LATEST REVISION 29 MAR 2019
This page, map and information will be constantly updated as new trips take place and more hot tips come in from our friends, plus you guys (if you have anything you think MUST be on the list, send me a DM on Instagram!) so be sure to check back frequently and share with your friends…
Honke Owariya - Oldest Soba Noodle Spot in Kyoto - sometimes oldest doesn’t necessarily mean the best, and this was our thinking when we left. It was good. But not amazing. The building itself was pretty incredible and the noodle was tasty and cooked well but not somewhere I need to go back to? I would check it out if you have time.
Sakaba Ikuramokuzai - AMAZING Izakaya - we went here on a recommendation of the hotel we were staying at as it was just around the corner, however this would be worth a visit even if you were to travel to it. Located next to / inside a lumber / timber yard, the owner works the yard during the day and then at night is manning the bar / izakaya. Owner speaks reasonable English and is happy to welcome you in. We were a group of four (which is quite a large group) so don’t go in groups of 10. The place is small, but they also utilise an outdoor area in the lumber yard. Let the owner decide your food (we did). Cost us about $60USD each for all we could really eat and drink.
Sukemasa - Kyoto style gyoza - Tiny little spot. Great gyoza and cold beer. English menu but you don’t really need it as there is only a few options, gyoza with rice, pickles and miso soup (only variation is the drink you choose).
Nakamura - Kaiseki ($$$$)
Toyouke Chaya (Tofu Restaurant) - lunch only.
大鵬 - Sichuan Restaurant - found @jeniafuso via Instagram story. We didn’t make it here but it looks unreal! Worth a visit if you had some extra time in Kyoto and you wanted to mix up your fare from Japanese.
Toyouke Chaya - tofu restaurant - lunch only.
Monk - this was a suggestion from @juliaostro, I have not been but she said to me that this is the best pizza she has ever eaten! Only a small restaurant, modern, beautiful, elegant. I can not wait to visit next time I go to Kyoto. Check their instagram here..
BARS & NIGHTLIFE
Suntory Yamazaki Distillery - Japanese Whiskey lovers rejoice! Book in for a tasting and take the short train to the distillery.
BEE’S KNEES - American style "speakeasy" bar. Excellent cocktails. Look for a yellow door that says "The Book Store" with a yellow mat out the front with a bee on it.
ＢＡＲｔｏｎｂｏ - Small quaint little bar. Owner makes you fun origami to play with.
SITES AND ATTRACTIONS
Arashiyama - Bamboo Grove. Busy tourist spot. The gardens which you have to pay to visit and also the private villa at the top of the grove are definitely worth a look and much quieter than the bamboo grove itself. Get your timing right and you will get a pretty sweet photo.
Kinkaku-ji - Golden Temple
Fushimi Inari Taisha - Shinto Shrine with famed gates. This was pretty sweet, however LOTS of people! (But that is to be expected I guess). If you get your timing right you can get a very “insta worthy” photo. I would suggest getting there as early as you can to try and beat the crowds, or do what we did and do a little exploring down some of the more quiet, lesser know paths. (Bit of a mission to get to).
Gion - Gion is Kyoto’s geisha district, with hostesses in colorful kimonos often sighted on the wooden Tatsumi Bridge, or amid upscale Japanese restaurants and boutiques on Hanamikoji Street. Gion Corner hosts traditional Kyomai dances, while Kennin-ji Temple is known for its Zen garden and Yasaka Shrine has seasonal festivals in a lantern-lit courtyard. Nightlife ranges from quiet sake bars to buzzing, pub-like izakayas.
Philospher’s Path - a tip from restaurant critic @huckstergram. “Make sure you walk the Philosopher's path, and do the trek up the mountain at the Tofuku-ji Temple to Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine also take a trip north on the train to Biwaco (Biwa Lake) for a swim - if its warm. Get off at Omimaiko station and turn right and walk till you get pebbly sand…”
Nishiki Market - a narrow covered market which stretches for about 400 meters with hundreds of shops and stalls selling all sorts of food and wares.
Hiyoshido Massage - need a rub down to help relax, this is your spot.
In-The-Tub (bathing house)
TIPS & INFO
Some key Japanese etiquette tips (particularly around dining) that are important to understand and stick to when eating out in Japan, and especially at some of the more high end locations:
Don’t double book. Be smart, plan ahead (that is what this guide is for!) and don’t double book yourself or put yourself on wait lists that you may not be able to make if your other booking comes through (universal rule really!) Use hotel concierge / a friend who speaks Japanese (I am fortunate, my cousin is fluent Japanese so that helps!) or a online booking service such as Omekase or Tableall.
Arrive early. Get there 5-10mins before your reservation time (however do not arrive too early!) The Japanese are a prompt people and punctuality is important and respectful.
Allergies / Aversions. When making your booking, let the restaurant / chef know of any allergies or aversions at the time of booking so there is time to plan ahead (this is just courteous and you should follow this practice no matter where you are dining.)
Dress Code. Smart casual is a must! No shorts. No singlets. No thongs (you know that sign you see when you go to an RSL in Australia, yeh it’s like that!!!). Keep it sharp and enjoy the experience.
No perfume! This is particularly important for sushi shops when you are sitting at the counter, as the whole sensory experience is needed to enjoy and enhance the meal (plus these places are small and you don’t want to pong out the whole room with your eau de toilette.)
Loud voices. Now if anyone knows me, this one is a tough one. I am a loud person. But in Japan everyone is very respectful of others space and experience. Keep voices low and not boisterous (or even worse, drunk and over the top like the English woman at dinner last night!!!). **note** there are moments where this is common and expected; i.e. when you have a few too many sake’s with the locals at a small izakaya.
And don’t be that westerner who Kuuki Yomenai (“can’t read the air”)
Photos / Phones. Ask before you take your phone / camera out. One of the main reasons a chef will not want photos taken of their food is so that you can enjoy it in its prime and not 5mins later after you have taken your insty photos.
Many places in Japan are phone free zones. Do not take phone calls at the table / counter. Also in airport lounges do not talk on the phone at your seat, make your way to phone cubicles. No flash. No photos / video which include other guests. Keep phone on silent or airplane mode.
Eat right away. Eat your food as it hits the table. Foods like sushi and tempura need to be eaten right away to get the best product. Do not wait for the others in your group to get their food. If it arrives to you first. Eat it. (This is a common western practice and something that is fine at a dinner party or with your grandparents on Christmas but when you eat out, ANYWHERE, eat your food when it hits the table, don’t wait, the quality of the food will suffer..)
Countertops. If you are sitting at the counter please be mindful not to rest any items on the counter; phones, cameras, handbags etc. Most countertops are made with exquisite wood or stone and are expensive and in pristine condition. This area is meant for food only.
Hands or Chopsticks? For your tsumami (Japanese style appetiser dish) use chopsticks. For any nigiri (fish on top of rice) use your hands or chopsticks, whichever you are most comfortable (I prefer hands in this instance as I know I am not going to drop anything!). Please note, nigiri / sushi should be eaten in one bite.
Soy Sauce. For the tsumami, your chef / server will advise if it is to be eaten with soy sauce or salt. Your sushi will already come seasoned and you should not add any extra soy to the bite, unless directed by the chef. If doing so, only lightly dip the fish section of the bite into the soy sauce. Again, the chef should advise how best to eat each dish. If in doubt, you can ask.
Ginger (Gari). DO NOT add this to your sushi! Its purpose is to cleanse the palate between courses.
Wet towel. At the start of most meals in Japan you will be given at wet towel (either hot or cold depending on what the season is). In most western cultures this is then taken away from you, in Japan it will remain on / at the table for you to wipe your fingers in between bites.
Salt / Dipping Sauce (Tentsuyu) / Lemon. These (or a selection of these) will be at your table, the chef / server should advise the best condiment for each different tempura dish. If in doubt, ask.
Radish. This is served with the tempura and is there as a palate cleanser (similar to ginger in sushi shop). You can also add this to your tentsuyu.
Shime (or final dish). Sometimes at tempura restaurants (or even yakitori) it can be hard to keep up with what you have ordered and what has come to the table (or if you are doing an omekase where you are up to). The shime is a good indication that the meal is coming to an end point. In a tempura shop this will generally be tendon (tempura soaked in sauce over rice) or tencha (tempura over rice covered in hot tea) or kakiage (tempura fritter with a side of rice). When I have had yakitori the shime dish has been a small bowl of light chicken soup.
GENERAL TIPS & TRICKS
Ramen Ordering Machines. When going to a ramen place that operates with a vending machine style payment kiosk (which is pretty much all of them) be sure to insert your yen / $$ - if you do not do this then you won’t be able to select anything.
Subway (Tokyo). This is not as daunting as you might think - use the larger ticket machined that have LCD/LED screens where there is the option for “English” language. Plan your trip prior on Google maps so you know timings / entrance locations and which are the best exits for your final destination. (Also, the trains / stations have free wifi which is great!)
Taxi. Taking a taxi can be daunting, but a couple of tips will be able to help. Simple phrases like the ones below will help you. Plus having a business card / the address of your destination written in Japanese is key (what we did was just screenshot Google Maps with the Japanese address to show to the driver. This worked perfectly). Also, keep an eye out for “english speaking” or “foreigner friendly” signs on taxis. There are also “Women Taxi” in Japan. I only saw one of these.
Smoking. In general you are able to smoke inside at bars. For some this can be hard (myself included) but you sort of just have to deal with it and take it for what it is. Most venues will have great ventilation and it won’t be too bad, and some are non smoking or have specific smoking sections. For those that love and inside cig, you are in luck!!! Haha.
Markets. Do not eat and walk at food markets - most stalls have little zones for you to eat. very bad form and you will offend the vendors and locals. Same with drinking - do not walk and drink- same vibe, in short the japanese value the food and experience. Furthermore, do not eat food from another vendor in front of a different vendors stall. Stick to your stall.
Queuing / Waiting in line. The Japanese are very orderly and efficient - whether awaiting a train, a bus or a line-up for ramen. Everyone waits in a orderly fashion. The same at boutiques for check out. Or on the escalator - follow the lead of the locals- stay to left on escalator - right is for passing.
Groups. If you are a group larger than three it will be unlikely that you will be at at the counter. Groups larger than three will be seated at a table if there is one available.
LANGUAGE CHEAT SHEET
Here are some of my favourite / most used words and phrases (I love languages and I love giving them a crack, it is endearing and if you just try a little, people will love it and want to help you out more…..most will then talk back to you in English if they can…)
I have broken these words / phrases down phonetically so that it is easier to get your head around them...
Hello + Good Day + Good Afternoon / ko⋅ni⋅chi⋅wa
Good morning / o⋅ha⋅yo (go⋅zai⋅mas)
Good evening / kom⋅ban⋅wa
Thank you / a⋅ri⋅ga⋅to
Please / ku⋅da⋅sai
Yes / hai
No / i⋅e
Sorry / go⋅men⋅na⋅sai
Excuse me / su⋅mi⋅ma⋅sen
Do you speak (English)? / (e⋅go) go ha⋅na⋅se⋅mas⋅ka
I’d like a (beer) please / (bi⋅ru) o o⋅ne⋅gai shi⋅mas
What’s that? / so⋅re wa nan des ka
Where is the (toilet)? / (toy⋅re) wa do⋅ko des ka
Please bring the bill / o⋅kan⋅jo o ku⋅da⋅sai
Please take me to (this address) / (address / location you want to go to) ma⋅de o⋅ne⋅gai shi⋅mas
Here are some of my favourite online references for Japan…
Japanese Restaurant Guide: https://savorjapan.com/
Reservation service for Japan: https://www.tableall.com/
Reservation service for Japan: https://www.omakase-japan.jp/en
Site for things to do in Japan – attractions, food, events etc: https://jw-webmagazine.com/
Great list of Tokyo restaurants: https://www.eater.com/maps/best-tokyo-restaurants
Video on eating at the counter in Japan: https://video.cntraveler.com/watch/tokyo-counter-culture
https://tinyurbankitchen.com/ - Good blog covering a lot of Asia (including Japan)
https://www.thesushigeek.com/ - Sushi only (US and Japan)