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Kyoto: Steeped in tradition; Ancient city is known for shrines, temples and teahouses.

Byline: Lynne Klaft

Willow trees lining waterways, paper lanterns lighting evening streets, cherry blossom parks and palaces; Kyoto is an adventure by day and a must-see at night.

The city was established in 794 AD as the capital of Japan, and was home of the emperor and the royal court for more than 1,000 years.

Kyoto, where samurai walked hundreds of years ago, is renowned for its 2,000 temples and shrines, the old Imperial Palace and gardens, and traditional wooden townhouses and teahouses.

I've had the pleasure of visiting Kyoto twice, eight years ago and again in the fall of 2012.

During the day, we viewed the Imperial Palace and gardens and the 1,000-year-old Kiyomizu-dera temple high on a hilltop.

Tourists, pilgrims, schoolchildren and maiko (apprentice) geisha climbed the narrow, winding streets, stopping at small shops along the way, praying at the many shrines, getting their fortunes read, leaving a paper prayer tied to special trees, and stopping for a bite to eat at outdoor teashops.

It is said that it is a good and lucky day if you glimpse one, perhaps two geisha. One day we saw four maiko. They are a Kyoto-only phenomenon and all graciously allowed tourists to snap away with their digital cameras and phones, stopping for a minute or two, before moving on.

The geisha, or geiko (child or woman of the arts) as they prefer to be called, live in four enclaves in the Gion District of Kyoto. They are trained for many years to be professional entertainers in the traditional arts of singing, dancing, conversation, flower arranging, the tea ceremony and playing musical instruments.

After climbing what seemed to be hundreds of stairs closely lined with historically preserved two-story wooden townhouses, we arrived at the temple grounds where we saw the water purification ceremonies, offered incense and prayers, and sipped from the sacred waters.

Later in the day we visited the Kyoto Handicraft Center, where one could see traditional Japanese craftsmen demonstrating their art. On a given day, you could see washi (handmade paper) making. Paper has been made of plant fibers in Japan since the 7th century. Kyoto dolls are also famous and unique. Shops in Kyoto offer doll kimonos and accessories including netsuke (hand-carved button or toggle used with an obi sash on a kimono or jacket) and kanzashi (hair ornaments).

There are master fan makers, craftsmen who fashion paper umbrellas and lanterns, geta (traditional wooden shoes) and porcelain to view at the shops that line the streets.

On our second trip to Kyoto we took the famed Bullet Train (Shinkansen), which took us speedily at up to 200 miles per hour, safely and in great comfort from Nagoya to Kyoto. As an aside, the Japanese train system -- local, metropolitan and from city to city -- is easy to use if you do a little research beforehand. Tickets are easily purchased at vending machines, signs are written in English and Japanese, and passengers are orderly and follow the railway rules. Rush hour train travel is another story for another time.

As the late-afternoon light started to fade, we decided to find our way to Kyoto's Gion District. Emerging from the underground train station at dusk we found ourselves in a brightly lit shopping area, but with a few turns down the side streets, we entered another century.

The streets were dim, lit by paper lanterns. The entrances to ochaya teahouses and inns were on the stone-paved street level. People were clustered around the more famous inns, hoping for a view of geisha entering. A woman was exclaiming that she was sure that she had heard that a few were entertaining there that night.

We kept on going deeper into the neighborhood and as we turned another dark corner, two beautifully dressed and coifed geisha came bustling out of a doorway, holding their furoshiki cloth- wrapped possessions, and slid into a waiting car. A minute later, two more came out of the same doorway and entered another car. All were whisked away within moments.

Letting our breaths out, we all, including the four Japanese tourists that were there, expressed our good luck in seeing so many at one time.

Around another corner, we came across a high school archery team practicing in an enclosed schoolyard. A few polite exchanges and we were allowed to stay, enjoy and photograph the Kyudo, or Japanese-style archery that has been taught since medieval times.

Nodding our thanks, we continued to Pontocho, a long, narrow, cobbled alley where the lights were brighter with indoor restaurants and outside riverside dining, bars and teahouses. The Kaburenjo Theater, where geisha practice and twice a year perform for the public, is also there.

Our guide took us early the next morning to the Kinkaku-ji, Golden Pavilion temple for the best viewing and photographing of Shogun Yoshimitsu's 1397 retirement villa, later to become a Zen temple.

Following a tree-lined path, we came upon the gold leaf pavilion mirrored perfectly in the pond, the water reflecting clouds, twisted pine trees, and the bronze phoenix atop the pavilion twinkling in the early morning light.

There is much more to see and experience in Kyoto -- the Philosopher's Walk, the Kongo Noh Theater, the Nishiki market alley where Kyoto's chefs shop for ingredients, Iwatayama Monkey Park where 200 macaque monkeys roam freely, visit with the tourists and are fed apple or banana slices, chestnuts and biscuits. The list is endless. Perhaps a third trip in a couple of years.
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Title Annotation:Magazine
Author:Klaft, Lynne
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Nov 18, 2013
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