Kyoto wrap up: Thoughts on month 7

(a.k.a. the most fascinating, magical month)

Japan was by far the place I was most excited to visit out of our Asia destinations (Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, and Malaysia). I’ve wanted to go to Tokyo for a long time, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows how much I love New York City. But Japan was so much more FASCINATING than I had expected. I don’t really know how else to describe it, but I found myself wandering streets and alleys in Kyoto, and walking aimlessly through their arcade shopping malls to admire unique items. I felt like everywhere I turned was something new and interesting to take in, and a new puzzle to sort out. Stores sold interesting and unique items, including grapes that were $12 USD for a bunch.

I don’t even know how to begin wrapping up this month. This was a FULL month – in the best possible way. I felt like I experienced more of Japan than perhaps any other month on Remote Year, and yet, I left wanting more. Japan was so endlessly fascinating to me, because it was so completely different from US culture in nearly every way. This article does a fantastic job in summing that up, if you’re interested in reading more about Japanese culture (it’s written in a very approachable way, not overly educational, don’t worry!) I guess I don’t know what I expected of Japan, but it certainly wasn’t what I experienced.

On the one hand, I perceived Japan to be so more advanced than the US – this is both true (toilets, bullet trains) and untrue (smoking laws, internet speeds, credit card use). On the other hand, I never expected Japan to be so culturally different from the US. While I will forever recommend Japan as a good “first Asia trip” destination for travelers who want to visit Asia but are concerned about their ability to get around in a foreign country, it is still vastly different from US culture in nearly every way.

If you’ve ever studied sociology, communication, or other similar academic areas of interest, you’ve probably heard about high context cultures vs low context cultures. Japan is the epitome of a high context culture, while the US is often epitomized at the other end of the spectrum, as a low context culture. Japan has a lot of implicit rules, and communication is often indirect – they value relationships and saving face above all else, so you sort of have to read between the lines when communicating with a Japanese person, as they may be too polite to tell you the full, direct truth. As such, you should look for context clues and subtle indicators to inform you of what’s really being said. On the other hand, you can generally expect someone from the US to directly tell you whatever they are trying to say. They will not rely much on nonverbal indicators to communicate their feelings, rather, they will directly tell you if they like or dislike something. The long and short of this point is this: the Japanese are extremely polite – they will avoid telling you no, telling you you’re wrong, expressing dislike, or confronting you in any way … which takes some getting used to.

I’ve now spent seven months outside of the United States, and for the vast majority of that time, I’ve had to be extremely attentive to my surroundings. I keep my purse zipper-locked, my cell phone strap securely wrapped around my wrist, and I carefully pay attention to anyone who comes near me – watching for signs I may be in danger. Having spent four months in Latin America and now three months in Asia, I do not blend in. I stand out immediately, and this can make me a target.

In Japan, however, all of this went away. I still stand out – I’m blatantly a foreigner in this country that remains nearly completely Japanese (only 2% of Japan’s population was foreigners, as of 2018) – however, I never felt like a target. Japan is so extremely safe – not only did I never have any concern for my physical safety, I quickly realized that I also needn’t be concerned about things like whether I was receiving correct change or whether the taxi driver was going to take me in circles. The Japanese are, by and large, honest and trustworthy. It was such a pleasant way of life to walk the streets without concern for safety, and to enjoy a meal without scrutinizing the bill for errors.

Combine that high level of trust with the quiet streets and beautiful surroundings, and I just felt like I was in a magical wonderland all month long. The only thing that could bring me back to reality was the cost of living, which was quite high, especially in comparison to Southeast Asia (where I’d just spent the two months prior).

Things that struck me:

  • Silent streets – even when there are tons of people around, it is quiet.
  • There is no “to-go”/takeout. Not for restaurants, not for street food, not even for coffee. If you want to eat or drink something, you generally must sit at the restaurant.
  • Along those lines, there really is no customizing your order. There’s also rarely salt at the table.
  • Japan is extremely safe, likely the safest place I’ll be this year. There’s a low crime rate and lots of places open late, so walking home alone at 4 or 5am was something I gave no thought to.
  • There are no bags at the grocery store – I learned this the hard way when I had to hand carry my items the half mile or so from the grocery store.
  • Most restaurants have buttons on the tables to summon the waiter. No more trying to flag someone down when you need something! How novel!
  • Japan is quirky: animal cafes for all sorts of things, unique flavored kit kats, beer vending machines on the street, etc.

Things I loved:

  • Fancy toilets – how do we still not have heated seats, bidets, and toilets that make noise to cover bathroom sounds?
  • Everything is clean- clean public toilets, clean streets, clean subways.
  • Safety – children as young as 5 or 6 can be seen riding the subway alone, children as young as 3 can be seen buying items at the grocery store alone, pickpocketing is virtually non-existent, and major crimes may as well not exist.
  • Wet towels everywhere you went – real towels at the fancier places, disposable ones at the less fancy places.
  • Queuing – the Japanese queue for everything. Waiting for a turn at Mario Cart? There’s an orderly line waiting nearby. Waiting for your bus? There’s a single file line to board.

Things I won’t miss:

  • Paying cash in far too many places – it was really strange how many places wouldn’t accept credit cards, and how many limited their use on seemingly strange things (like not being able to buy train tickets, sim cards, or other items using a credit card, when other items at the same location could be paid for with a card).
  • Carrying around tons of coins – the lowest paper bill in Japan is equivalent to around $10 USD, with coins going all the way down to less than a US penny.
  • Humidity – it was pretty brutal many days this month.
  • Mattresses on the floor – this is a distinctly Japanese experience, and while I found the uniqueness of living like the Japanese to be interesting, my back didn’t like it!
  • Smoke everywhere – I had forgotten how disgusting it feels to come home after a night in a smoky bar, and in Japan it’s even common to allow smoking in restaurants and coffee shops as well. More often than not, I came home reeking of cigarette smoke, no matter what I had done that day.
  • Wifi is tough to find here, and when you do find it, it can be abysmally slow. This was surprising to me because I had this perception that Japan is incredibly technologically advanced (their high speed trains and toilets certainly are), but by and large I don’t think that stereotype is true – many locals will say that perception is a holdover from the 80’s and they’re falling behind. 

Recommendations:

  • Wine Bar Libero – my favorite (reasonably priced) wine bar in Kyoto. They sell wine made by the Prisoner company in California!
  • Kenzo Estate Gion – my favorite luxury wine bar. This wine is produced by the guy who owns the company that made the Streetfighter game. He poured millions of dollars into a Napa estate with the goal of making the best wine possible. It’s phenomenal wine.
  • Tonkatsu Buta Gorilla – my favorite katsu (and I ate A LOT of it). This place offers chicken katsu (traditionally it is pork) and it’s pretty reasonably priced.
  • Owls Forest Kyoto – this was my favorite animal cafe. You can pet owls! And the owls were beautiful.
  • PRENDRE – I got a gel mani here and they did a great job.
  • Torikizoku – we at here several times. Everything costs 300 yen and you order through an iPad. Easy, cheap, fast food.
  • Walk around the streets of Gion for photos of the Hokanji Temple
  • Golden Temple – you won’t believe that this golden temple in a forest is just a 5 minute walk from the city bus stop.
  • Fushimi Inari – the tori gates are a must-see in Kyoto

Final thoughts

All in all, I really fell in love with a lot of things about Japan (not just Tokyo!). There’s just something to be said for the culture here – it’s such a strange (and nice) feeling to feel so safe everywhere. Japan is a high-trust culture, and I quickly realized that not only do I not have to worry about physical harm, pickpockets, and theft, but I also never worried about being charged the correct amount, given the correct change, or being driven in circles by a taxi driver. The Japanese, in short, can be trusted.

However, I’m not sure I could live here long term, at least for now. It’s extremely difficult for foreigners to get housing, and housing discrimination is perfectly legal here. There are many accounts of landlords refusing to rent to foreigners – the listed reason is often the language barrier, but even foreigners fluent in Japanese will be told no as well. It seems the real concern is more about “cultural fit.” Japan is a high context culture, and there are a lot of subtleties about the way they interact with others, leaving you to connect the dots. They also very much value being part of a community and expect those living in the building to hold that same value – it means living extremely quietly and getting to know your neighbors so that in an emergency you can all take care of each other. Landlords fear that between the potential language barrier, the potential that you can flee to your home country without paying, and the very real possibility that foreigners won’t understand all of the subtleties of their culture, that renting to foreigners is too high risk, so they simply say no before you can apply. 

Assuming you work for a local company (and not remotely for a company from your home country), gender based pay discrimination is a real thing. You’ll see ads posted where the listed salary is different for a male vs a female.

They also interestingly have many bars that do not allow foreigners or tourists to enter.

Plus, the lack of wifi and credit card use would make it tough to be here long term.

But… all things considered, I can’t wait to come back and I’d definitely recommend a visit to Japan, especially if it’s your first visit to Asia. While it is very different, many of those differences are pleasant surprises and it’s quite easy for an English speaker to get around, even in places English is not widely spoken.