From May to September, restaurants along Kyoto’s Kamo River build temporary balconies on stilts over the banks to make outdoor tatami rooms. Kawadoko, or riverside dining, is said to have a history dating back to the 1600s, when merchants brought benches to the riverbed to take a break from the heat. While there are more tourists than merchants these days, the view looks like it hasn’t changed a great deal. From my al fresco tatami, I see white herons take flight from a river that reflects the lights of the historic kabuki theatre across the bridge. It’s easy to see how this tradition has been upheld for so long.

I’ve been exploring Kyoto’s cultural scene – from the venerable entertainment district of Gion to the small bars and diners of Pontocho Alley – as part of Intrepid’s Japan Highlights tour. Along with 12 others, it takes me from Tokyo across the countryside to Kyoto and Osaka. The group includes solo travellers from England and the Philippines; a pair of cousins from Australia; two sisters from Switzerland; couples from the US and Ireland; Broadsheet photographer Yusuke; and Yuki, our bubbly Intrepid local leader.

We have the freedom to make our own way through the city, whether alone or with like-minded buddies. But, for many, sticking with the supportive Intrepid cohort encourages them to come out of their shells and dabble in new experiences – from singing karaoke with a group of local octogenarians to sampling jiggly tofu in brown sugar at Nishiki Market.

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This is what I learn about the best things to eat, drink and see in Kyoto.

Do

The reason most people visit Kyoto is to see the historic Gion district, hoping to catch a glimpse of a geisha. But my Intrepid local leader Yuki points out that most of the “geisha” that tourists photograph are just other tourists in rented kimonos. Yuki pulls our small group off the main street to an engraved wooden board on the front of a traditional timber building that looks just like its neighbour. “You call them ‘geisha’, but here they’re called ‘geiko’,” she says, pointing to a sign by the nondescript door with the Kyoto dialect. “Yes, maiko is like the geiko’s trainee,” she responds to a clued-in group member. Yuki tells us that we’d be lucky to see real geiko or maiko (we do), and explains how to spot the differences in their make-up. Most importantly, she advises us not disturb geiko or maiko for photos, and to respect the private laneway rules.

Shop

When our small group first arrives in Kyoto, Yuki guides us straight to Nishiki Market to find some lunch. Nishiki Market is known to some as Kyoto’s pantry, with its many shops selling all sorts of fried, fresh and frozen bites, chic chopsticks (which you can have engraved), and ceramic wares. It’s a perfect place to stop procrastinating and do your gift-shopping (learn from this writer’s regret). Local leader Yuki has learned of my love for taiyaki (fish-shaped pancakes) and points me towards the famous Kyoto variant, which adds butter to the red-bean filling. It tastes so decadent I’m barely distracted as the filling drips down my fingers and onto the floor.

Lunch

While there’s no struggle to find good noodles anywhere in Japan, Kyoto’s famously soft water (more on this later) means the city is home to a couple of special bowls worth a detour. One morning, as our Intrepid group explores the torii gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, I lag behind, distracted by the food stalls at the base of the hill. Having skipped breakfast, I insist the group go ahead without me while I veer towards the nearest noodles.

Matsuba Honten, a centuries-old restaurant that still stands on the Shijo-Kawabata intersection, is said to be the place where nishin (herring) soba – another Kyoto specialty – was invented. Here I get a simmered fillet of dried herring on a bed of soba noodles, steeped in a clear, delicate broth. It’s a masterclass in lightness. The herring is the only topping, lending its sweet and salty flavour to the balanced broth.

Kyoto is also the home of chain restaurant Tenkaippin, famous for its ultra-thick tonkotsu broth. When Yusuke and I try it, I’m blown away by its richness and its pumpkin-soup consistency. The chain’s first-ever outlet is still in its original location in Sakyo-ku, a short walk from “ramen street” – a one-kilometre stretch near Kyoto Station that’s dotted with ramen shops.

Drink

In the afternoon, when the grey clouds opened to a clear evening, Yuki thought of the perfect spot for a drink and a debrief. In the Moon is on the 13th floor overlooking the river, Minamiza kabuki theatre and the Gion district. “You see why it’s really popular in summer,” Yuki laughs. A few tour-mates-turned-pals peel off on their own excursion to Macho Bar to be carried to their seats by muscular men (they generously share the footage in our group chat).

Those sticking around get a chance to ask Yuki all their burning questions after a day in a new country, and get to know her better. She shares that she’s an onsen sommelier. I thought she was exaggerating, but Yuki assures me it was easy to get a certificate – it only takes a day. “You mostly need to know the difference between the waters,” she says – whether they contain salt ions, sulphates, iron or other elements, each with their own purported benefits.

Dinner

After a couple of highballs, Yuki suggests we check out the famous Pontocho Alley, where we’re in luck and find a free table at our first choice of restaurant, Daitoryo. (It’s a heaving area so we prepared a shortlist.) We ordered kaiseki (a sequence of light plates) including sashimi, silky yuba (tofu skin) with roe, and artfully presented broths. A few plates into our kaiseki, owner Tetsuya Uemura greets us with a lesson in Kyoto’s cultural history and praises the region’s soft water, sourced from the rivers that begin in the nearby mountains, and from underground. “Soft water takes on flavour better because it has less minerals,” Uemura says. “It’s better in Japan’s west and we’re in the west in Kyoto, so we are proud of it.” This lesson goes some way towards explaining the city’s abundance of broths and soups.

Kick ons

Bars in Japan are everywhere. They’re mostly tiny, and everyone will tell you the one they went to last night is the best of them all. Many have the same layout – one long bar where all the patrons perch and, with a bit of charm, become friends over the course of a night. But that means the seats are limited and stay occupied for much of the night. (Judging by our Whatsapp group chat, I’d had more luck finding a seat than many of my tour mates.)

Pontocho Alley and its surrounds have many spots like this, including Feel “Kyo” Good; music bar Beatle Momo; and Bee’s Knees (ranked 44 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023). So stray further until you find somewhere you can fit, and call it yours for a while.

But don’t spend your entire night in the bar. Kyoto is arguably its most magical at night, when its dark timber facades are warmed by soft lantern lights. Revisit the Gion district by moonlight and wander by the hundred lanterns of Yasaka Shrine or picturesque Shirakawa lane.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Intrepid Travel. Intrepid’s Japan Highlights tour is a fully guided eight-day trip that includes all transport and accommodation. Starting in Tokyo and finishing in Osaka, it takes in city and country – including a farmstay and some gentle hikes. Find out more here.