When you first visit Kyoto, you naturally prioritise the big name temples like Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple, or Kiyomizu-dera with its magnificent terrace, but a little further along your temple explorations you may find yourself craving somewhere crowd-free where you really can slip into a zen-like state. When this happens to you, take the subway to Kuramaguchi station, or stroll along the Kamo river and visit Kanga-an, a beautifully maintained little temple with an intoxicating secret...
By day Kanga-an is another, albeit very lovely, of Kyoto's almost innumerable temples. However, the evening brings a more unusual temple experience: the monks' hidden bar.
Tucked away in a quiet district of Kyoto, the monks have been entertaining at Kanga-an for years. Originally where the priestess would entertain friends, the bar is now open to the public every night of the week, and enjoys a steady stream of business from people in search of the ultimate relaxing drink. For what could be more relaxing than sipping on a calming libation whilst gazing out on a pristine zen garden?
The garden is beautiful to look at year round, as the photo album kept on the bar can attest. I visited at the end of summer's rainy season when the greens were luscious, vivid and varied, but I plan to return for the glorious reds of autumn, snow-dusted moss in winter and candy floss cherry blossoms in spring.
The bar seats ten, which keeps noise levels appropriate to the surroundings. The range of drinks on offer is vast in comparison to the seating, and the barman knowledgeable. I recommend trying the home made umeshu, plum wine (¥1000). On a quiet day if you ask nicely you may also be taken into the temple's main hall to marvel at the sand art painting which took days for four monks complete by drizzling sand through their hands to make the intricate patterns. You can visit this during the temple's usual opening hours, but rarely after 5pm when the bar opens. Kanga-an is also home to an excellent vegetarian restaurant, but that is another story.
An evening at Kanga-an's bar is a special experience best enjoyed alone or with someone whose volume control you trust. It is a place to unwind and reflect. There are all kinds of spirit-related puns to be made about this delightful institution, but that would lower the tone of what really is a very classy establishment. After a long day of tourism or business in Kyoto, this is the best place to unwind and set your mind at ease, surrounded by history and nature.