When I first visited Kyoto more than 30 years ago, Pontocho was a mysterious place for outsiders, a tiny downtown alley just west of the Kamo River lined with geisha houses, hostess bars and exclusive (read expensive) restaurants. Some of the mystery was lifted when the manager of a Kyoto hotel invited me to his favorite hostess bar in Pontocho, managed by a former geisha and open only to regular members. Otherwise, it wasn’t much different from most Japanese hostess bars. But the best part? Large wooden outdoor verandahs behind some of those establishments, open only in summer and offering dreamy views of the Kamo River to those lucky enough to dine there.
For several years after that experience, however, I was never able to get my foot in the door of any establishment in Pontocho. It was simply too exclusive, off limits to foreigners or perhaps just foreigners writing guide books. But then someone suggested Misoguigawa, where affable owner/chef Teruo Inoue greeted me warmly. Misoguigawa serves beautifully presented dishes that can only be described as fusion French kaiseki, very expensive, but worth it. And yes, it has a wonderful verandah open in summer. Over the years, dining there has been a highlight of my stay in Kyoto.
In any case, Pontocho (and Japan for that matter) has changed a lot since then, and now there are bars and restaurants in all price categories welcoming visitors from all over the world. Many have English menus outside their doors, so I suggest simply walking through (it stretches between Shijo and Sanjo Dori streets) looking over the choices, and then making a decision.
Or, paralleling Pontocho just to the west, along a small canal, is another nightlife street, Kiyamachi, with many more bars and restaurants. And as for the Kamo River itself, it’s a very popular place for an evening stroll for couples or to simply sit and absorb the ambiance, making this certainly one of the most romantic rivers in the world.
Subway Station: Kawaramachi.