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A Second Trip to Kyoto

Kyoto, Japan.

Walking down the street in Kyoto I’m amazed a city that should be so ugly can actually be so beautiful. On arrival, Kyoto feels like a basic industrial town. It’s pavement, concrete, steel, and gray. Underneath, after walking around, I suddenly realized how clean everything is. Thinking back, for the first few days the largest garbage I saw in the street was a stray leaf callously dropped by a tree.

I’ve spent time looking at spotless concrete walls, wondering how in the world a society could get to the point of keeping concrete so clean. Some people extend theories related to samurai or cultural identity or Buddhism, but I don’t know which to believe. What’s even more remarkable about this cleanliness is that Japan has basically no garbage cans. I hear that the ricin terrorist attack years ago used garbage cans to deliver the poison, so trash cans are gone now. I regularly walk half a kilometer with a used Coke can looking for a place to trash it before giving up and crushing it into my back pocket.

Months ago my impression of Japan was that it contained a deep inner peace. These days I question if that’s actually peace I’m feeling. The Japanese are exceptionally polite to me, but I’m a foreigner. They bow comically often when I order coffee at Starbucks: once when place my order, then when I hand over the money, then when I get the receipt, once I get the coffee, and finally when I leave. At Family Mart a man bows so low that his heads almost hits the counter. I hear that they aren’t as polite to the locals.

Another foreigner, a photographer I met from Missouri, tells me that Kyoto is basically the Texas of Japan. Compared to the rest of Japan the food is exceptionally sweet, just like Texas. If you grew up here, you’re welcome here. But if you’re from outside it can be an impossible culture to penetrate — just like Texas. The traditional way to ask someone to leave your house here is to offer them rice with tea poured over it as dinner — it’s food, and it’s good food, but it’s a known signal that it’s time for you to leave.

I don’t know why I remember Kyoto as so quiet from my previous visit. It’s peaceful, but more often than I remember the peace is rudely broken. Today it was a blaring car horn as a driver sped past a bicycle and an over revving motorcycle waiting to leave a stoplight at 3 am. In the rest of the world this is the soundtrack of life. In Kyoto it’s alarming, so exceptionally rude compared to what else I’ve seen that it hints at discord. It’s hard to believe someone here would behave that way. Whoever is making this noise doesn’t fit in.

Japan feels like it’s in the future. The electronics stores have so much depth and breadth that walking into one feels like a visit to an Amazon warehouse or the Consumer Electronics Show. I see products, like an 800 gram 13 inch laptop made from magnesium alloy, that are years away from being introduced into other markets. When an American electronics store might have one to five options to solve a problem the Japanese store has 10 to 100. I counted over 200 different cases for an iPad Air. The variety is overwhelming.

I’m enjoying my time here. It’s a delightful to be in such a quiet and generally peaceful place. It’s nice to have not been hassled about buying a taxi cab or a prostitute since arriving. Overall though, I miss the energy and hustle of South East Asia. When you’ve already arrived, when your country is already years in the future compared to anywhere else, there isn’t as much desire to push forward. People move quickly but no one seems to be climbing.

One more note, on the food: it can be had cheaply. Today I ate for about $10, mostly prepared food from grocery stores. If you cook for yourself it’s obviously going to be lower cost. When traveling I expected that cost would vary substantially by country, but the cost of food and lodging doesn’t move too much. A hostel bunk in Indonesia can cost $8 per night, in Japan it can cost $17. A Big Mac in Japan costs maybe 50% more than a Big Mac in Indonesia, and Starbucks coffee costs only 30% more here.

A good cooked meal in Indonesia can cost $1.50, but the portions are small. A filling meal with a drink is closer to $4. In Japan you can drink water from the tap, cutting maybe $2 from a daily budget, and you can get a good filling meal for $5 after a bit of digging around. Considering that Indonesia’s GDP per capita is maybe one eighth of Japan’s, it’s surprising that living here can cost only about twice as much.