Evil cometh from the north, they say. Maybe it was sunlight streaming from the south that gave ancient theologians such a notion. Or perhaps the Arctic is gushing malevolence (compare and contrast: Australians and Scandinavians). Regardless, it was a fear of southbound evil that prompted the construction of Kanga-an, a small but majestic temple north of the old Imperial Palace in Kyoto.
In the 17th century, retired Emperor Go Mizuno asked the chief priest of Manpuku-ji, an Obaku sect Zen temple in nearby Uji, to open Kanga-an and enshrine the Holy Spirit of Residential Protection, Chintakurefushin. Chintaku is thought to bear the impressive burden of controlling the movements of the universe, guarding the zodiac, expelling evil spirits and “protecting people from the wrong direction.”
For just shy of two centuries, Chin’s holy barricade safeguarded Japan’s royals until, in 1869, the reigning Meiji Emperor shuffled off to Tokyo. Losing its principal raison d’etre, Kanga-an became just another freckle on the map of Kyoto’s 1,600 temples. Monks from Manpuku-ji hung there when they visited Kyoto, but it’s not big, central or quite historic enough to crack tourists’ hit lists. It has some treasures, such as the crown of Go Mizuno, now plonked on the head of a 1,000-year-old Buddha, but it doesn’t shout about them.
Obaku sect Buddhists do have one ace up their robes, though: fucha ryori, a Chinese-influenced vegetarian food that’s more flamboyant than shojin ryori, its better-known Zen cousin.
Go Mizuno reportedly loved fucha ryori, and likely partook of it at Kanga-an as he gazed at the enchanting green and gravel garden. Almost three decades ago, Kanga-an began serving fucha meals to the public, offering visitors the chance to sate their empty souls and stomachs in a Zen setting fit for a monarch.
And pardon the hyperbole, but it’s some of the best food in Kyoto. Dinner arrives course after course after course after course after course after course after green tea, until every last ascetic connotation has been expunged. Perhaps because Kanga-an’s chief priest is currently a priestess, the food has a playful and feminine touch. The winter dishes include tart green plums garnished with gold leaf, a tempura of edible flowers in a thumb-size basket of woven kelp, mock eel made from pounded tofu and taro, and sweet chestnuts resting in imitation husks made from tofu and wheat noodles that are so realistic many diners surely leave them uneaten.
Clearly nobody ever told the priestess not to play with her food.
Unusually for this kind of multicourse grande cuisine, the food arrives not in small bowls placed under your nostrils but on communal platters at the center of the table. The intention is to make the meal more communicative, though the extra dialogue at my table was along the lines of: “I think the eel thing is yours,” and, “Are you sure I’m supposed to eat this?” Still, it’s nice to share.
So the food’s great — but the venue’s better. Bamboo flutes serenade you up the lantern-lit approach to the main hall. Either side of the path are private dining rooms, one with a view of Go-Mizuno’s old cushion seat, another with calligraphy from his Imperial hand, and all of them subtly decorated with the 16-petal chrysanthemum insignia of the Japanese monarchy. You’re sitting in the Emperor’s holiday house, eating his food.
And here’s where we get to the drinks.
Last April Kanga-an revealed a room it had kept secret for years: the bar.
It used to be a private salon in which the priestess would entertain her friends. Now it’s open to all, every night of the week, but Kanga-an doesn’t shout about this either. It’s not mentioned on its Web site, and there’s no sign on the door. You’d need to be a very nosy parker to stumble across it. News of its existence is trickling through Kyoto by word of mouth, beginning with dinner guests who turn up early and are invited in for an aperitif. The bar attracts many career women, according to bartender Hideki Yamada. After a hard day in the office, he supposes, it’s nice to unwind in a Zen temple, with your back to the Buddha hall, eyes to the garden and fingers around a whisky.
“The pace is slow here so it calms you down,” says Yamada. “It’s not the drinks, it’s the garden that relaxes you.”
It’s the drinks too. And they’ve got some good ones. Though the selection is tiny, it includes draft Kohaku Yebisu, easily the best of Japan’s big-brewery beers, and an elegant, floral junmai sake called Jubei after the celebrated 17th-century samurai Yagyu Jubei. If you’re eating at Kanga-an, Jubei is the perfect companion for that fancy food.
If you’re just there for the booze, perhaps a draft Guinness offers a more entertaining clash of concepts. If you’re expecting me to explain the rules pertaining to temples and intoxicating business ventures, I’m afraid I’m going to let you down. I intended to ask, but the problem with this job is that the more you drink, the less you delve.
I did learn that women are increasingly ordering Scotch on the rocks and that some tea ceremonies use sencha rather than macha. If you want to know anything else, go there and ask.
278 Karasuma Dori, Kuramaguchi Higashi Iru, Kita-ku, Kyoto; open 5 p.m.-1 a.m. daily; to reach Kanga-an, 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. For more information, call (075) 256-2480 or visit www.kangaan.jp