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TRAVEL WATCH: MARCH 6, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 9

Memories and More in Magical Kyoto
By TIM LARIMER

The first time I set foot in Kyoto, I thought to myself: Can this really be Japan's onetime imperial capital? Kyoto conjures up images of cherry blossoms, graceful gardens, teahouses, paper lanterns and, of course, geishas. That world still exists in modern Kyoto, but it's forced to survive alongside the hurly-burly ugliness that pervades much of urban Japan.

It's the new-age Kyoto that first confronts visitors on the bullet train from Tokyo. Rising along the tracks is a massive gray monolith with a jarring array of architectural details. It's Kyoto's train station, built in 1997 and resembling the Starship Enterprise. Inside, the glass roof, exposed steel beams and vertiginous stairway and escalator create a dazzling impression, but it's one that quickly dispels any romanticized notions of the old imperial capital. Indeed, some longtime Kyoto residents can't bear even to look at the monstrosity. It's a striking reminder that, while parts of Kyoto's past can be found--like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered around a large, messy coffee table--this is a thoroughly modern Japanese city.

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Rather than bemoaning the proliferation of neon-lit pachinko parlors and sterile apartment blocks, visitors are better off appreciating the beauty of old Kyoto wherever they can find it. The best way to look for traces of the city's 1,300-year history is to set out on foot. Or by bike: this spring the Japan Gray Line Co. will begin offering back-street bicycle tours. For details, call (81-75) 492-9430.

A 15-minute stroll through the commercial section of downtown Kyoto reveals glimpses of the city's charming past. On a partially covered street known as Sanjo-dori, a striking wooden building with bamboo shades is home to a shop selling woodblock prints. Adjacent to it is a 100-year-old sukiyaki restaurant, Mishima Tei. The old bumps up against the new again on Shijo-dori. This is the city's main commercial street, but it also boasts Kyoto's only surviving kabuki theater. (Performances will be held March 10-12.) A block away from the Kamo-gawa river is a 180-year-old shop selling handmade brooms and brushes. At more than $100 each, they look too pretty to use. A few meters down the street there's--what else?--a Starbucks coffee shop.

Nearby is the Gion district, home to the geishas and their teahouses. By day, the area looks like a movie set, with boarded-up, two-story wooden teahouses whose top balconies are covered with bamboo shades. On a small side street called Furo-monzen, there is a handsome collection of antique shops and galleries, as well as two large wooden houses. One belongs to the owners of Kyoto's most famous teahouse, Ichiriki, and the other is owned by the best-known dance instructor for geishas, Yachiyo Inoue. Throughout Gion stand green chalkboards posted with schedules for dance classes. For a glimpse of the maiko (young geishas in training) going through their motions, head to the school tucked behind the Gion Kaburenjo Theater, on Hanamikoji street. Geishas perform a traditional cherry blossom dance at the theater in March and April. At night, the area comes alive with bar-hoppers making their way among the traditional teahouses and restaurants to the more modern hostess bars. At dusk, if some rich patron happens to be throwing a party and hiring geishas to entertain, the white-faced, black-haired, kimono-robed women can be seen shuffling along Gion's streets.

But spotting genuine geishas is generally difficult. You're more likely to find a wannabe. Along the banks of the Kamo-gawa, I saw three "geishas" posing for pictures. They turned out to be high-school girls from Mie prefecture who had come to Kyoto for an end-of-term trip. They paid more than $100 each to dress up in geisha costumes and prowl the streets. To do it yourself, check out the rental shop on Shijo-dori, tel. (81-75) 256-0155.

Girls in geisha getups. Now that's an appropriate image for Kyoto, where one searches for old Japan's alluring past in a 21st century city. Have the high-schoolers dreamed of becoming real geishas? "It makes my heart beat faster," one says. "But it is too difficult and takes too long to learn." If you can't find the old Kyoto, then create a make-believe version yourself.

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