Kyoto, with its hundreds of temples and gardens, was the imperial capital between 794 and 1868, and remains the cultural centre of Japan. Its raked pebble gardens, sensuously contoured temple roofs and mysterious Shintō shrines fulfill the Japanese fantasy of every Western cliché hunter.

Only in Kyoto is it possible to cross paths with a real geisha as you stop for a snack at a convenient store. You can take a deep breath of the crisp mountain air as you stroll leisurely through a bamboo thicket. Or you can savor the sight of cherry blossoms overhead as you picnic with the locals on the banks of the Kamogawa River.

With an astonishing 1600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shintō shrines, a trio of palaces, and dozens of gardens and museums, Kyoto is Japan's cultural treasure house. Seventeen of Kyoto's ancient structures and gardens have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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