Pontocho: Kyoto’s Ancient Food Alley

Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Pontocho has been a nightlife district of Kyoto for the past five hundred years.
Pontocho has been a nightlife district of Kyoto for the past five hundred years.
Among the dozens of small alleys that cover central Kyoto, one stands out as being especially legendary. Pontocho, an alley less than two metres wide, has been a nightlife district of Kyoto for at least 500 years.

Today, it stretches the length of six city blocks (about a kilometre) along the Kamo River, encompassing a wide variety of dining establishments, bars, and teahouses. Being one of the most popular night-out destinations among tourists and locals alike, Pontocho only comes to life after the sky grows dark.

At night, this cobblestone lane is flushed with foot traffic. Unlike Tokyo’s Golden Gai, Pontocho is more traditional and polished. Machiyas stand orderly against one another. They are well-maintained and veiled with shōji, a Japanese wooden window with translucent paper over the bamboo frame.

In front are wooden signs illuminated by red and yellow paper lanterns. Some of these signs showcase daily features, while others go a step further and incorporate transparent casings to showcase plastic models of their specialities.

Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Pontocho is situated alongside the Kamo River. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Narrow alley of Pontocho at night. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. A grill shop in the Pontocho food alley at night. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. A typical restaurant in the Pontocho food alley. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Narrow alley of Pontocho at night.

At night, the cobblestone pathway of Pontocho is flushed with foot traffic. Unlike Tokyo’s Golden Gai, Pontocho is more traditional and polished. Machiyas stand orderly against one another illuminated by paper lanterns.

Although Pontocho is a popular tourist destination, not every establishment caters to them. A few of the teahouses – easily identified by the absence of signs except for a wooden block of owner’s name hanging at the entrance – follow a long established tradition of accepting only established customers.

They are highly selective in who they serve and relationships sometimes extend several generations. To gain entry into one of those requires the referral of an existing customer or the invitation of owner.

Not knowing this beforehand, my companion and I walk into nearly every one of them empty-handed, wondering why the response is always a polite variation of, “we are fully reserved.” Of course, to secure a table in Pontocho at dinner time is always challenging, especially ones with English menus on display.

We start going door-to-door until we arrive at a kushiyaki restaurant. The wait list currently runs for 90 minutes. That is not a problem, given the amount of things to do around here – like a Japanese arcade.

Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Lineups in front of a ramen shop in Pontocho. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Pontocho's Manten Izakaya. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Bar table inside Pontocho's Manten Izakaya. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Open kitchen of Pontocho's Manten Izakaya. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. The interior of Pontocho's Manten Izakaya.

Some shops in Pontocho are highly selective in who they serve and relationships sometimes extend several generations. To gain entry requires the referral of an existing customer or by invitation.

Several rounds of pachin slots later, we arrive at Manten, the kushiyaki bar we have been wait-listed for the past 90 minutes. The interior is vibrant, although it takes on a polished facade unlike the raucousness commonly expected.

Looking at the long drink lists, we start off with Sapporo Classic, a light-bodied pilsner with subdued hops and malt. It is crisp with a slightly sweet aftertaste and bland finish – a good companion for the savory skewers to come.

Our meal begins with otōshi, a bowl of slightly cooked cabbage and thinly-sliced marbled pork. They are adorned with shichimi, a gloss of sesame oil, and chopped green onion.

It is important for kushiyaki bars to make a good first impression with their otōshi, as it signals the overall quality of things to come. Manten nails its introduction with this well-balanced first dish, which uses the fresh vegetables peculiar to Kyoto’s terroir, the Kyoyasai (京野菜).

Along with the otōshi comes our second round of drinks, the shōchū cocktails. Shōchū is a Japanese distilled spirit made from rice, sweet potatoes, and barley or sugar cane.

Not to be confused with the Korean soju, shōchū typically contain 25% alcohol by volume, stronger than sake and soju. They are sometimes spiked with juice or Calpico. Our orders are infused with ume and oolong tea. They are both smooth, with the oolong mix taking on a slight astringent note.

This initial round is followed by some clichéd indulgences, namely, the standard skewers that are difficult to fumble. First comes the chicken gizzard, beef tongue, shrimp, and shiitake mushroom, all salted, with the beef tongue accompanied by lemon wedge and green onions.

They are crunchy and succulent, imparting a hint of charcoal. Because they are prepared with beer in mind, their more aggressive flavorings are well balanced by those beverages.

Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Manten Izakaya's otōshi. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Manten Izakaya's beer and plum sour. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Manten Izakaya's basic skewers. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Manten Izakaya's shiitake mushroom, a type of Kyoyasa. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Manten Izakaya's chicken gizzard.

It is important for kushiyaki bars to make a good first impression with their otōshi, as it signals the overall quality of things to come. Manten nails its introduction with this well-balanced first dish, which uses the fresh vegetables peculiar to Kyoto’s terroir, the Kyoyasai (京野菜).

Next comes seafood. Because Kyoto is far from the sea, seafood in Manten are shipped from the San’in region of southern Japan. The octopus comes in two kinds, one topped with vegetables, another covered with basil sauce.

The squid is brushed with soy sauce and radish garnish. Unfortunately, both sea creatures are a disappointment. The initial burst of flavour is only skin deep, swiftly overwhelmed by excessive water and a floppy texture – signs of insufficient heat.

Undeterred, we continue our exploration. First, the beef tendon skewer, which is covered in stew reduction and sprinkled with shichimi and shaved green onion. The texture is wonderfully soft; the flavour is rich yet unobtrusive.

Then comes roasted tomato skewer, which is wrapped in browned parmesan cheese with a sparkle of dried basil. The cheese has a detached texture. It combines with the excessive juice of the tomato into a lukewarm, lopsided disarray.

The most unforgettable dish appears at the last round of our orderings. It is the grilled Japanese conger eels prepared in two different ways – one grilled straight-up with Kyoto green pepper, another dipped and grilled in soy-based sauce.

Both are voluptuous and impossibly tender. They are grilled just right, with the crunchier surface imparting charcoal aroma, adding depth and a pleasant bitterness. They are skewered eels deified – an excellent finale to our night in this traditional alley.

Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Manten Izakaya's seafood skewers. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Manten Izakaya's squid skewer. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Manten Izakaya's basil squid skewer. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Manten Izakaya's stewed beef tendon skewers. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Manten Izakaya's roasted tomato. Pontocho: Kyoto's Food Alley. Manten Izakaya's scallop skewer.

 

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