For a taste of a local’s night out, venture into Yasukawa – an izakaya in Gion serving well-executed classic Kyoto-style dishes. Go with an open mind and a reasonably generous budget.
Kamo rosu, a classic izakaya staple. – image © Florentyna Leow
Yasukawa is a local’s izakaya. You’ll know this by its very inconspicuousness. It is the kind of restaurant hidden behind a door marked by a lantern, virtually indistinguishable from most restaurants in Kyoto and indeed all over Japan. There will not be a queue here because the regulars will have known to make a reservation for the evening. It is the kind of place where there is little to be gained from entering with a precise and tight-fisted budget in mind, for there are no prices to guide you and your budget will inevitably be blown. You are here to trust your senses and enjoy, for an hour or so, a local’s night out in Gion.
A handwritten English menu. – image © Florentyna Leow
It’s not that they don’t cater to tourists. The English menu, handwritten in a notebook from the dollar store, is a clear concession to visitors. But they won’t go out of their way to announce this. Nevertheless, you are welcome here. If you do not make a reservation, your best bet is to turn up at 6pm sharp. This is when they hang up the paper lantern outside their door and switch on the lights. They’re now in business. It might look empty inside, but most of the tables will be reserved, so you’ll may well have a table to yourself at the back of the restaurant.
A trio of obanzai. – image © Florentyna Leow
You might begin with a trio of obanzai, the home-style vegetable-based dishes Kyoto prides itself on. These are the otoshi, dishes served as cover charges, and all drawn from the classic repertoire of Kyoto obanzai. There may be okara, soybean lees sautéed with vegetables, to be eaten in moist, savoury clumps. A kinpira of burdock root and carrot, sautéed in just enough soy sauce and sweet rice wine to have you reaching for another sip of beer. Chunks of simmered pumpkin to drive home the autumn breeze outside. Everything is a promise of good things to come.
Maguro tataki, or smacked tuna. – image © Florentyna Leow
If you are anything like us, you are here to snack and talk, rather than have a full meal. A plate of maguro tataki in a puddle of ponzu sauce arrived relatively quickly – seared cubes of tuna, fiercely smoky on the outside and sweetly raw within. Almost immediately after, a plate of cured, smoked duck slices appeared, the kind you want stuffed into a liberally-buttered baguette for a picnic lunch.
Dashimaki; the remnants of daikon radish oden; butter-shoyu scallops. – image © Florentyna Leow
Other dishes worth ordering include dashimaki – a Japanese-style omelette, the loosely folded egg here savoury and comforting in the best way possible. Butter-shoyu grilled scallops are exactly as billed – tender, moreish, salty snacks that help the sake go down. No one is aiming to reinvent the wheel at Yasukawa.
Yuba ankake. – image © Florentyna Leow
Note that the cooking at Yasukawa has a distinctly light, Kyoto-esque touch when it comes to seasonings. There will be no heavy sauces or gravies. Some of the dishes will border on flavourless if you’re accustomed to punchy flavors. An example: the yuba (soy milk skin) in a starchy ankake sauce recalls a lighter version of Chinese sharks fin soup. It’s the kind of dish you should be prepared to appreciate on the basis of texture and purity of flavour. Expecting something else will inevitably lead to disappointment at its ‘tastelessness.’
The oden menu in English. – image © Florentyna Leow
Another example here is the selection of oden, or ‘things stewed in dashi stock.’ A tender hunk of daikon will arrive bathed in a light broth, the kind you might like to drink when you’re feeling under the weather – it is that gently-flavored. Karashi mustard enlivens the whole affair. It’s not for everyone; nor is it necessary to eat oden at Yasukawa – not in my book, anyway.
Inside Yasukawa. – image © Florentyna Leow
As a tourist, it helps to tailor one’s expectations accordingly when deciding to eat somewhere like Yasukawa. It is a traditional izakaya in the sense that the food, as good as it may be, is mostly there to help your drinks go down. It will probably be more expensive than you think it will be. A round of dishes such as the above, supplemented by a modest drink per person, came to around JPY8000. Finish up with a bowl of ramen somewhere else in the vicinity – perhaps No Name Ramen across the river – and you will have had an evening out in Kyoto to remember.
Outside Yasukawa – image © Florentyna Leow
Directions: Take Exit 7 of Gion-Shijo Station on the Keihan Line. Above ground, turn left, and walk down the road leading towards Yasaka Shrine. At the first traffic light, turn left. Walk straight and you’ll pass the Gion post office on your left. Take the second turning to the right. Keep walking until you see Yasukawa on your right.
Name in Japanese:
93 Suekichicho, Yasaka Shinchi, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto
6:00pm – 1:00am
Closed Sundays and public holidays
6-minute walk from Gion-Shijo Station on the Keihan Line
:: Read customer reviews of Yasukawa 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 Suica card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world