Summer diaries Part 4.1: touchdown in Kyoto

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I arrived in Kyoto last night after about 20 hours of traveling with a layover in Seattle and a longer than expected bus ride. On top of this, due to the time shift – 13 hours to Atlanta – I virtually lost the whole Wednesday-Thursday thing. In fact, I left Atlanta on Wednesday morning and I arrived only Thursday night in Kyoto – quite a shock. Although I haven’t seen that much yet, I can already say with confidence: you need a crazy experience? This is the real deal.

So here a my very early thoughts. In summary: amazing place with lots of things to see and explore but you are definitely outside of your comfort zone, which, while perfectly fine, drains energy – I truly am exhausted. Here is what wikipedia has to say about Kyoto:

Kyoto (京都市 Kyōto-shi?) (Japanese pronunciation: [kʲoːꜜto] ( listen)) is a city in the central part of the island of Honshu, Japan. It has a population close to 1.5 million. Formerly the imperial capital of Japan for more than one thousand years, it is now the capital of Kyoto Prefecture, as well as a major part of the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe metropolitan area. With temples, parks, bustling business districts, markets, from regal estates to the tightly-packed neighborhoods, Kyoto is one of the oldest and most famous Asian metropolises

One thing that became obvious to me within probably the first one or two hours in Japan is that it is really far away. I am not just talking about geographic distance but about also about:

  1. The language: while you can survive with a decent mix of English, Spanish, and French in Europe and the US, here, at least in Kyoto, this pushes it quite a bit. Most things are written in Japanese only and only very few people seem to speak English.
  2. The culture: the culture is very different. It starts with simple things like perceptions of colors (everything is more colorful and more color extreme), continues with little things like Manga-style comics and illustrations everywhere, and climaxes in a weird intercultural betrayal, where you see something seemingly familiar, you let your guards down and relax, just to learn that it works differently.
  3. Time zone: 13 hours is probably one of the worst time shifts ever. I makes it virtually impossible to talk at “normal times” with someone in the US: at least one of them will be pushing it by either getting up much too early or going to bed much too late.
  4. Size: Everything is extremely dense and small here. Even Starbucks has a “small” size which is much smaller than “tall”. When I went to Kyoto from the airport I surprised how “dense” the everything is. People live in tiny houses (or in huge ones with I do not know how many units) and drive tiny cars.

All in all it appears to be very closed and separated from the rest of the world which, of course, makes it even more interesting. The weather here is awesome so far – Atlanta like – which is supposedly not the usual as it is expected to be raining quite a bit around this time of the year. Interestingly I learned today (need to verify it at some point) that Japanese people do not like sunlight or getting tainted which is why many wear long gloves, umbrellas, and hats – unverified at this point, but I am working on it.

The streets. So far I haven’t been exploring terribly much, however I had some time walking the streets of Kyoto, close to the Sanjo Dori “area” to get a first impression. Many of the stereotypes you might have heard or seen in moves seem to be at least partially true. I happened to be on the streets when school finished and suddenly you will see an enormous number of students in school uniforms.

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The wiring. Another thing that I found quite stunning (and thus got is own bullet point) is the crazy amount of cables in the air. For anyone with a strong inclination towards order and structure, this is going to be a nightmare. In fact, you probably need a PhD for servicing the power lines.

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The language. As already mentioned above, the language barrier is very high. You walk through the streets to find food and you end up with menus like this – I am not even sure that it is only for food actually. Then there are a couple of places that offer some pseudo European or American stuff (as the pizza place in the image below).

sc_20130613_2Then you eventually figure out that there is a McDonald’s (while not necessarily great, you at least know what you get) you enter the place to find the whole menu, including the server being available only in Japanese and then you start ordering with pointing at pictures and sign language and getting something that is only approximately what you ordered.

sc_20130613_5One exception that I found (so far) is Starbucks. Looks like in the US, you get a coffee that is decent, and the waitress understands your ignorant order of your favorite “tall-venti-latte-with-skim-milk-no-cream-iced…” or whatever it is.

sc_20130613_1Taking the subway/railway was an adventure. For some of the stations the route plan is only available in Japanese and so are the machines. This means you do pattern matching between what you have written down and what you see on the board. Takes a loooooong time. But the best thing is that next to the machine for the tickets you can actually get something like pokemon cards from machines. Unfortunately, both are in Japanese and you virtually cannot tell them apart. In fact, we only learned about it after we paid and when, instead of a ticket, we ended up with pokemon cards.

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Wondering if this is really optimal in view of aerodynamics…

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The shops and store. Style-wise something that seems to be very much dominating is “lines” and “struts” when it comes to the design of places and stores. See the wallpaper and the tiles, as well as how in general things are organized. The line is the predominant structure in many places which at least feels very different from the US or Europe. Not to talk about the amount of color that you will find in some places.

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The temples. When you walk in the streets you will also find a huge amount of shrines and temples of various sizes and for various purposes (I suppose).

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That’s it for today – expect more soon. As usual, the gallery for more convenient browsing with higher resolution and a couple of extra pictures.

10 thoughts on “Summer diaries Part 4.1: touchdown in Kyoto

    • Very nice! When are you going? One thing that I found very helpful is to have maps etc in English. Most of the ones I got here were actually in Japanese which is really tough. Also, when you are going to some less popular place expect to have the menus in the restaurants in Japanese only. So it is good to know a couple of standard meals (or look for the next McDonald’s)

      • Were there for two weeks, landing in Tokyo. After a week there, we will be heading to Osaka via our JR pass and let it be our hub. Most destinations we want to go to will be <3hrs so the southern side will be explored.

        Looks like I'll be bringing a flashcard for food and the washroom haha!

        – Don

  1. Pingback: Summer diaries Part 4.4: making lemonade in Kyoto | Terence S Jones - a guy with a camera

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