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This week’s guest post for the ‘Day-to-Day’ series comes from Andres and Christina who are currently working and living in Kyoto. If you’re living abroad and want to contribute a post, shoot me an email at thepaperplanesblog @ gmail . com.
In Kyoto, Japan, the old and new collide at every turn. The city was founded in the year 794 AD, and it was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years. Today it is a modern Japanese city with an incredible amount of history and living traditions.
We live in an old Japanese house on a quiet backstreet in the Higashiyama District. Higashiyama means “Eastern Mountain,” and the entire neighborhood is located on the slopes of the mountains that form Kyoto’s eastern border. The neighborhood is very hilly and extremely beautiful.
Higashiyama is one of Kyoto’s best-preserved neighborhoods – and in a city with as much history as Kyoto, that’s saying a lot! The street we live on is extremely quiet and peaceful, but if you walk just one minute down the hill from our house, you arrive dead in the center of Kyoto’s most beautiful historic area.
The meandering path below our house – called Sannenzaka – is one of Kyoto’s (and probably the world’s) most charming little streets. A stroll along Sannenzaka leads you past ancient temples, shrines, gardens, shops and homes. A short walk up the hill leads you to Kiyomizu-dera temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was founded in 798 AD. The views from the top are spectacular!
Not all of Kyoto is as cute, charming and “old feeling” as our neighborhood. While there are a few well-preserved old districts around Kyoto and the surrounding areas, most of the city looks (at least on the surface) like any other modern Japanese city, with concrete, neon, convenience stores, and pachinko parlors. However, there are gems to be found everywhere, and this is one of the most exciting aspects of living here.
We love to wake up early, and the first thing we usually do is make coffee. Coffee is very popular in Japan, and Kyoto is home to many coffee roasters, so getting good-quality coffee here is easy. Our neighborhood is amazing for running, so there’s nothing like a morning run, but we normaly get right to work. We work from home, or wherever we are in the world, and our first task of the day is typically checking email. For breakfast we have coffee and fruit, toast, or eggs. Most of our lunches and dinners are Japanese, but for whatever reason we’ve kept our habit of eating western-style breakfasts.
After working for a few of hours in the morning, we head out to explore the city and take photographs. One of the many wonderful things about living in Kyoto is the very livable size of the city, which allows us to primarily walk everywhere. Even though it’s a city of close to 1.5 million people, it somehow manages to feel like a large town.
When we want to go relatively far, we hop on the buses, which are plentiful and criss-cross every section of the city; or we hop on the subway, which is nowhere near as comprehensive as Tokyo’s, but useful nonetheless. Kyoto is also a great cycling city, as it’s just compact and laid-back enough to make for easy and relaxed biking from point to point.
But walking is our favorite mode of transportation. Even in the cold of winter, we like to walk long distances and them warm up in cafes, restaurants or cozy izakaya (Japanese-style gastropubs). We don’t mind walking 20, 30, 40 minutes or more, and walking also gives you a very close up and personal look at neighborhoods you would otherwise miss via any other mode of transport.
When we’re out in the middle of the day, we bring some snacks (milan [satsuma mandarins] and fresh Japanese rice crackers from our favorite local rice cracker shop) and usually have lunch out. You can spend as little or as much as you’d like on lunch in Kyoto: if you’re on a budget you can spend as little as US$2-3 on a bowl of soba or udon noodles.
Our favorite lunch to date was at an old udon shop called Omen, located near the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) in a quiet and charming neighborhood of northern Kyoto. The atmosphere of the restaurant is quite traditional, with seating on tatami mats – and the noodles, sauce and vegetables are incredible! At US$10 it’s a steal, considering the quality of the meal and experience.
We get most of our work done during the middle of the day, and even though we have Wi-Fi at home, we like to work in coffee shops when possible. This is the only real problem we have in Kyoto, however. If there’s one downside we encounter on a regular basis here, it’s the dearth of coffee shops with Wi-Fi.
Japan is an incredibly modern country, but when it comes to Wi-Fi it lags behind the rest of Asia, and most of the modern world. (On a side note, Tokyo is significantly better, though not amazing). Most cafes in Kyoto don’t have Wi-Fi, which means that we have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with Starbucks.
Starbucks is ubiquitous in central Kyoto, with shops scattered throughout the center of the city. The good thing is that they have Wi-Fi – but they can be quite strict about things like plugging into outlets, or using computers during certain hours. Not to mention the fact that we’d prefer to frequent and support locally-owned cafes!
After a day out and about, we usually walk home. The walk from central Kyoto to our house in the eastern hills of Higashiyama takes us first across Kiyamachi Street, with its pretty tree-lined canal. We then cross theKamogawa River, an enduring symbol of Kyoto (at dusk the river is especially pretty). Right across the river is the historic Gion District, famous as one of Kyoto’s most important geisha districts.
Gion is full of tourists and the main street here has lost much of its charm, but some of the backstreets are extremely charming. And if you’re lucky, in the evenings you’ll see geisha (called “geiko” in Kyoto) and maiko (apprentice geisha) rushing from taxis to appointments in private teahouses. Passing through Gion, we finally reach the backstreets of our neighborhood.
Our neighborhood is beautiful day and night, but our favorite time of day is when we have it all to ourselves. At night, after all the tourists have left, it’s magical. The ancient stone streets are empty, and all the shops are closed. We walk up a steep, narrow alley past our favorite pagoda (Yasaka Pagoda), which towers over the neighborhood and makes us feel so lucky to live here. The approach to our house gets increasingly steeper. We pass an apartment building said to be home to several local geisha, and finally reach our house.
Old Japanese homes are notorious for their lack of insulation, and our house is no exception. We have a heater in the kitchen, and one in our bedroom, but the hallways are freezing. (Modern Japanese homes often have heated floors and better heating.) To keep your core warm in the winter, you take a bath in the evening. Japan is serious about baths, and despite our house’s age the bath is super modern, with temperature controls, an electronic voice that announces when the temperatures has increased, and more buttons than a television remote control. The water gets as hot as you’d like, making it the perfect way to warm up in Kyoto’s chilly winter.
Most nights we cook at home, making Japanese-style meals including delicious Japanese rice, miso soup with vegetables, fresh fish, and Kyoto’s famous pickles. Shopping for groceries here is a joy: the quality of the produce, seafood and meat is amazing. The prices are comparable to those in the US, but the value for money is far better here. Seasonal and local is not a fad in Kyoto: it’s always been a way of life.
Beer or sake go perfectly with our meals, but we usually get a little more work done at night. We often work quite late, as we love what we do – and also it helps us to communicate with our clients in other parts of world. Many of our clients are in the US, so working at odd hours helps us communicate at times that are convenient for them. Sometimes we take calls late at night – or early in the morning – so that it’s easy for clients to connect with us.
When we go out, we like to find cozy neighborhood izakayas and tiny bars. Japan is full of incredible, friendly little bars that are not visible from street level, and Kyoto is no exception. Our favorite – run by two funny and warm-hearted Kyoto locals – serves impeccable cocktails and is located on the 4th floor of a nondescript building. We found it completely by accident.
Kyoto is not a small city, but just 30-60 minutes away (depending on which train you take) is the larger city of Osaka, which has both incredible food and big-city nightlife. Kyoto is also near the city of Kobe (which has a great Chinatown), Nara (the ancient capital of Japan and a beautiful day trip), Mount Koya (a sacred mountain), and so much more. Not to mention that it’s just two and a half hours from Tokyo on the bullet train.
One of the ultimate pleasures of living here is the extremely high level of safety, and the pure kindness of strangers. Only in such a safe and tranquil city would a taxi driver do the following: Leaving a bar around midnight, we hailed a cab. We began talking to the taxi driver and learned he was from another part of Japan. We started chatting, and all of a sudden he decided he wanted to show us something.
The cherry blossom season in Kyoto usually peaks in early April. But despite the fact that it’s winter, he told us that he knew of a tree that was already in bloom – quite early indeed! He asked if making a detour to see it would be alright, and we said sure. In almost any other country, we might have been suspicious – but after spending enough time in Japan, you begin to feel deeply that you can depend on the generosity of strangers.
Not only did he show us the lone cherry tree in bloom (beautiful under themidnight moon, and from the window of a cab): he stopped the meter to make sure we wouldn’t have to pay extra, and asked us to please return the following day to see it in daylight. A typical remarkable experience in the day-to-day life in Kyoto, Japan.