A trip to Kyoto would not be complete without a night out in Pontocho alley, a long and narrow stretch lined with numerous restaurants and bars.
You know that you’ve reached the entrance to Pontocho when you see the faded, and broken, wooden signboard outlining its long history.
When night falls and you walk in, you understand why it’s commonly referred to as an alley. The path is long and narrow, with visitors having to squeeze past each other when it gets crowded.
We didn’t have any specific restaurants in mind when we wandered in, but given the many many choices, we knew that we would come across something local and interesting.
There was a pleasantly dark atmosphere as we slowly strolled and browsed, but the numerous lanterns and lights shining down on restaurant signboards and menus provided a warm and inviting glow.
We walked past many foreign and local restaurants, including some that specialised in tofu cuisine, but the decision was already made once we saw a brightly lit signboard accompanied by a noren sporting two yellow yuzus.
Despite the obvious choice, we continued onward, just in case something more interesting appeared. Nothing else caught our eye, so we u-turned and walked back.
Yuzugen specialises in yuzu nabe, and is technically a Chinese restaurant. But when we were seated and started speaking to the chef in Mandarin, it didn’t work. English and Chinese menus were available though, so nothing got lost in translation.
A visual comparison of the number of items in the menus of all three languages indicated that everything was listed.
In Japan, you shouldn’t take this for granted.
I’ve been to several restaurants and izakayas in Tokyo where the English menu is obviously shorter than the Japanese one, and you end up losing the chance of trying out many interesting dishes and sakes.
So, travel tip, make sure you compare the length of both the original Japanese menu against the translated English/Chinese version. If the original is clearly longer, you’ll probably be better off using the real-time camera translation function in your mobile Google Translate app.
The minimum order for the yuzu nabe was for two pax, and we were deciding between the snapper or pork. The chef kindly offered to do a half-and-half and we managed to try both. We also ordered additional dumplings and chicken karaage.
Our waitress set up the portable gas stove and hotpot filled with the secret yuzu broth. She also laid down a plate of yuzu kosho which served as a dipping sauce, because nothing goes better with yuzu hotpot than a side of yuzu pepper.
In no time, the soup was bubbling and we started cooking and eating. The pork was good and rendered flavourful fat into the broth, but the star was definitely the snapper. It was fresh and firm and went very well with the yuzu stock.
The chef keeps a huge stockpot boiling in the back, and throughout the night, he continuously feeds it cut halves of yuzu limes, large jugs of what must be fresh yuzu juice and also mysterious liquid from another smaller bottle. We think that it must have been some sort of fermented yuzu vinegar. But regardless of what it was, the combination was magical.
And please don’t be put off by the chef’s resting grumpy face. He doesn’t look or sound terribly friendly, but once he sees you enjoying his food, you can feel his warmth. He won’t look or sound any different though, but you can tell that deep down inside, he’s smiling.
To end your meal, make sure you add an order of their ramen noodles and dump it into the remaining broth. If you’re familiar with Afuri, the famous ramen chain, this makeshift bowl of yuzu ramen is so much better.
We had a very good dinner, and if we were living in Kyoto, we know that we’d quickly become regulars.
It was getting quite cold that night, and even though the hotpot kept us warm and toasty, we continued down Pontocho alley to find a bar to hang out for a while. I can’t remember the name of place we ended up in, but it was helmed by a friendly and knowledgeable bartender who spoke English.
We had a discussion about the various brands and vintages of Japanese whiskey and he enthusiastically showed us the many bottles that were available, including the ever popular Hibiki and Nikka 21 years, both of which I’d tried before.
Then he asked: “Have you ever tried extinct whiskey?”, and proceeded to bring out bottles from Karuizawa, a brand that has closed down and no longer produces any bottles. It seems that the distillery itself was scrapped and then burnt to the ground. Yikes! Extinct indeed.
Who can resist extinct whiskey? So we had a flight of two Karuizawas — the 25 malt blend and the 12 year 100% malt. The malt blend went down very smoothly but the 12 year had a much more smoky and deep taste. It was obvious which one was more expensive.
How expensive, you ask?
Well, we found a bottle sold in a retail shop in Tenjimbashisuji shopping street in Osaka in few days later. Take away two zeros at the end, and you’ll roughly get the price in US dollars. Double yikes!
The other drink we had that night was a locally-produced Ki No Bi gin. I had read about it some time back, and wanted to try it out. Our bartender suggested tasting it neat first, and then having it in a gin and tonic. Both ways were fantastic. It was lighter than most gins that I’ve had in the past, and somehow more flavourful.
Naturally, we bought a bottle home from the Osaka airport duty-free shop and we’ve since finished more than half of it. The packaging highlighted the key botanicals used, which were all regional ingredients including yuzu (yay!) and gyokuro tea (what?! double yay!). No wonder we liked it so much.
It was quite late when we got back to our hotel, but we slept well that night, after a thoroughly satisfying night out with dinner and drinks in Pontocho alley.
Eleven days in Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto
The world has changed forever due to that-which-must-not-be-named and international travel is on an indefinite pause. There are many countries we want to visit again and Japan is definitely among the top choices.
In the meantime, as we remain grounded in Singapore, we can look back and remember the wonderful time we had in our eleven days in Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto during the autumn of 2018, two years and a lifetime ago.