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If you go to only one place in Japan, Kyoto should be it. Beyond the nondescript high-rises around Kyoto Station hides the Japan of your imagination: a place where you'll see geisha glide past 17th-century teahouses in Gion's narrow alleys; where you can imagine the lives of court nobility at the Imperial Palace; where you can seek contemplation in Ryoanji's Zen rock gardens and under billowing cherry trees on the Philosopher's Path. If Tokyo is the door to Japan's future, Kyoto is a window on its mysterious past.

Things to Do

Slip back to Kyoto's age of empires, wandering the moat-ringed gardens of the Imperial Palace and contemplating Nijo Castle's delicate cypress-wood carvings. The spirit of old Kyoto seeps through UNESCO-listed Gion's cobblestone alleys, where geisha flit past like colorful butterflies. Late afternoon is the best time to enjoy the meditative calm of Ryoanji's rock garden, and the sun gleaming on the Golden Pavillion. Clouds of cherry blossom draw couples to the canalside Philosopher's Path in spring.

Shopping

Kyoto is Japan's craft capital, where skills are still passed down through generations. Tiny specialty shops in Shijo Dori, Kawaramachi Dori and the Kyoto Handicraft Center deal in Yuzen-dyed fabrics to wooden combs, fans and everything you need to host a tea ceremony. Shinmonzen Dori and Furumonzen Dori are peppered with antique shops and galleries selling woodblock prints. The department stores around Shijo-Kawaramachi intersection and Kyoto Station are good bets for lacquerware and kimono.

Nightlife and Entertainment

For the Kyoto of kimono-clad geisha and ochaya (teahouses), head to the traditional pleasure quarter of Gion, where puppetry and court music are kept alive on Gion Corner. Nearby sits the delightfully ornate Minamiza Kabuki Theatre, the fabled birthplace of kabuki, highly stylized classical Japanese dance-drama. Take your pick of the buzzing bars and clubs tucked down the narrow alleys of Pontocho and Kiyamachi.Higashiyama-ku's after-dark scene skips from British pubs to sleek cocktail bars playing jazz.

Restaurants and Dining

Kyoto provides a range of unique dining experiences -- from eating lip-numbing fugu (pufferfish) in traditional restaurants to shojin ryori (vegetarian cooking) in the tranquil gardens of a Buddhist temple. Follow Higashiyama-ku's red lanterns to lively yakitori-ya, specializing in grilled chicken skewers. For tofu dishes and perfect noodles, head to Kita-ku's bars, some housed in converted sake warehouses. Book well in advance for Hyotei, an exquisite 300-year-old teahouse set in maple-shaded gardens, where kaiseki ryori, seasonally inspired Japanese cuisine, is artistically presented in lacquered bowls.