Cafe Hopping in Kyoto

Julie was laughing as we left the cafe. Her Japanese is excellent and she often shares with me the amusing things said around us when no one thinks we can understand.

“Those boys said that we are oshare,” she giggled. “Have you heard that word before?”

It was in fact my first time hearing the term– oshare (pronounced oh-sha-ray) means trendy or fashionable, and that day, in our colourful dresses, I suppose we could pass for it. I had been adamant about looking the part for our day trip to Kyoto, where we planned to stroll the city and sample some of its beautiful cafes. Oshare became the perfect word to describe the charming cafe culture of Kyoto and we wanted to fully immerse ourselves in its aesthetic.

This was my second trip to Kyoto. I had spent my first visit there wandering the historic Gion district, where geisha and maiko can still be seen hurrying from job to job, and more often than not tourists in rented costumes are mistaken for the real thing. I tried every thing I could at the Nishiki market— when you’re not squeezing your way through the narrow, crowded arcade, you’re snatching tasty looking bits from the endless plates of samples of sashimi and pickles and locally made sake. I rented a bicycle and completed a slightly hair-raising ride across the city with two Irish boys, stopping at shrines and temples and the swaying bamboo-lined trail of Arashiyama along the way.

Now I wanted to experience a different Kyoto. I previously visited one cafe on a friend’s recommendation and loved the eclectic vibe at Cafe Biblioteca Hello! The Kyoto cafe aesthetic is stylish and comfortable, with a taste for nostalgia and decor that is both casually rumpled and artfully arranged. The most minimally styled cafe will still exude a welcoming warmth.

I was joined by Julie and Judith, who live in Kobe and Osaka. In our cafe-hopping uniforms of vintage dresses, we were a bright spot on a grey spring morning and finding ourselves in the subterranean Café Indépendants surrounded by perfectly complimentary peeling paint and rustic tile was a lovely start to our day.

Café Indépendants is in the basement of the more than 75-year old former home of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. By the time we settled at a long wooden table with our coffees and sandwiches, there was sunshine streaming through the windows and a crowd of stylish bohemians drifting in and out of the cafe. There’s a regular schedule of live music– the cafe’s historic feel would be the perfect atmosphere for the Friday night jazz.

Our next stop was Cafe Kamogawa, requiring a good walk across Kyoto. The weather had cleared and we were able to stroll by the river Kamo, whose banks are lined with sunbathers and picnickers in warmer weather. Our walk took longer than the suggested 20 minutes, as we were unable to resist ducking into the tiny shrines found tucked into alcoves and down quiet residential streets. One was home to a plum tree bursting with early blossoms, its tiny buds a vibrant pink against the wood and sombre tiles of the shrine. Kyoto home exteriors are often decorated with curb side gardens, plants and flowers arranged in pots haphazardly on the concrete and tended to with obvious care and dedication.

This affection for the simple beauty of the natural was reflected in the cozy setting of Cafe Kamogawa. Located on a lofty second floor, tall shelves of frayed books, lots of rustic wood, big plants and a kettle gurgling on top a heater made the space feel instantly comfortable. We opted for a heartier meal of thick mushroom curry rice and excellent coffee. On the first floor a tiny shop sold quirky prints and art books.

Back walking along the river, the fickle spring weather had turned to rain. We were glad to reach Cafe Kocsi, where we settled on retro couches, ordered cake and crepes and tea, and flipped through cute fashion magazines. This cafe buzzed with a lively energy, with crammed bookshelves and vintage furniture jostling customers together.

The final cafe of the tour was Sarasa Pausa. Like Kocsi and Kamogawa, Pausa is located on the second floor, looking down onto a busy shopping area. A row of low tables on tatami mats lined the wall under big windows, and customers nibbled on salads and curry rice beneath a wood beamed ceiling. A bakery on the ground floor supplies the cafe with delectable looking treats.

By the end of the day we had full bellies and positively buzzed with caffeine, but were relieved for the amount of walking we had done between locations. It was a great way to wander some of the less visited streets of the city and always have a refuelling snack waiting at our destination. After my last visit exploring historic Kyoto, it was satisfying to experience the modern oshare side of the city too.

Click here for a map of cafes visited (approximately 40 minutes walking time total between all of them, and much of it can be done by the riverside).

A helpful phrase to know is okaikei onegai shimasu (oh-kai-kay o-nay-guy she-mas), which means “Can I please get the bill?”

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