Kyoto Restaurants After Dark: The Magical Trip Kyoto Food Tour

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Like many aspects of Japanese culinary culture, Kyoto food traditions (and even some Kyoto restaurants) can be traced back hundreds of years. Local tour operator, Magical Trip, connects you with local Kyoto food guides for a tantalizing walk through one of Japan’s most famous dining districts. In this Kyoto Night Foodie Tour review, we’ll cover what it’s like to eat, drink, and be merry in Kyoto after dark.

The Magical Trip Kyoto Food Tour COVER

The Magical Trip Kyoto Food Tour

Magical Trip is a young and local Japanese company running small-group tours across the archipelago. Many of their tours revolve around food and drink, but as their business expands they now offer options for  those who enjoy hiking, riding bicycles or walking through castles. One look at Magical Trip’s TripAdvisor reviews will tell you they have a pretty good reputation. Their guides are usually from the same city or town where they’re showing you around. Most guides are university students or recent graduates, and everyone speaks English and has been trained by Magical Trip. 

Now that I live in Osaka, the restaurants in Kyoto are just an hour away from my front door. With this in mind, I chose this particular tour because I want to discover more Kyoto restaurants in Gion and elsewhere around the city. I was not disappointed. In fact, I plan to return to some of these places later when some friends come to Japan for a visit. Thank you Magical Trip!

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TL;DR: The Short Version of the Kyoto Food Tour

There are plenty of details and pics to peruse below, but for those of you who want to cut to the chase, then here’s the quick summary. Is the tour fun? Yes. How’s the food and drink? Pretty good! And with enough variety so that everyone can find something they’ll love. Is the price worth it? I certainly think so, especially when you consider that you have a local, English-speaking guide with you for the entire time.

Your Own Personal Translator

As you may know, English is not as widely spoken in Japan as in many parts of the world. People are helpful, but the language barrier can be frustrating at times. Many wait staff speak only Japanese and menus are not always translated. Fortunately, Magical Tour’s Japanese guides all speak English, which makes exploring Kyoto restaurants so much easier. They also bring special menus that explain what’s on offer. And if you  have extra questions about Japanese food or Japan in general, you have 

Logistics Covered

Book a Kyoto Foodie Tour with Magical Trip and your evening plans are sorted. They reserve the tables. They walk you from place to place. At each restaurant, they will place the orders and they take care of the tab at the end. Sometimes it’s nice to let someone else handle all the little details so you can enjoy the meal even more. 

Local Insight

Taking food tours in Japan with a local makes for a more authentic experience. You get to hear about Japanese food from their perspective. Most guide live in or near the area where they’re showing you around, as well, so they can be a great resource for additional information. 

Great Food & Drink!

We visited three places: a Gion Restaurant a Kyoto Izakaya and a bar on Pontocho Alley. At each place there was a good selection of food and drink and I enjoyed every bite and sip. Below are some pics and report on my experience on this Japanese food tour in Kyoto by night. But if you want to go ahead and book or see what other options they offer, then follow the link below. 

Book Now: Authentic Kyoto Night Food Tour in Gion

Our Kyoto Food Guide

sake tasting with Magical Trip Kyoto food tours

Gion restaurant and Kyoto izakaya food

My guide for the night was Shota, a 20-something raised in Kyoto. When I arrived, he was waiting with two other participants: an American project manager on a business trip and a young British teacher living in Korea. We met in front of a statue next to the Kamo River in front of the Gion-Shijo Station. Our Kyoto food tour was about to begin, but first Shota took a moment to explain the statue in front of us. It was a monument to Izumo-no-Okuni, Shota explained, who is commonly believed to be the originator of kabuki dance. Then we were off to have some of the excellent food in Kyoto restaurants and izakayas, which are the Japanese version of a tavern or bar & grill.

Stop #1: The Gion Restaurant

Kyoto cuisine and Japaonese food tour to Gion restaurant

Known for its geisha and maiko (geisha apprentices), Gion has been a dining and entertainment district for hundreds of years. We walked down its stone streets as Shota explained a little of the history of the area. Once we arrived at the Gion restaurant, Shota showed everyone how to leave our shoes at the door. Then we followed him to a reserved table in the back of a tatami-mat room. Once everyone was comfortably seated, Shota pulled out a bilingual menu.

Reservations and Translated Menus

One of the challenges of taking a food tour in Japan or any foreign land is the language barrier. Menus are confusing, and it’s hard to communicate with the server to even place an order. Similarly, there are the logistics of it all, as well. For example, there are hundreds of Kyoto restaurants, but which ones are good? Which ones have a table open? And what should we order? Magical Trip’s Japanese food tours simplify this process. At each of the three Kyoto restaurants we visited on this tour, the table was always reserved and the menu simplified and translated.

Gion Restaurant Items

oden and sushi in Japanese restaurants tour

At this particular Gion restaurant, we could choose two items to eat and one drink. There were eight dishes on offer, including yuba (tofu skin), grilled pork, karage (Japanese-style fried chicken) and seasonal fish (grilled or a sashimi selection). I chose the sashimi and oden, a Japanese-style winter food which includes stewed fish cakes and egg, eaten with spicy mustard.

Other people ordered the pork and nama-fu no dengaku, which is supple blocks of wheat gluten grilled and topped with miso and sesame. Someone else ordered the Obanzai set, a style of Kyoto cooking usually served in medley of small ornate dishes. This particular Obanzai set included small portions of octopus and seasonal vegetables like spinach and burdock root. You can find items like this throughout Japan. Yet items like nama-fu and Obanzai sets are considered Kyoto cuisine. Many a restaurant in Kyoto serve dishes like these but keep in mind that Japanese food is often seasonal, so the menu may change with the time of year.

To wash it all down, we could choose six alcohol-based drinks on offer. We chose beer to start, but other options included sake, plum wine, and shochu, a clear distilled spirit (non-alcoholic drinks available as well). My sashimi was fresh, while the oden was just the kind of warming comfort food I needed on a cold January night in Japan. Shota told us more about the area as we tucked into each dish, and then it was time to move on.

Stop #2: The Sake Specialist

kushiage - some of the best food in Kyoto

As we walked past dozens of Kyoto restaurants to our next destination, Shota explained that the next stop was an Izakaya run by Kizakura, a well-known sake brewery in Japan. At this stop, we were given a different selection of dishes as well as a new twist on the drink choices. Yes, there were the usual selections of beer, shochu, and others, but there was also a sake taster set of three glasses.

The Sake Flight

Japanese sake in a restaurant in Kyoto

The sake flight came with three types of sake: a daiginjyou, a junmai and a nigori, the last being the unfiltered, “cloudy” style. Choosing this drink option changed your menu options slightly (two smaller dishes instead of two main dishes) but it was worth it. The sake came with a selection of tsumami, small, drinking snacks such as raw octopus and wasabi. Someone ordered the set of kushiage: deep-fried skewers made of pork, okra and quail’s eggs. We also sampled fried rice with pickled cucumber and ramen made from the lees of sake rice.

Stop #3: Potoncho Alley

Kyoto sake tasting in Kyoto restaurants

For the last stop of our Kyoto food tour, we headed to Potoncho Alley, one of the most atmospheric places in Kyoto at night. This narrow stone-paved strip has been home to dining and entertainment establishments since the 16th century. We followed Shota past lanterns and narrow wooden doors to a nondescript side alley, where we stepped into a brightly lit tachinomi, or “standing bar.” This last stop was for drinking, so I ordered another sake sample. One of my dining companions did the same, while another tried a Japanese-style whiskey highball.

The Tachinomi

Shota explained the types of sake the staff was pouring as we all snapped our pictures. And just like that, three hours had passed. Jet lag hit the project manager (she had just arrived in Japan that afternoon) so Shota said farewell and walked her back to the train. The English teacher and I weren’t ready to leave yet as we had just met a local and a fellow traveler so I had another round before I said farewell.

Why This Kyoto Foodie Tour?

Kyoto izakaya and gio restaurant on Magical Trip Japan food tour

Kyoto tours like this are my favorite kind. I have an experienced local showing me around while introducing me to some of the best food in Kyoto. There are loads of restaurants in Kyoto, so it’s not hard to find something to eat. But having a Kyoto food guide like Magical Trip gives you an inside track. For example, places like the Gion restaurant would be difficult to find on my own, so it was nice to have a local to show me where to go.

Our Kyoto Food Guide

Shota was a patient and gracious host. He patiently answered my questions about the food and history of Kyoto restaurants. I had loads of questions about the food in Kyoto, and whenever he didn’t know the answer, he asked the staff to find out. On the street, he made sure we were together and knew where to go. For example, when we left the Gion restaurant, he told us how long it would take to get to the next place. Then he stuck with us before making any turns where we might get lost.

Booking a Magical Trip Food Tour

Signing up for the Kyoto tours through Magical Trip was easy. I simply went to the Kyoto page of their site and clicked the link to the Kyoto Night Foodie Tour. From there I filled out my info and chose a date and time then proceeded to pay (credit cards, Paypal and Stripe accepted). Then I received an email confirming all the details. This included a Google map link to the place where I’d meet our guide. If that wasn’t enough, there were also four images attached showing the way from inside the station to standing at the statue.

Book Now: Authentic Kyoto Night Food Tour in Gion

Tips for Taking the Magical Trip Kyoto Food Tour

Magical Trip Kyoto food guide

Considering the Kyoto Night Foodie Tour? It’s great. Here are a few suggestions to make it even better.

Go Early

Staying in town for several days? Then do your Kyoto food tour as soon as you can. That way you have the option to return to a place you like. You may want to try a new spot, or maybe you just want to try something else on the menu of a place you’ve already been to. There are hundreds of Kyoto restaurants to choose from, but with Magical Trip, you have your own personal Kyoto food guide showing you around. By the end of the night, you know three places to eat, or perhaps you ask the guide for more.

This doesn’t just apply to Japanese food tours. We suggest the same for anywhere. Whether it’s in Spain, Mexico or Malaysia, take the food tour early. That way you get some inside knowledge that you can use dung the rest of your trip.

Wear Slip-on Shoes

This is good advice for Japan in general but can be particularly useful when eating out. You take your shoes on and off a lot in Japan — even when eating out. For example, at our first stop — the Gion restaurant — the floors are tatami so we took our shoes off at the door. It’s so much easier coming and going when you don’t have to lace up. That goes double after a few drinks and a full belly.

Eat With an Open Mind

As with any Japanese food tour, there may be things on the menu that you’ve never tried before. Try them anyway. Magical Trip has made sure that there are a few familiar items on the menu. For instance, you’ll find fried chicken and sausages available. But go for the unfamiliar. After all, when will you get the chance to try them again?

Any Allergies or Dietary Restrictions

If there are certain things that you can’t eat because of health or religious reasons, let Magical Trip know. Chances are they can accommodate you. For example, there are vegetarian options available. 

Book Now: Authentic Kyoto Night Food Tour in Gion

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Disclosure: My Kyoto Night Foodie Tour was sponsored by Magical Trip, but my opinions are my own and I loved it. This post has affiliate links, but they cost you nothing. If you’ve taken a food your in Kyoto or have other insight into Japanese food tours, then please get in touch.

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