If you’re into non-touristy dining, you’re in luck. Ultra-local Akagakiya near Sanjo serves up a slice of old-school Kyoto atmosphere along with its tasty izakaya classics.
The entrance to Akagakiya. – image © Florentyna Leow
Akagakiya is not the sort of place that attempts to woo new diners. It’s an old machiya by the river with smoke-stained wooden beams and pillars, cloth-wrapped wires and tungsten lamps. There are no menus outside. You’ll find it by the lantern and a red neon sign above the door, which gives it a distinct and unintentionally seedy feel. Walking past its threshold is to step a few decades backwards. The lighting is lousy and your photos will reflect that. But man, is it ever atmospheric.
Contrary to all appearances, though, there is a surprisingly well-translated English menu. – image © Florentyna Leow
Akagakiya’s offerings cover most izakaya classics – you’ll find fried chicken, simmered dishes, cold tofu, edamame beans, and more. Most dishes range from decent to excellent. The grilled chicken skewers here are entirely serviceable. The oden is not bad but suffers a little from having sat in its broth for too long; their sashimi is far better for the same stomach quota. Sea bream is appropriately bouncy and clean-tasting. Come in autumn and you can request “half-half sanma” – a whole Pacific saury mackerel done two ways, grilled and as sashimi.
Shime saba for one. – image © Florentyna Leow
But if you have space for just one fish, make it the shime saba. You might notice other diners ordering this. One person at the counter might begin, and then once it arrives, inspire other curious regulars to look over. Four more orders go out to the chef in quick succession, including mine.
If you’ve never liked vinegared mackerel, Akagakiya may change your mind. Their version is gently tart rather than overwhelmingly sour. Unlike many places, the mackerel is fresh and not at all fishy. It’s remarkably pleasing to the eye, too: the silver blue of mackerel skin, the rose-pink and white whorls of fish flesh underneath.
Kumiage yuba for one. – image © Florentyna Leow
What else to eat here? I like the kumiage yuba, an izakaya staple best eaten in Kyoto for the sheer fact that the yuba is on average better here. It also feels appropriate to eat yuba in Kyoto; this is what the city’s famous for. Ordering this scores you a dollop of creamy soy milk skin, topped with a mixture of pickled plum and horseradish and a drizzle of soy sauce. All the major flavor profiles are covered in one dish: sweet, creamy, spicy, sour, salty.
The kamo rosu, too, is unmissable. Lean slices of duck rimmed with fat, fanned out like peacock tail in a pool of soy-spiked broth. It’s as good an accompaniment to your drink as any you’ll have tonight.
A decent skewer of grilled chicken gizzard. – image © Florentyna Leow
Incidentally, Akagakiya is not the place for hyperbolically friendly service. There is definitely an air of Kyoto reserve: the staff aren’t going to make huge efforts to dazzle you, the new diner, with smiles and banter. I like that: it feels real, in contrast to the false, tight grins you encounter at many restaurants in town. It’s the kind of restaurant you’ll have to come back to a couple of times. It is far more rewarding this way.
The view from the seat near the door. – image © Florentyna Leow
When you’re alone at an izakaya, the best seats are at the counter. Certainly, this is where the regulars sit at Akagakiya. I even like the seats near the door, which they deliberately leave open. In summer this is the coolest seat in the house; in autumn, it can feel a little chilly. Order some oden or hot sake to warm yourself. From my seat at the counter, I’m watching the chef in front of me pour pint after pint, and the oldest chef slice fillets of vinegared mackerel in short, swift strokes, drizzling on ponzu and vinegar.
You’ll begin with a drink and the house starter, whatever it may be – today a dollop of okara, soy lees. – image © Florentyna Leow
You can watch the other regulars, maybe even chat to them. Not all of them linger; some come and go quite quickly, so if you don’t snag a seat at first, come back later. There might be a short-haired lady holding a novel to her face as she picks at fried chicken. At the end of the counter may be an elderly couple in drab T-shirts, chatting occasionally to the chef in front of them. A thin, grey-whiskered man in a navy suit and pink-striped tie may slide into the seat on your right, and proceed to smoke quietly and furiously over his beer and vinegared mackerel. He’ll whip up his egg yolk and natto into a bubbly, slimy mess. The two ladies on your left will assume you’re with him and wonder why the both of you aren’t talking and worry that you’ve just had a fight. You can set the record straight. Maybe you will become friends with them. They’ll ask you to come back.
Sea bream slices, pretty in pink and white. – image © Florentyna Leow
There are no prices on the menu, so if you’re drinking alcohol, be prepared for your bill to be on the slightly higher side – anywhere from JPY5000 – JPY8000 per person. This isn’t the best izakaya food in Kyoto, and Akagiya is not for the diner who wishes to be coddled and pandered to. But it is a fantastic little slice of local Kyoto.
Kamo rosu, a classic izakaya dish. – image © Florentyna Leow
Directions: From Sanjo Keihan Station, take Exit1B. Turn right and walk northwards, with the Kamogawa River on your left. Eventually, you’ll see a very brightly-lit, large garage space. Akagakiya is just beyond.
For more Kyoto izakaya choices, see our Best Izakaya in Kyoto page.
Name in Japanese:
9 Magohashicho Kawabata Nijo-sagaru, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-shi 606-0000
5:00pm – 11:00pm
Closed Sundays and holidays following Sundays
6-minute walk from Exit 1B of Sanjo Keihan Station, or 7-minute walk from Kyoto Shiyakushomae Station
:: Read customer reviews of Akagakiya on TripAdvisor
More Restaurant Suggestions: See my list of Kyoto’s Best Restaurants for more eating inspiration. The list covers all cuisines and price ranges.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass – here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- A prepaid Icoca card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- Get travel insurance for Japan - World Nomads is well-regarded (and here's why)