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The first time I went to Kyoto, in the mid-1970s, I thought I was in the middle of the biggest school excursion in the country. Thousands of kids from all over Japan were milling about in shopping districts and on temple grounds, and a foreigner such as I was still a sight rare enough for dozens of them to ask for my autograph and venture a few words of English.

I also spotted maiko (apprentice geisha) in the Pontocho teahouse district, looking forbiddingly remote in their white makeup and colorful kimonos. I had the thrilling (and mistaken) impression I that was getting a rare glimpse of Old Japan.

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