There are thousands of gabled Shinto shrines and serene Buddhist temples throughout the area. Some are right in the middle of town. And then there's the enchanting Gion district, with its low-slung wooden buildings and its enigmatic, centuries-old rhythms.
In Gion, geisha still ply their often-misconstrued trade. The white-faced geisha, or geiko, as they are called here, are trained in the traditional Japanese arts of music, dance and tea ceremony. Their services are provided to entertain usually powerful men in Gion's old tea houses, mysterious and alluring behind their delicately latticed door fronts along Gion's narrow streets.
The temples of Kyoto, with their elaborate gardens, languid willows, small lakes and countless red-orange torii gates, came as a soothing, moving surprise, a monument to Japan's quest for a unique spiritual beauty.
But just as you are tempted to think of Kyoto as a remnant of history, of traditional arts and ancient religions, one discovers that Kyoto is also the birthplace of the Nintendo Wii and of cutting-edge novelist Haruki Murakami, as well as home to technology developers and brilliant 21st-century minds.
Expensive? Yes. Affordable? Yes, that too
Among my preconceived notions of Japan, high prices took a crucial place. It was one of the reasons I postponed visiting, though I share Edna St. Vincent Millay's creed, "there isn't a train I wouldn't take, no matter where it's going."
Japan is expensive. So expensive, at times, I thought my head would explode. As when I saw, for example, a single melon, beautifully positioned in its gift box, selling for $150, alongside boxed grapes, selling for about $8 for EACH grape.
A taxi from Narita airport into Tokyo can run $350. You can pay $500 for a Wagyu steak, and a cup of coffee can set you back $8. But it doesn't have to.
Forget taxis. Japan has efficient, affordable public transportation. And never mind the fancy restaurants if you want to stay on a budget.
A rainbow of beautifully presented, relatively affordable food is available everywhere. Giant department stores, "Depatos," have dazzling basements offering every food you can imagine, along with some you never did, from colorful sushi to sweet unagi (eel) to okonomiyaki. And the prices are not bankruptcy-inducing.
The cleanest place in the world
In Japan, the virtue of cleanliness has spiritual origins. The Japanese place such a value on it that you suddenly discover it affects all aspects of life. Japan may be the last place on Earth where it is common to see women -- and occasionally men -- wearing white gloves. It may also be the first place where people regularly wear surgical masks, giving all of us bare-faced ones a better chance of dodging viruses.
And no review of Japan's virtues would be honest without mentioning Japan's toilets, a marvel of modern technology and a cause for profound gratitude from travelers. This is no place for a disquisition on Japan's sanitary technology other than to offer a heartfelt arigato. Thank you.
Arigato and bows all around to a country that prizes aesthetic principles, with countless people happy to help a confounded visitor and quick to oblige with preconception-busting, extraordinary surprises at every turn.
Have you visited Japan? What are your favorite memories?