Kyoto by the book

I found novels to be a more useful guide to Japan than encyclopedic guidebooks.

The first time I encountered "Memoirs of a Geisha," I was enthralled. I felt as though I'd been transported to early 20th-century Kyoto, Japan, with its ancient temples and mysterious back alleys. Arthur Golden took me on a journey I could never have imagined, in a country I never dared hope to visit.

But imagination met reality recently when I had the opportunity to visit my son, who was spending a year studying in Kyoto.

As I perused guidebooks in preparation for my trip, I was overwhelmed by the multitude of temples and shrines, castles, and restaurants- all of which I happily planned to visit.

But I wanted to experience this city - the former capital and acknowledged cultural center of Japan - in a way that was anything but average. So I put the guidebooks aside and turned to works of literature set in Kyoto and Osaka (the city of our arrival). Now, instead of dreading the 14-hour transpacific flight, I found myself looking forward to immersing myself in stories set in the cities I would soon be visiting.

Victoria Abbot Riccardi spent a year living in Kyoto in the late 1980s. In "Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto," she takes the reader on a journey of place, culture, and classical Japanese cuisine. Her focus was on learning the intricacies of kaiseki, a stylized form of Japanese cooking that accompanies the traditional tea ceremony.

I wasn't entirely sure my taste buds would be enthusiastic about the slippery eel, baby octopus, and creamy sea urchin described by Ms. Riccardi. But I needn't have feared. Kyoto offers a range of food options - from American fare for the weak-kneed (Starbucks, KFC, McDonald's) to international cuisines such as Chinese, Korean, and Italian. But it was Japanese food that we wanted to experience, and there was plenty of variety for all tastes.

Shabu shabu is a popular dining style. For a set price per person a tableful of diners is provided a cooking pot and as many rounds of finely sliced meats and vegetables as they can cook and eat in a two-hour period.

Another popular style of eatery offers okonomiyaki, a combination of grilled pancake and omelet filled with chopped vegetables and a choice of seafood, poultry, or meat. The mixture is poured onto a hot griddle in the middle of the table, smothered with mayonnaise and a brown sauce, and topped with dried fish flakes.

Riccardi's book helped put a name to other types of meals we encountered: donburi, a basic white rice served in a large bowl and smothered with a choice of meat, vegetables, eggs, or cheese; and robotayaki, which, as she describes it, is a sort of Japanese tapas bar where the patrons gather around a grill or fire pit for rounds of miniskewers featuring grilled meats, seafood, vegetables, and even crunchy rice cakes.

Our favorite restaurant, however, was a chain called Watami. We quickly dubbed it "the Applebee's of Japan." It's popular with young adults, families, and businessmen alike. We were seated in a semisecluded alcove, where we were invited to remove our shoes and sit on comfortable cushions around a low wood table. The large picture menu (ask for the English version) had an amazing variety of seafood, meat, vegetables, cheese, and other items that we shared family-style.

The heart of Kyoto

"Kyoto: Seven Paths to the Heart of the City," by Diane Durston, with photographs by Katsuhiko Mizuno is such a lovely book that even though I had originally found it at my local library, I decided to buy my own copy as a keepsake while in Kyoto.

What makes Kyoto unique is the way in which it has managed to grow into a lively metropolis while hanging onto the classical traditions and culture that make it unusual even within Japan. There are countless Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Tea houses abound on the back streets, and women in kimonos are seen often - riding the trains, sightseeing, and shopping.

Kiyomizu Temple, nestled into the low mountains on the east side of the city, is - judging by the number of tourist groups - the most popular of the temples we visited. But the view from the temple's veranda (a structural marvel in itself) is not to be missed.

From Kiyomizu Temple, walk down the stone steps of the Sanneizaka, an officially designated historic preservation district, and soon you will find yourself wandering through the Gion district, that section of Kyoto made so famous by Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha." There are still geisha in Kyoto. But you're more likely to spot maiko, apprentice geisha who are happy to have their photo taken with a tourist.

A leisurely stroll

Not far from Nanzen-Ji, another large temple complex, we found our way to the Philosopher's Walk, one of Kyoto's most famous and beloved locations. Named in honor of a Kyoto University professor who used to take his daily constitutionals along this route, it meanders for about 1-1/2 miles along a cherry tree-lined canal that's crisscrossed with lovely little bridges.

We were in Kyoto on the last Friday of the month, and so were able to attend the Tenjin-san, a large and lively flea market held at Kitano Tenman-gu, a Shinto shrine surrounded by plum trees.

Then we wandered through Okazaki, past the municipal zoo and baseball fields to the Heian Shrine. Dominated by a tall torii gate, the avenue then led us to the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art and its collection of 20th-century Japanese arts and crafts.

When you've had your fill of temples and shrines, visit the Nishiki Market Alley. Described in Riccardi's book and possibly the oldest food market in Japan, it's an amalgam of every kind of fresh and prepared food imaginable. The locals call it Kyoto's Kitchen. We were fascinated to absorb the aromas, tastes, textures, and colors that mingled with the chatter of shoppers and shopkeepers.

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