Kawadoko River Dining in Kibune, Japan: A Fun Escape from Kyoto’s Crowds

Kibune is a mountain town located a short train ride north of Kyoto, and is a great place for escaping the city’s summer heat, humidity, and peak season crowds. In this post, we’ll offer dining recommendations for kawadoko, which are patios built over the river by restaurants in this rural village.

This is something of an “kawadoko dining itinerary” for Kibune during the summer months (roughly May through September). If you’re looking for something all-encompassing, check out our 1-Day Kurama, Kibune & Kyoto, Japan Itinerary. That itinerary can be modified (with some midday stops removed) to accommodate some or all of the kawadoko dining here.

Before we even start with Kibune’s summertime offerings, we want to sing its year-round praises. No matter what time of year you’re visiting, we highly recommend a trip to the twin villages of Kurama and Kibune in Northern Kyoto. These are beautiful and compelling no matter when you visit. Crowds are higher during the summer months, but the tradeoff is that dining over the river is a spectacular experience…

Over the water dining is popular throughout Japan, and is also something you’ll find in the center of Kyoto. There, outdoor patios known as kawayuka are built on stilts over the Kamogawa River. A number of restaurants have these–even Kyoto’s most popular Starbucks.

However, the kawayuka in Kyoto pale in comparison to those in Kibune. In Kyoto, the kawayuka are elevated terraces that overlook the Kamogawa River. They’re separated from the actual river (which often doesn’t have the best water flow, anyway) by a great distance…and a walking path. It’s essentially waterfront dining.

In Kibune, you are literally only a few feet above the river and can feel its mist. While we enjoy the kawayuka experience in Kyoto, it’s more of a nice perk to a restaurant than a defining experience.

Moreover, kawayuka on the Kamogawa in Kyoto is not a proper substitute for the “real thing” in Kibune.

During the summer months, Kibune area becomes a town dotted with and defined by its kawadoko restaurants. Traditional Japanese Ryotei have kawadoko line up one after the other, and reservations for the top restaurants can book solid weeks or more in advance.

While kawakodo are temporary, they are quite sturdy–built with metal and bamboo, and topped with tatami floors for a traditional Japanese experience. Between Kibune’s higher elevation in the mountains and the platform’s location mere feet above the water, these terraces are quite cool, even on days when it’s sweltering in Kyoto proper.

There are a variety of restaurants at all price points in Kibune. Want to drop only 500 yen or $5? That’s possible.

At the other end of the spectrum, the average price for traditional multi-course kaiseki cuisine starts out at around 5,000 yen and can cost over 20,000 yen (roughly $50-$200 per person). While we think kaiseki is a quintessential Kyoto experience that’s absolutely worth experiencing, we don’t think this is the right time or place for it.

As for the Kibune kawadoko dining itinerary, the first stop you’ll want to make is Hirobun, which is famous for Nagashi Somen, or flowing noodles. You’ll be able to easily find Hirobun via Google Maps…or the other tourists from all over the world (including Japan!) congregated there.

Hirobun serves 8-10 guests at a time, with each noodle “session” (more on this below) lasting 15 minutes and roughly 5 minutes between sessions. The end result of this is waits that are frequently two hours or longer.

While you’ll find other Japan planning resources with strategy for minimizing your time in line, the reality is that you’re going to wait one way or another.

If you get there before they open (when the line is shortest), you’re waiting in line. If you arrive towards the end of the day, you’re still waiting–and risking the chance that they’ll cut the line.

We take an unconventional approach here and suggest that you not worry about it–in fact, arriving midday when the line is longest might be ideal.

This is because Hirobun provides an accurate estimated wait and return time, so it’s not as if you’re physically standing in line waiting for your turn. You can go enjoy the rest of Kibune–and there’s plenty to enjoy!

While you’re waiting, we suggest making a trip over to Hyoue Cafe, a window on the ground floor of a small inn just up the road from Hirobun.

Here, you can order drinks like tea, coffee, and beer. None of them are anything special, but they grant you access to Hyoue’s large kawadoko. On the midday occasions we’ve done this, that platform has been–at most–only one quarter occupied. It’s serene and delightful, and gives you an opportunity to savor the experience (which you won’t be doing back at Hirobun).

Time your visit to Hyoue Cafe so it either takes up all of your wait time for Hirobun, or so you still have enough time (~60 minutes) to dine elsewhere before your Hirobun return.

If you’re doing this all midday, chances are that you’ll have time to dine elsewhere before returning to Hirobun. Alternatively, you could explore nearby Kifune Shrine while you wait.

Now that you’ve gotten your kawadoko fix, consider opting for a restaurant with indoor seating. Doing so will give you greater flexibility without reservations, and also allow you to arrive whenever.

If you want a great option on a tighter budget, we highly recommend Katsura. Other good options include Kifune Nakayoshi, Torii-chaya, and Kibune Kiraku.

Regardless of which restaurant you choose, we highly recommend that you order ayu. This sweetfish is another summer delicacy in Kyoto.

Kyoto anglers fish for these in the Kamo and Katsura Rivers, and the best-tasting (and fattiest) ones are caught this time of year. If you don’t do a proper meal in Kibune, keep in mind that Nishiki Market’s vendors also have delicious ayu that’ll only cost 400 yen or so.

At this point, it should be about time to return to Hirobun.

While waiting for your number to be called there, you’re allowed to sit on a waiting area kawadoko. This isn’t even remotely pleasant–it’s overcrowded with other tourists. Twenty minutes or so before it’s your turn to be seated, you’ll be called to the “on deck” position.

After that, it’s game time. Your number will be called with 8-10 other guests to partake in the somen run.

Essentially, Nagashi Somen is a unique way of serving noodles via flowing cold water. The somen noodles slide down a sliced bamboo pipe and patrons use chopsticks to catch the noodles as they flow past.

The release of the noodles is timed by Hirobun’s staff, and noodles that you miss are not recycled.

The restaurant provides you with a small portion of matcha warabi mochi, wasabi, a pair of chopsticks, and a cup of tsuyu for dipping your somen.

This might sound challenging or stressful, but it’s definitely not. You are not competing with other patrons for noodles–everyone has an assigned bamboo slot and you’ll take turns.

There’s also no challenge in grabbing the noodles as they float past–it’s pretty easy to block and pick them up if you’re even marginally adept at using chopsticks.

Nevertheless, you and others will probably miss some, which is part of what makes this fun (and funny). The whole process actually has a great communal energy to it, and is simultaneously relaxing and convivial. It’s out of the ordinary for Japan, which is part of what heightens things.

The experience is over when you see the pink/red somen coming. It’s worth stressing that this is not a satisfying or even tasty meal. Hence our recommendation to eat before doing it. Hirobun’s Nagashi Somen is an “eating experience,” not a meal.

Cynically, you could view this as gimmicky and touristy. If we’re being honest, it’s both.

However, it’s also an absolute blast that draws visitors from all over the world, including domestic Japanese tourists. Sarah called this one of her favorite experiences ever in Japan. I didn’t love it quite that much, but I’d agree that it’s a ton of fun and absolutely worth the time and effort. We highly recommend it.

Overall, a visit to Kibune (and nearby Kurama) is a great way to spend a summer day in Kyoto. Even with the multi-hour wait for Hirobun, this is an escape from both the heat and the crowds (unless you visit on a weekend or national holiday). You’ll see a different side of Japan, and will likely leave having had one of the best experiences of your trip.

If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit! 

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Kibune or Kurama? Done the Hirobun Nagashi Somen? Dined at a restaurant with a kawadoko? What did you think of your experiences? Any restaurants you enjoyed–or didn’t? Would you recommend this to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions about what we’ve covered here? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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