Written by Super Sake Boy
As the evening fell, Nihonshu Girl (aka Blossomkitty) and I set out for a little exploration on our own. Our plan was to wander the back streets and laneways of Gion and Ponto-cho, spot some Maiko (aka Geisha), sneak in some street photography, and settle down in a small timeless sake bar until we needed a taxi to take us home. It is this sort of loose planning and exploration that often yield some of the best holiday memories. This night would be no exception.
But first, maybe a little background. Gion is an old district outside of Yasaka Shrine, and is perhaps Kyoto’s most famous. Filled with old machiya (merchant’s cottages) and tea houses, it transports you back in time to when there were no cars, and streets were little more than laneways frequented by maiko learning their trade and geiko entertaining merchants. Today, it is filled with tourists looking for that elusive photo, or businessmen spilling out of kaiseki restaurants.
A short walk away is Ponto-cho. Built on a reclaimed sandbar in the river, it is even more closed-in and intimate than Gion, and perhaps a little more seedy (though not in a bad way). Here, you will find little 6 seater izakayas and bars, aligned along narrow laneways only a couple meters wide.
Starting off in Gion, Blossomkitty quickly spotted a Geiko, which is actually reasonably hard to do as they know how to skirt the tourists. Blossomkitty is no ordinary tourist though, and has a sense for the elusive side of Japanese culture. On the edge of Gion we also stumbled upon an art installation by Yayoi Kusama. We had seen one of her installations a few months earlier at the NGV in Melbourne, so it was fun to see her work in her native land.
Gion was making for some great exploring and photography, but what we really were seeking was a small sake bar, so we headed over to Ponto-cho. Having never been down Ponto-cho’s narrow alleys before, I was immediately giddy at the prospect of finding the perfect sake bar. As we weaved down the main laneway, we poked our heads into many potential places but couldn’t find anything that fit our expectation of sake heaven. Perhaps we had an ideal in mind that no longer existed. Growing a little disillusioned, we took a chance on a little gin bar instead.
Heading up a narrow staircase at the bequest of simple sign, we found our elusive bar. Even if it was ‘just’ a gin bar, we took our seat among the 6 stools that made up the whole of the bar. Our bartender was a charming young Japanese guy, with an obvious passion for gin. Japan has a burgeoning gin industry, with some truly unique takes on gin. Blossomkitty knows a lot more about gin than I do, but as I understand things, the Japanese gin uses native botanicals that you don’t see in other gins. As always, the Japanese pursuit of craft leads to some amazing results hard to replicate elsewhere.
We took turns trying different gins so that we could sample each other’s and complete a full Japanese gin travelogue. The highlights were Kinobi, Roku Gin and Kozue….. However, the real star of the night was our bartender. His passion for gin and his engaging nature really won us over. He had learnt English mainly by interacting with customers, but he also appreciated us trying out a little of our Japanese. It made for a fun night and lots of laughter.
Lamenting having not found a good Sake bar in Ponto-cho, our bartender offered to close the bar for a moment and escort us to a nearby Sake bar he recommended. Talk about service!
The Sake bar was just like we pictured it. Very traditional almost like a narrow tea room. Simple and minimalist, this was not your typical tourist bar. There were 3 other customers in the bar, so the addition of the two of us made the bar comfortably full. There was no English menu and the bartender didn’t speak English. We tried to read the menu, and while we could read some of it, we decided to put our faith in the bartender.
Naively perhaps, we asked for a good Junmai Daiginjo, which happens to be the best Sake you can get. Since it was getting late and this would be our last stop, why not! I’m sure the bartender rubbed his hands together as he selected his most expensive sake. He served up a Sawaya-Matsumoto Ultra Sake in a small flask. It was divine, as was the price. Oh well!
Headed back to our guesthouse, we were still captivated by the history and charm of Gion and Ponto-cho. We discussed the amazing gin and sake. But the highlight of the night was the bartender at the gin bar. It’s often the people you meet along the way that surpass the experience you are seeking. That was the case for us, as we reflected on our search for the ideal Sake bar.