Pontocho-dori is a street in the historic Gion district of Kyoto that looks like it’s been there since the city was founded. It probably has, in all honesty, but the fact that it still looks that way is an sign of how expensive it can be.
The street is narrow and windy, and while it gives off an old-world Japan feel, the restaurants are surprisingly modern and often international. Mrs. Selfish and I ended up eating one meal here just for atmosphere, but after getting hit with an unexpected sitting fee (and really, where else are you eating?), we decided to save it as more of a late night destination.
Good thing, too, since it Pontocho-dori is gorgeous at night.
Hello Dolly Jazz Bar
For our first weekend in Kyoto, Mrs. Selfish and I visited the jazz bar, Hello Dolly, which plays live music most weekends. Their specialty is whiskey-based drinks, with most drinks clocking in around $10. Once the music starts there’s an additional fee of $10 per person, so if you just came for the whiskey, you should probably leave before 8pm.
While Mrs. Selfish and I aren’t very big whiskey drinkers, their cocktails were pretty tasty. The atmosphere was excellent as well, especially when the band showed up.
The Japanese are really into jazz music, for whatever reason. You’ll hear it in pretty much any restaurant, and in many department stores. The music at Hello Dolly is no exception – they play good ol’ American classic jazz music: Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Sinatra – you get the picture.
Best of all, however, is actually hearing the band perform it live. While the music and lyrics sound like something Frank would sing, the pronunciation is entirely Japanese!
Singing at the Samurai Café & Bar
Mrs. Selfish and I had the pleasure of stumbling upon the Samurai Café & Bar in Pontocho-dori, while looking for a karaoke room. My cousins, sister, and their friends visited us while we were in Kyoto and wanted to have a quintessential Japanese karaoke experience.
Unfortunately, the “Karaoke Room,” was not only the biggest game in town, but the most expensive – charging upwards of $15 per hour per person!
Feeling slightly dejected, we eventually wandered over to Pontocho-dori where Mrs. Selfish’s quick eye spotted free karaoke at the Samurai Café & Bar!
Foreigner Nocharge? I’m there!
The bar is close to the southern side of Pontocho-dori, on the left side of the street, on the 3rd floor of a building stocked with bars. The Samurai Café & Bar is tiny and quite cute, with room for only about 6 guests.
Mrs. Selfish bartered with the owner, and we were allowed to stand in the back for the drink charge of $5.50 a person. Less than a drink later, we had scared away all the other customers and had the bar completely to ourselves!
The bartenders knew a surprising number of English songs, and even requested a few themselves. Somehow, despite our horrible singing the owner managed to fall asleep.
Fortunately, he was a good sport about all the photographs we took at his expense.
We ended up getting two rounds of drinks and staying for a whopping 3 hours. Had we opted for the karaoke room we would have ended up paying twice as much, without the drinks. We also had a great time chatting up the bartenders and the owner who probably don’t get too many foreign customers. We liked it so much, we ended up going back a second night!
If you’re ever in the Pontocho-dori part of the neighborhood I highly recommend the Samurai Café & Bar. The price is right, the people are great, and you’ll come away with an authentic Japanese experience.
And if you’re trying to get the host to sing, I’d suggest playing some Oasis. He loves that stuff.