COCOONED in a valley of the Yamashiro Basin and caressed by the Higashiyama, Kitayama and Nishiyama mountains lies a trove of priceless Japanese culture and tradition.

Defined by masters of the tea ceremony, traditional ryokan inns and ancient Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, “The City of Ten Thousand Shrines” lies with docile serenity and calm assuredness. Located in the Kansai region, 226 miles southwest of the capital, Kyoto enraptures. The quintessential Japanese city leaves you spellbound.

The mystery of a cherry-lipped, kimono-clad geisha quietly disappearing and the zen gardens that whisper old haikus illustrate this gemstone and is the quiescent antithesis to the frenetic frenzy of futuristic Tokyo.

While the latter seems to march ever so forward, Kyoto dances to its own harmony preserving its colorful history, ceremonies and traditions with such delicacy as the movements in the flower arranging art of ikebana. The charm and the romance are captivating.

I find it hard how to start describing the marvelous sights that envelope Kyoto. To start with, there's the Kiyomizudera Temple, literally meaning "Pure Water Temple," declared a UNESCO World a Heritage Site in 1994, casts a spell on its visitors. Best known for its wooden stage that juts out of the main hall (both constructed without a single nail), it lavishes everyone with an enchanting view of Kyoto at a distance framed by graceful cherry and maple trees below.

Then there's the Fushimi Inari Shrine, an important Shinto Shrine guarded by numerous fox statues that litter its grounds. This is where you will find the famous vermilion tori gates which line the trails behind the building and leads you to the forest of Mount Inari— spectacularly enchanting!

Literally covered in gold leaf is the Golden Pavilion. Also listed as a World Heritage Site, it is surrounded by beautiful gardens and one of the main buildings of a Buddhist temple. Then there's the Nijo Castle. With its five-storey castle keep, defensive stone walls and moats, it is probably the best surviving example of castle palace architecture during Japan's feudal era. Having been the imperial capital for more than a thousand years, the Kyoto Imperial Palace stands imposing in the Kyoto Imperial Park which also houses the Sento Imperial Palace.

Voted among the 100 must-preserved sounds in Japan is the haunting trance-like sound made by the wind-blown Sagaro Bamboo Forest. Listening to the rustling bamboo leaves is synonymous to divine harp renderings. Very spiritual.

Going to Kyoto would not be complete without visiting the geisha district Gion. The allure of Kyoto is magnified by the Chaya (tea houses) where geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentices) are concentrated. Their quiet grace only serves to deepen the mystery surrounding them.

Kyoto characterizes old Japan. While it sways to its own ancient drums, it also embraces what lies ahead with peaceful ease. The Kyoto Protocol best exemplifies its sense of looking forward when in 1997 it hosted an international conference committing State Parties to reduce greenhouse emissions. Surely, a step or two ahead in the future.

This majestic pocket of ancient and old Japan could not have been a more perfect setting for a most memorable birthday rendezvous. The day before we had my birthday dinner at an authentic Japanese restaurant, Mount Shindake decided to wake up and lit its own fireworks; and during my birthday dinner, Mother Earth decided to rattle Tokyo with a 7.8er, a stark reminder that Japan is ground zero for this natural phenomenon.

This was nothing out of the ordinary really. What was extraordinary was having good friends who have shared with me their good fortunes and treating me to this most enjoyable trip as a birthday gift. I am so lucky. I wonder what surprises are in store for us on the next leg of this trip. Stay tuned.