When seeking something unique in Kyoto, forget Gion. Instead, head for Kanga-an, a temple tucked away in a residential area and boasting the most unlikely of features – an idyllic bar run by monks
My first time in Kyoto, a couple of years ago, was not wholly successful. Like many people, I'd heard too much about how it was the cultural capital of Japan, the hub of all tradition, where it was impossible not to have the very best time.
However, it's easy, if you're only there for a day or so, to get it wrong in Kyoto. Whereas the hustle and bustle of most cities centres around their railway stations, the opposite is true here. You have to walk, explore, venture and dig deep to find the best places to go – but it's worth it.
Luckily, my second visit, a couple of months ago, was more successful. We rented a bike by day and covered much of the sprawling temple grounds. By night, we plucked up the courage to try some of the smaller all-Japanese bars, in a bid to get off the tourist trail – not always an easy feat, especially with minimal Japanese skills.
So I'm going to save you a lot of trouble here: if you're heading for Kyoto and want all of the usual – a bit of history, interaction with locals, some great drinks and drop-dead beautiful surroundings – head to Kanga-an temple.
The secret bar
I came across Kanga-an through an article in the Japan Times (http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fg20090130nc.html) and, speaking as someone who has seen their fair share of Japanese temples, this is not a structure easily fogrgotten. Kanga-an is doubtlessly a beautiful place at any time of the day, but visiting in the evening maximises the effects of its moody lighting, paper lamps and candlelit environs.
Located on a dark road full of unspectacular buildings, the temple stands out immediately. Passing through the stone gateway reveals a path flanked by candles, leading to the entrance of an impressive Zen temple. Lights glow from behind the sliding paper-coated doors, which are topped by a dual-layered traditional slated roof.
A man appeared from a separate building on our left, which houses a vegetarian restaurant - a rare thing in Japan. He very politely led us through a small door to an impressively clean, sophisticated, marble-topped bar, which looked out over the most Japanese of Japanese gardens. The barman, dressed in immaculate suit and tie despite there being no other customers, was super-polite and spoke a little English. He asked us how we found out about the secret bar. "Japan Times?" Yep.
Though the small but well-equipped bar boasts hard-to-find Guinness on tap, I decided to retain the mood and sample a more traditional concoction. I asked the barman if he had any umeshu – a sweet wine made of plums taken either straight over ice or with soda. He disappeared and emerged soon after with a huge glass jar labelled "2004". The monks had made their own and fermented it over the years to achieve the perfect infusion. At 600 yen (£3.80) per small glass, 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.
After we had finished our drinks, the man who led us in appeared again and asked us to please visit the garden before we left. It was like a scene from an airbrushed brochure – every blade of grass stood obediently in line, the cloud-shaped bonsai branches and curved cobbles lit up by lanterns and candles.
In striking contrast to most bars in any given county, the goodbyes were just as welcoming as the greeting.
So when in Kyoto, get out of Gion for a while - head to Kuramaguchi and give the world's friendliest monks something to keep smiling about.
Take the subway to Kuramaguchi station on Kyoto's Karasuma line. On arriving, I followed the instructions given in the Japan Times and they proved to be perfect. Just for reference, here they are: "Take a right out of Exit 1 of Kuramaguchi Station, then take the first right and walk 200 meters. It's on your left, the second temple on the street, with a blue sign. The bar is at the end of the cobblestone footpath, to the left of the main hall."
The temple website is in Japanese, but you may be able to translate through a search engine: www.kangaan.jp.