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Girljin in Japan By Rachel Tranter Davies


Historical, Magical and Beautiful
Pontocho
Lauded as being one of the most mesmerizing streets in the whole of Kyoto, Pontocho is an alley of elite establishments, maiko meeting places and local eateries.





Visitors to Japan are often longing to lay their eyes on real geisha. Many have seen stunning images of these ornate and mysterious entertainers and are desperate to capture a glance, or perhaps even hold a conversation with these magical beings that are now so synonymous with the land of the rising sun. Kyoto in particular is famed for its thriving geisha culture. Although in Kyoto dialect geisha are in fact known as geiko, and only in this city do they have apprentices known as maiko; ''geiko-in-training'' that are between the ages of 15 and 20 and practicing their art to become fully fledged members of the geiko community.



Kyoto is home to five kagai or geiko/maiko districts that house what is currently estimated to be around 250 geiko and maiko and 132 ochaya (teahouses used for entertainment by geiko/maiko). Pontocho, a traditional, narrow street in central Kyoto running parallel to the river between Sanjo and Shijo Streets, is one of Kyoto's most atmospheric kagai, hardly changed from years gone by. Filled with aging two-story wooden buildings housing all manner of establishments, from tiny 6 seater bars to busy izakaya and even exclusive ochaya, it's a wonderful spot from which to glimpse geiko in all their finery on the way to their evening's engagements.



Unfortunately, most tourists will not be able to frequent an ochaya. They are the preserve of the well-connected and most importantly those already known to the establishment. You can't walk in off the street and expect a warm welcome at an ochaya. Nevertheless, this scenic street is also home to some incredibly hospitable bars and restaurants that don't require quite the connections or costs of securing a seat at one of the exclusive tea houses.



Pontocho is filled to bursting with the sweet smell of yakitori smoke amongst the famous glow of the red lanterns, lighting the street and beckoning visitors to sit and eat. Until the end of summer, many establishments on the east side of the river set up wonderful dining decks, known as noryo yuka so that you can sit and watch the river go by whilst enjoying the inimitable hospitality of Kyoto. Featuring something for everyone, from the ultra-high end to incredibly reasonable fare encompassing all genres of cuisine, here's my pick of favorite Pontocho places that are loved by tourists and locals alike.


Bar Cordon Noir
A whisky bar at the very top of Pontocho. Here there's an excellent whisky selection, knowledgeable staff and an intimate and relaxing atmosphere. The prices are very reasonable and you'll find whiskies here that you'd be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

Open: 19:00-3:00; Closed: Wed.; One street south of Sanjo, between Kawaramachi and Kiyamachi, on the south side; Tel: 075-212-3288; ameblo.jp/bar-cordon-noir


Tori Ume
A local and incredibly delicious yakitori restaurant set just slightly back from Pontocho's main alley. The friendly staff speak a little English and they have an extensive English menu with a huge variety of skewers, side dishes and drinks. This is a great place to get some truly tasty food in a beautiful setting.

Open daily: 17:30-24:00 (L.O. 23:00); The fourth shop south of Pontocho Kaburenjo Theater; Tel: 075-212-5501; www.toriume.net


Manzara-tei Pontocho
A traditional izakaya that offers an array of delicious Kyoto style dishes, perfectly plated to be shared amongst friends. There's always a wonderful mix of locals and tourists, enjoying their food to choruses of ''kanpai (cheers!)''. Reasonably priced and a guaranteed mood enhancer.

Open daily: 17:00-24:00; A 5-min. walk from Keihan Line Gion Shijo Stn.; Tel: 075-212-0028; www.manzara.co.jp/pont


Bar Stardust Club
A tiny ten seater bar on a Pontocho that offers up simple cocktails and drinks with a funk, gospel jazz and blues feel. There are often live bands that fill the place with cheers and great vibes. The owner is amiable and fun and has created a true gem along this wonderful little street.

Open: 17:00 until late; About 50 meters north from Shijo, 2F of Asahi Bldg.; Tel: 075-221-2505; stardustclub.jimdo.com


Pontocho Misoguigawa
A bit of a splurge with dinner menus starting at 15,000 yen (lunch menus are just as tasty and start from 7000 yen), but the French fusion kaiseki style courses, served in an elegant setting, are seasonal, luxurious and delicious.

Open: 11:30 -15:00 (L.O. 13:30); 17:30-22:30 (L.O. 20:30); Closed: Sun. & Wed.; About 6th shop south of Pontocho Kaburenjo Theater; Tel: 075-221-2270; www.misogui.jp



Rachel is a food, drink and travel writer. Originally from England, she recently relocated to Japan and is now finding her feet in Kyoto. You can find her blogging tweeting and instagramming her experiences at Girljin in Japan.




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