There's no doubt that Kyoto is a pretty amazing city: attractive canals; the occasional glimpse of a Geisha; great food (even for a veggie) and far more temples than you could possibly shake a stick (or ring a bell) at. But the most significant thing about Kyoto for me was that it was where I finally learned to look up. Finding addresses in Japanese cities is basically a nightmare; and finding a bar to pop into for a quick drink is no mean feat either. But in Kyoto I cracked it.
Between allied bombing in the second world war and the Japanese love of all things new, old buildings have had a pretty tough time in Japan. Most cities are full of fairly mediocre structures of at least four or five stories which, although undoubtedly practical, are often less than inspiring. The drive for redevelopment in a country as overcrowded as Japan is unsurprising but I was particularly horrified to discover that Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was demolished as late as 1968. Anyway, I digress: it was in Kyoto that I realised that if you want to find a restaurant or a bar you need to remember that some of the best places are on the upper floors of the buildings. I am so used to the typical western thing of wondering along a street and peering inside a place to see if I like the look of it, the thought of taking a dingy lift to the tenth floor of a tower block and entering the unknown is completely alien. But in Kyoto I took the plunge and was richly rewarded.
Ace Cafe is the kind of place that wouldn't feel out of place in east Berlin: a combination of modernist and industrial design where concrete plays a large part. There's a DJ positioned in the middle of the room perfectly placed to play the tunes that everyone is in the mood for; great-looking food coming out of the bustling kitchen; and an absolutely amazing view. With glass on three sides and a position right above the Kamo River, the view from the cafe across to Gion and the mountains beyond was breathtaking. Apparently amazing at sunset, even at night it's well worth seeing. The view alone would make the Ace Cafe worth a visit, but the vibe in the bar was so laid back and cool it was just a real winner.
So imagine my delight when I looked at the drinks menu and discovered that they had a really interesting selection of iced teas. I decided to go for mugicha (frankly the menu was in Japanese, the waiter didn't speak English and I just went for the thing I thought I could have a stab at repeating!). But I was in luck. It turns out that mugicha is actually an infusion made from roasted barley but given that my first visit to Ace was pretty late at night it was a bonus not to find myself buzzing on caffeine. The fact they had a selection of iced teas would have been enough to please me but when it came served in a whiskey glass looking for all the world like a sophisticated drink on the rocks it made me love the place all the more. Alongside the glass I was given a little glass jug of sugar syrup (ubiquitous in Japan - no trying to get crunchy sugar to dissolve here) and a jug of milk. But I drank my mugicha neat. Because I am hardcore. And what was really funny was the fact it was served like a classy drink made it taste like one.
Ace Cafe was such a great place that we found ourselves back there on quite a few occasions; in fact I'd go so far as to say it was our favourite bar in Japan. And it taught me that important lesson: looking up and exploring the upper floors of faceless buildings can sometimes reap rich rewards in Japan. Once you make that discovery part of the joy is that you don't tend to be surrounded by tourists as they're all wandering around downstairs wondering where all the bars and restaurants are. But the other lesson that Ace Cafe taught me was that if you treat iced tea with the reverence it deserves it can be every bit as enjoyable as a cocktail or glass of wine (well nearly...). Certainly, the next time I have guests, instead of just serving water to the non-drinkers, I might just make up a pitcher of iced tea and serve it like the sophisticated delight that it is.