Monday, November 9, 2015

8 Little Things I Love About Kyoto

A walk through old Kyoto in kimono

This is not actually a post about Kyoto City’s long history as Japan’s ancient capital, dotted with many temples, shrines, geisha, and architecture. We enjoy those things sometimes, and there are innumerable guide books detailing them, but there are more factors that make Kyoto a lovely city to call home that don't often make it into the guidebooks. Here are some not so well-known things about Kyoto that make it a pretty comfortable place for gaijin me to live in:

1. Streets that have names and run on a neat grid of North-South and East-West
If you look at a map of most Japanese cities, the streets will remind you of a plate of spaghetti. City blocks are all shapes and sizes! But Kyoto is a reassuring grid pattern. When it was founded, Kyoto the imperial city was modeled after Chinese cities, which were built along principles of what we would call feng-shui or the good luck/bad luck involved in compass directions. The city is divided in rectangular blocks and nearly all streets have names. Many have not changed location for a thousand years! Everyone knows the names of the larger ones, and the North-South subway line stops and many bus stops are named after intersections, so it’s very easy to find your way around. It’s easy and quick to travel North-South or East-West; the downside is, if you want to travel diagonally (say, from the north part of Sakyo Ward to Arashiyama) there is no public transportation that cuts through the city that way, which makes the trip a little long and complicated.
On large and small scale, most streets are straight!

2. Few natural disasters to worry about 
The ancient emperors chose wisely in their search for the ideal capital city. Especially since the 3/11 Tohoku disaster in Northeastern Japan, people ask me if I experience many earthquakes, but the year I studied abroad in Kyoto, I never felt a single one. Perhaps a little ominously, I've been feeling tiny ones about once a month or so in the past year. But historically, Kyoto has been quite safe from natural disasters. A ring of mountains act as a buffer from the high winds of typhoons, and Kyoto is so far inland, a tsunami is not a possibility, unless the whole country sinks. In the mountains there is the danger of flooding rivers and landslides, but not so much in the city itself. The only destruction this city has suffered is from fires started by humans. Most temples and buildings have been repaired and rebuilt many times (the famous Golden Temple Kinkakuji was most recently burned down in 1950 by a Buddhist monk of all people). Byodoin Temple in Uji is one famous temple that has been preserved burned-out as it is.

3. A populace that's used to foreigners
In Kyoto, I can walk around town without being stared at or approached by strangers. Little schoolchildren do not yell “Haro!” (hello) at me as some other expats complain. This is huge. When I lived in a small town outside of Kobe, there were vulnerable days where I would just hole up in my room rather than go out, because the staring was so relentless. Each glance, each comment from a passerby, each child’s pointed finger felt like a needle in my skin reminding me I didn't belong there. When I stay with my in-laws in their small town in Shizuoka, I feel the same. But Kyoto people are so used to tourists, a pointy nose and blonde hair aren't anything to write home about. I can breathe and relax more in Kyoto. A different story if I visit a tourist attraction during major busy seasons (cherry blossom season in spring and maple-leaf season in the fall) and then the out-of-town Japanese tourists comment, in my hearing "So many foreigners in Kyoto! Is this Japan??"

4. The city is pretty clean
Perhaps because many tourists visit, and it IS after all the ancient miyako (capital), there is a lot of effort put in to maintaining a city free from litter and bad smells. It is much pleasanter to walk around downtown for this reasons than say, Tokyo or Osaka. This cleanliness extends to the many rivers and streams that flow through the city, which are quite clean considering the amount of urban landscape they meander through. A few streams are clean enough that fireflies can be seen around them on June nights—and fireflies, apparently, need water free from garbage and chemical contaminates. Many little streets around town also have a distinct smell of incense about them, especially in the part of the city where I live with many artisans selling goods for Buddhist temples and services.

5. The abundance of cafés
I don’t think I need a long explanation for why this is a good thing. But in Kyoto, the coffee is GOOD. There are a few famous chains like Ogawa and Inoda here, and many many privately-owned little cafes that roast and grind their own beans. I learned to drink and love black coffee in Kyoto. A lot of cafes are renovated old machiya houses with a great Kyoto-esque atmosphere. As far as food goes, traditional kaiseki (course) meals are something visitors should try once...I did...and honestly haven't felt the need to eat it again. Kyoto is far from the ocean so it's not the best place for sushi or seafood. But the cafe food, and western-style food, is very good! It's often a unique fusion style of Western dishes with Japanese, Indian, or Korean touches. Here's a post on some of my favorite cafes.

6. A liberal atmosphere
Kyoto with its Buddhism and ancient arts may seem very rigid, but in my experience it is actually—in certain ways—one of the most open-minded cities in Japan. Since it is no longer the seat of politics, Kyoto has been free for a few hundred years to be the capital city of artists, poets, and philosophers—not all the most staunchly conservative types! It is also the home of one of the most prestigious universities in Japan, Kyoto University, famous for turning out thinkers a little different from the majority. One of my favorite memories is visiting Yoshida Dormitory, a community of students with their own system of government (sometimes to the dismay of Kyoto police) who charge members 500 yen (about $5) a month for rent to live in extremely dilapidated ancient buildings. There was a rare air of student idealism and gentle rebellion there that was in stark contrast to the relentless materialism of mainstream society.
The liberalism in Kyoto means that during election season, the radical right wing's black vans spewing vitriol from megaphones are a rare sight indeed. (The far right in Japan, by the way, wants to reestablish the modern version of "revere the emperor, expel the barbarian"--not friendly to Christians or foreigners of the wrong race). It also means there are many churches here to choose from. There is no need to make a day-trip of going to church like many people have to do in this country where fewer than 1% are Christian.

7. Maps--and English--everywhere
Sometimes I'm annoyed at this because I can get by without ever reading Japanese, which means I get lazy and I don't! But it is reassuring especially when navigating buses and trains. As an exchange student I really appreciated the abundance of maps posted around the that time I had no internet access on my phone, so whenever I went somewhere I printed out a ton of Google maps! But I found maps posted at intersections and near historical places so I rarely got lost. Many areas of Kyoto are engineered with tourists in mind, and it's very helpful.

8. Bicycles
I have always loved riding bikes. Time was when my siblings and I used to get on our bikes and not come home until the streetlights came on. As an exchange student, I got to relive the feeling many times in Kyoto! I bought a used commuter bike (they come equipped with a basket, a light that uses electricity generated from friction with the front wheel, a bell, and a hobble-style lock for about $60) the day after I arrived in Kyoto and it was my main transportation to and from class, rain or shine--so much cheaper than the subway or bus! Kyoto city is flat with few hills and the sidewalks are usually wide enough to accommodate bikes (no one rides on the road) making it ideal for long days touring around by bicycle. I remember I took a walk with some friends and it felt weird to go slowly on my own two feet after always going out on my bike. The only problem is, there are few (free) places to park your bike without fear of it getting impounded. In general you can park it in little side-streets and sneak off (shh don't tell anyone I told you to do that, and don't leave your bike somewhere overnight).

Every time I visit another city in Japan, I'm always glad to come back to Kyoto. I'm thankful we can live here during our time in Japan.

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