Looking for Kyoto’s best-kept secret? Forget geisha-hunting in Gion. Instead, head for Kanga-an, a temple with the most unlikely of features.
My first time in Kyoto was not wholly successful. I’d heard too much about how it was impossible not to love this history-drenched, wooden-housed cultural capital of Japan – the hub of all tradition and a guaranteed highlight.
However, if you’re only there for a day or so, it’s easy to get Kyoto wrong. Usually, a city’s train station is the heart of its action and a guaranteed compass for finding nightlife, and culture. The opposite is true in Kyoto – the station is largely quiet and unspectacular, so you’ll need to walk, explore, venture and dig deep to get under the city’s skin.
Luckily, my second visit was more successful. I rented a bike for a day and covered much of the sprawling temple grounds. By night, I threw myself out of the tourist trail comfort zone and into ‘local bars for local people’. Not always an easy feat with shamefully poor Japanese skills.
One such bar I discovered, albeit after an online pointer, was in Kanga-an temple.
Kyoto’s Best-Kept Secret
Located on a residential road of unspectacular buildings, Kanga-an stood out immediately. Passing through the stone gateway, a path flanked by candles unwound in front of me, leading to the entrance of an impressive Zen temple. Lights glowed from behind the paper-coated doors, sitting below a traditional slated roof.
A man appeared from a separate building, which housed a vegetarian restaurant – a rare thing in Japan. He politely led me through a small door to an impressively clean, marble-topped bar that could have been fresh out of a Tokyo skyscraper. As if things weren’t idyllic enough, it looked out over the most Japanese of Japanese gardens, softly lit by stone lanterns.
Suddenly a barman appeared, dressed in a full tuxedo and bow tie, despite the empty room. In very polite English, he asked where I’d heard about the secret bar. “Japan Times?” Yep.
Though the small but well-equipped bar boasted hard-to-find Guinness on tap, I went with the traditional mood and asked the barman if he had any umeshu – a sweet wine made of plums taken either straight over ice or with soda. He said “ah!”, smiled and disappeared, emerging soon after proudly holding a huge glass jar labelled “2004”. The monks made their own umeshu, fermenting the wrinkly plums over the years to achieve the perfect concoction. It wasn’t the cheapest option, but considering the mind-blowing surroundings and efforts made to create it, consider this fair trade.
The temple’s owners had even gone to the trouble of printing English leaflets detailing the origins of the temple, how its roots lie in vegetarian cuisine and the fact that it was once the property of Japan’s imperial family.
The Most Japanese of Japanese of Gardens
When my glass was empty, the man who led me in appeared again and asked me to “please visit the garden before leaving”. So I did and it was like a scene from an airbrushed travel brochure. Every blade of grass stood obediently in line, the cloud-shaped bonsai branches and uniform cobbles lit up by lanterns and candles.
In striking contrast to any bar ever, the goodbyes were just as warm as the greeting.
So, when in Kyoto, get out of Gion for a while. Head to Kanga-an at nightfall and give the world’s friendliest bartending monks something to keep smiling about.