Postcard from Kyoto

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My last postcard was from Tokyo, the buzzing, neon epicenter of Japan. Think of Kyoto as the serene, ancient version. Unlike Tokyo, this feels like the East. There aren’t signs in English everywhere, and credit card acceptance is patchy; you must use the Yen.

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The essence of Kyoto is in the ancient beauty of it. Shinto temples, arched bridges over ponds bursting with koi, and geisha darting by in the night. Unlike the skyscrapers of Tokyo, try to stay in  a ryokan – small, Japanese style inns with tatami floor mats, sliding doors and spare wooden rooms overseeing a Japanese garden. It’s the stuff spa music is made of.

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If you are fascinated by geisha, visit the Gion district, preferably at dusk. During the day it’s a tourist trap, and you’ll be elbowed by packs of miserable Russian women. They’re wealthy and paying top dollar to be dressed and photographed as geisha. I can see why the locals take advantage of the fantasy, but these ladies are thirsty. Hovering over their phones and draping themselves over bridge railings;  it’s an embarrassing sight to behold. Instead, go at sundown to see the working geisha rushing to real appointments. Look in the windows to see elaborate tea ceremonies. Hear them playing the shamisen for their guests. In fact, you can go to a tea ceremony and performance yourself!

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the real deal

Like Tokyo, take to the alleys! That’s where all the great shopping is, and be sure to have a pocketful of yen. While Tokyo has a trove of hidden Izakaya spots to grab a bite, Kyoto is filled with artisans. Out of tiny homes, a simple canvas flap separates the sidewalk from a dimly-lit den, where Japanese artists sell their wares. From handmade jewelry to candies, it’s perfect for souvenirs and afternoon snacks. I stocked up on the lightest, most delicate rice crackers, or senbei. Some featured nori, some had a hint of fish, and some were spicy yet sweet. Just thinking bout them gives me cravings!

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yakitori + jetlag = our first night

I didn’t get a chance to see the Fushimi Inari shrine, but if you see photos of it, you’ll know why I recommend it. It gives me good reason to come back! Kyoto is magic.

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The Kamo-gawa river winds past ancient wood buildings in Kyoto

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