a relaxed, informal spot with friendly bar staff – a Kyoto must-visit.
Japan’s ancient capital may be the most serene of cities, but sometimes it feels that its calm, easy-going atmosphere isn’t reflected in its overly formal bar scene. The majority of Kyoto nightlife haunts have cover charges, and this contributes to their sometimes stuffy atmosphere. The Northern Lights Corner, conveniently located in an alley midway between Shijo Karasuma and Shijo Gion, feels very different. There’s no cover charge here and there’s also plenty of standing room, something key to the egalitarian drinking dens of southern Europe, and why this place has such a relaxed, jovial vibe. Entry may be free but there’s no skimping on the quality of the drinks here – there’s a huge range of spirits behind the bar and these guys know how to mix a mean cocktail.
Hidden away so deep in Kyoto’s backstreets that taxi drivers flinch when they’re asked to drive there, Rocking Chair is a legendary little bar boasting lots of the titular furniture, an open fire and one of Japan’s top bartenders in owner Kenji Tsubokura. He makes vividly flavourful cocktails using Japanese ingredients, and his expert mixology was recognised at the Japan Bartending Competition last year.
One of the first bars with a riverside terrace in Kyoto, St James Club opened in 1983, making it a veteran by this city’s standards. And its appropriately old-fashioned, the kind of place where the music – usually mellow jazz – is played at a low enough volume for conversations to take place and where the bar staff get to know the regulars, and their chosen tipples. There are two branches of St James Club – this one has a more international feel while the Pontocho branch feels more Japanese.
This basement bar at the Kyoto Hyatt Regency confounds expectations of generic hotel bars. The traditional home-style Japanese interior design is so warm and inviting you’ll quickly forget that it’s a hotel bar, while the locally made sakes and beers allow you to have the full Kyoto experience. There’s a daily happy hour between 5pm and 7pm, and the adjoining restaurant serves excellent Japanese cuisine.