Al fresco dining is one of Japan's great foodie pleasures, whether it is at a summer rooftop beer-garden, a cosmopolitan city cafe-garden, or beside the ocean. In Kyoto, the art reaches its peak in the form of the kawadoko.
Kawadoko or yuka as they are commonly referred to here in Kyoto are decks set up along the Kamogawa and other rivers in Kyoto. The 'official' name is noryoyuka and they extend from the Nijo Bridge to the Gojo Bridge. They are open from May to the end of September.
The opening ceremony on May 25th is an event that is always covered in the news with the maiko & geiko out to help celebrate. The tradition is said to date back to the Momoyama Period (1583-1600) with the kawadoko in Kibune starting up in the Taisho Period (1912-1926). In 1942 during the Pacific War the custom was stopped due to wartime blackout!
There is a strict code involved in getting permission for and with the building of the decks. In spite of that, this year over 90 establishments have applied to set up yuka from the association that controls them. Recently there are more non-Japanese restaurants (Chinese, Korean, Brazilian) opening yuka so along with the traditional Japanese fare it is getting easier to enjoy international cuisine as well.
Even the Starbucks at the Sanjo Bridge has one set up every year. Nighttime they light up, and taking an evening stroll along the east side of the Kamogawa gives a totally different view of what they look like and the events they host.
If the weather is fine it can be quite a treat to sit on the yuka while a cool breeze blows and even cooler water flows underfoot. Couple pleasant company with fine seasonal food and you are sure to experience one of the summer treats found in Kyoto and surrounding areas. Kibune is in the mountains (hills...I’m from Canada!) north of Kyoto and the decks are right over the river so you can delight in the serene ambiance of nature
In olden times everyday along the Kamogawa was like a fair. Food vendors, magicians, buskers and of course the crowds gathering to enjoy an escape from the heat. So for the people on the yuka the people enjoying the river’s edge was a form of entertainment. These days I guess it hasn't changed so much! Still lots of people down by the river's edge doing ALL sorts of things from live bands to fireworks.
Kyoto's Finest Summer Riverside Dining
In the summer months, customers flock to the kawadoko in numbers, so reservations are essential. In the city, kawadoko are concentrated in four areas: the Kami Kiyamachi area between Nijo-dori and Sanjo-dori; the Ponto-cho area, south from the Kaburenjo theater to Shijo-dori; the cobbled Nishi Ishitatami area from Shijo down to Donguri-bashi bridge; and the Shimo Kiyamachi area, from Donguri-bashi down to Gojo Ohashi bridge. In Kibune, north of the city, yuka are perch over the picturesque Kibunegawa river.
Quality and price vary considerably. For those on a budget, lunchtime dining is generally good value compared with the evening, but bear in mind that the river is at its finest at sunset. 'Kawadoko' meal courses start at around ￥4800 for lunch and ￥7000 for dinner, reaching ￥30,000 or more. The Kibune versions are upscale, refined, with prices to match. Diners wishing to use credit cards should check carefully as much of Kyoto remains a cash economy.
Here John Ashburne recommends his 'Top 25' Kyoto Kawadoko:
Kami Kiyamachi Area
Ganko Takasegawa Nijoen
Popular with locals and tourists alike, this 300-seat sushi restaurant also has 'Maiko shows', and a beautiful garden. Inexpensive. 11am to 11pm. 075-223-3456
Tofu, bean, yuba and kamo duck specialist. Open lunch and dinner. 075-253-1155
Menbo Kiyamachi Honten
Kaiseki and mini-kaiseki specialist also offering nabemono and sushi. Open lunch and dinner. Last order 9pm. 075-231-2366
Kyo Ryori Umemura
Favorite haunt of Meiji-era statesman Ito Hirofumi, Umemura is an upscale old-school Japanese restaurant. Lunch from ￥4600, dinner from ￥11000. 075-231-3383
Kyo no Yakiniku Hiro Kiyamachi-ten
Korean-style grilled beef in pleasant surroundings. Reasonably priced. 075-213-5000
Kyoto's oldest beef specialist has been serving prime sukiyaki and shabu-shabu since the early Meiji period. Open lunch and dinner. Last order 9pm. 0120-77-0298
Popular Kyoto cuisine specialist with a 70-year history. Open lunch and dinner. 075-211-5054
Ryoriya Ushinohone Honten
We've been going here for years to sample their 'fusion' French-Japanese beef stew and kappo-style cuisine. Seats only 18, so reservations essential. Open lunch and dinner, last order 10.45pm. 075-212-1023.
Ponto-cho Wachuka Sosakuryori Hanameguri
Inexpensive Japanese-Chinese fare at this restaurant owned by the Tenkaipin Ramen group. Open evenings only, last order 10pm. 075-213-5678
Kyo French Kishimoto
Popular date spot serving French-influenced Kyoto fare. Open lunch and dinner, last order 9.30pm. Yuka courses start at ￥6000. 075-221-7321
Kappozushi has been serving reasonably priced, good quality sushi in Ponto-cho for thirty years. Their daitoro and chutoro tuna are the most popular menu items with locals. Open evenings only, 075-213-4777
Kyo Ryori Daitoryo
Historical restaurant serving Kyoto cuisine, with an emphasis on yuba. Set courses from ￥6000. Open lunch and evenings. Last order 9pm. 075-221-5663
Nishi Ishitatami Area
Pekin Ryori Tohka Saikan
Chinese restaurant housed in the 'Spanish Baroque' heritage building beside Shijo Ohashi bridge. Superb location and a perennial favorite for cold beer and snacks as the mercury rises. Open 11am to 9pm (last order). 075-221-1147
If you fancy a ￥37260 lunch, this Kyoto riverside kaiseki institution is for you. Chimoto has been catering to Japan's well-heeled gourmets since 1718. Open lunch and dinner (last order 8pm). Parties must number two or more. Geisha and maiko entertainment may be arranged for parties of four or more at ￥40000 per person. Reservations essential. 075-351-1846
One for the late-night crowd, Ginsui is popular with local celebrities. Its yuka courses start at ￥5000. Open 5pm to 3am (last order). 075-351-6600
The set courses at this Kyoto cuisine specialist are good value as are its lunches which start at ￥2500.
The Kyoto 'Tofu hotpot' boasts a hiden dashi or 'secret stock'. Open lunch and dinner (last order 9pm).
Fish dishes with Italian stylings are the popular fare here. Good wine list. Evenings only, last order for terrace dining 10pm. 075-351-2050
Shimo Kiyamachi Area
Kyoyasai vegetables married with Italian cuisine. Open lunch and dinner. 075-354-9517
Famed toridaki chicken specialist since 1788. Open 11am to 9pm (last order). 075-351-0555
Kyoto ingredients in Southern French and Italian dishes. Open lunch and dinner at weekends, dinner only weekdays. Inexpensive. 075-276-2067
Kyo Ryoriya Atomura Honten
Justly famed Japanese 'artisanal cuisine' specialist. Ayu sweetfish and hamo pike-conger star. Open lunch and dinner (last order xxx). 075-343-3770
Modan Kappo Kassai
Trendy 'modern-style' kappo restaurant. Open 5pm to 11.30pm (last order 10pm). 075-344-0007
Mochi Ryori Kitamura
Friendly owners and excellent Kyoto cuisine make this a perennial favorite. Open evenings only (last order 075-351-7871
Michelin-starred riverside dining at a 200-year old ryokan in a beautiful mountain setting. Courses from ￥7825. 11.30am to 4pm and 5pm to 8pm. Reservations essential. 075-741-2244
Excellent kaiseki cuisine with courses starting at ￥7825. Expect ayu no shioyaki, soumen noodles and tempura to feature. 11.30am to 7pm. 075-741-2041