Whether it’s Osaka, Kobe, or Kyoto, a visit to Kansai puts a vibrant and hugely diverse nightlife at your fingertips. As winter gives way to spring, it’s the perfect time of year to warm yourself with a glass or two of whiskey – but where to start? Those prepared to venture beyond the tourist trail will find a warm welcome, local flavors, and a great selection at any of these three bars, but be warned: visitors with a limited Japanese vocabulary may need to dig deep – or reach for a phrasebook – to get the most out of the experience.
Bar K-Ya (バー K家)
Kyoto Kawaramachi, Main bar and Bekkan Annex
A mere stone’s throw from Kawaramachi station, this stylish, sophisticated establishment is the perfect place to while away a cold Kyoto evening. A discreet gravel path leads into a sleekly designed interior built around an enclosed tsubo-niwa garden. Drinks are expertly prepared by dapperly dressed staff, and the artfully presented wall-to-wall collection of Malts – including many rare and hard-to-find distillations – is a joy to browse. The Bekkan annex, a short walk away on a quiet street near Shiyakusho-mae Station, makes up for a smaller selection with a discreet, luxurious style and its own signature line of smoky Islay-based cocktails. The main location is sometimes reserved for special events so it may be a good idea to call ahead.
Recommended: I’ll never forget being introduced here to a special-edition Glen Grant 10 yr. (look for a distinctive, square bottle!), but on a cold night it’s hard to beat the Islay milk and honey.
Open: Weekdays 6pm–2am
• Access: Kawaramachi Stn, 5-min walk
• Tel: 07-5241-0489
• Address: 103 Yaoyacho, Rokkaku-dori Gokomachi Nishi-iri, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto
Look past the nondescript setting – the basement level of a drab office building in Kobe’s central Sannomiya area – and you’ll find a fantastic little bar with a world-class selection. Local salarymen may make up the majority of the clientele, but Main Malt’s reputation is enough to draw whiskey devotees from all over the country. Owner Masashi Goto started the bar after discovering a passion for whiskey some 22 years ago and has since amassed a selection of more than 1,500 bottles. “Put simply, what you’ll find is a lot of Scotch and Irish,” he explains, “and just a little bit of American bourbon.” Among the bottles that cover the walls and every available surface, you’ll find well-known favorites for under ¥1,000 and rare treasures, like the Highland Park 40 yr., at some ¥15,000 a shot (“It’s not our most popular!”).
Recommended: Mr. Goto was happy to steer me towards a sherry cask BenRiach 10 yr. – a great introduction to his favorite distillery, and at ¥900, it won’t break the bank.
Open: Mon–Fri 5pm–1am / Sat & Sun 3pm–12am • Closed: National Holiday, Mon
• Access: JR/Hankyu/Hanshin Sannomiya Stn, 5-min walk • Tel: 07-8331-7372
• Address: 2-10-11 Kita-Nagasadori, Chuo-ku, Kobe 神戸市中央区 北長狭通 2-10-11第７シャルマンビルB1F
Warm, authentic and unfussy, this cozy hole in the wall in Osaka’s bustling Temma district boasts a serious collection. With well over 600 bottles to choose from, almost exclusively Scotch single malt, you can expect the unexpected as the owner routinely brings back individual bottles that peak his interest during trips to Scotland. Fans of serious tobacco will be pleased to discover a first-rate collection of cigars, including some from Cuba. The atmosphere here is welcoming and intimate, with an eclectic décor, exposed brick walls and seating limited to a single row of stools. Visit at lunchtime and you’ll be amazed to discover that the bar has transformed into a ramen restaurant!
Recommended: Bar manager Yuka really knows her stuff, and after asking a few questions, will match you with your perfect malt – in my case, a Dailuaine 8 yr. bottled by Provenance.
Open: Tues–Sun 8pm–12pm • Closed: Mon
• Access: JR Temma Stn, 5-min walk
• Tel: 080-4641-3796 • kowloonsbar.co.uk
• Address: 1-2 Kurosaki-cho, Kita-ku, Osaka 大阪市北区黒崎町1-2[