If Tokyo is Japan's Pokémon-crazed cyber-city of the future, Kyoto is its Rome, a city of ancient temples and shrines that offers a window into the past. Here you can contemplate a temple garden unchanged for centuries, stroll through a shogun's palace, order a paper lamp from a man whose great-great-great-grandfather made lamps for the Imperial household. But you'd better visit soon. Spared by American bombers during World War II (on orders from high up in the State Department, it's rumored), Kyoto hasn't been spared by the wrecker's ball, which is flattening the city's fragile wood-and-paper houses and shops to make way for high-rises.
The spiritual nature of the city, however, remains largely unaffected. Buddhism, which came to Japan (via China and Korea) in the sixth century, flourished in Kyoto. The aesthetic principles of Buddhism, particularly its Zen branch, gave birth to uniquely Japanese art forms. The dry sand-and-stone garden was originally intended as an aid to meditation. So was tea: Monks used it to stay awake during their long hours of meditating. Eventually its preparation was ritualized into the tea ceremony.
The Zen appreciation for the natural world and for the transitory nature of life (the brief burst of cherry blossoms, the melancholy beauty of falling autumn leaves) infused all the arts, including the culinary. Today in Kyoto you can sample authentic shojin ryori, the cuisine that grew out of the temple monks' vegetarian diet, and the multicourse kaiseki, the elaborate banquet that evolved from the food served to tea-ceremony guests.