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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.

The Kyoto Leica Store

I went to the Leica Store in Kyoto today at the recommendation of Jason Murdoch and La Vida Leica on Twitter.

At the store they let me play with the Leica M240 and the T cameras. Someone offered me a great deal on an M240 the other day, but found today that I don’t like it’s mechanics at all. There are too many options, too many buttons, and too much temptation to do things other than take pictures. The Leica T is a gorgeous camera, it feels as if it were designed by Jony Ive, but it’s not a photographic tool like the previous M cameras — it’s a phenomenal point and shoot.

When I bought my Leica ME I was physically nauseous for hours. It costs as much as a super high end Mac desktop, does a lot less, and the money could have been used to travel in Asia for six months. I’m still glad I made the purchase. For a trip like this having a insanely small and fantastic camera has given me something to be very passionate about. It’s led to major advancements in my photography. Unlike any other camera it melts away and I barely think about it while using it.

I told the salesman that I didn’t like the Leica M240 or the Leica T and he just shrugged and said “Yes. The Leica ME is the best for photographers.” I’m glad that Leica’s marketing message about the ME being for the basics of photography seems to be true. No one was trying to upgrade me to the next camera in the line today.

Later he showed me this very limited edition “matcha tea” Kyoto Leica MP film camera shown below. Apparently it is only sold in this one store. Yours for $15,000 (minus 8% tax as a foreigner — fairly substantial here — bring your passport).

Other than the insanely expensive cameras the internal architecture of the Kyoto Leica store is fascinating. Just you might imagine an Apple store could be if it had lower volume. The upstairs is literally a gallery showing photography made with Leica cameras.

If you’re ever in Kyoto check out the story if only to visit the incredible Hanamikoji Dori street. It’s one of my favorite streets in the world.

Hanamikoji Dori at night. Kyoto, Japan.

The Motorbikes of Hanoi

In Hanoi it’s hard to focus on anything but the motorbikes. Motorbikes parking fills the sidewalk, pushing pedestrians into the street, and once in the street motorbikes fill every space: flying down the street blaring a horn, sitting at the edge of the sidewalk forcing you further into traffic, or coming up the street in the wrong direction.

A local told me it’s easiest to think of the street as yet another sidewalk where everyone moves by motorbike. How do you navigate on the sidewalk? You only look in front of yourself and rarely behind. The same is true with motorbikes in Vietnam: on a bike in Vietnam your job is to avoid hitting the bike in front of you but you don’t need to care about the bike behind you. To cross the street you don’t look and you just walk into traffic. The bikes will flow around you.

This sounds insane but it works. Bikes move through intersections lacking traffic lights remarkably fast, swerving and second guessing each other’s moves until the route is cleared. Traffic flows like water around rocks.

Men sit on each corner offering their bikes as taxis and move huge freight through the streets on their bikes. Whole families go down the street on a bike together. As far as I saw the bike is the dominant mode of transportation in Hanoi1.

Having visually and mentally obsessed over motorbike culture for months now the idea of freedom of movement became an obsession of mine. I found a shop run by westerners and hired them to teach me skills classes at $5/hour. Having never riden a motorcycle before, the manual transmission felt surprisingly easy to lear. After just two hours of driving through the streets the westerners announced that I was ready to experiment riding in Hanoi through trial by fire. I was apprehensive, but they all insisted that this is how they had learned. So I went to rent a bike.

During my test drive I gassed the engine too much, let the clutch out too fast, and flew into the street. In an instant my hands reacted by squeezing the clutch, squeezing the front brake and, unfortunately, revving the gas. The engine roared. It sounded like the engine was about to spin apart. I was terrifed. For some reason instead of letting off the gas I let go of the clutch, the back tire burned out, the front wheel lifted off the ground, and the bike drove itself through the street in a wheelie while I tried to hold on. I fell, let go of everything, and the bike stopped on top of me.

A bunch of old Vietnamese men encircled me, turned off the bike, and made a “slowly release the clutch” motion with their left hands while smoking and laughing.

I decided that I don’t have the skills yet to safely ride a motorbike in Vietnam2. Since motorbike is clearly the best way to experience Vietnam I decided to leave and come back after more practice.

  1. A new bike costs $500-700 and a used one $50-$300. Since the average Vietnam resident makes about $1,500 per year this is all most people can afford.
  2. This wasn’t the only riding experience. I also rented a semiautomatic bike in Dong Hoi and rode it around for the day. Given infinite time I may have stuck around and sorted it out — but a friend asked me to come to Thailand. [return]

Thoughts on my first trip to Japan

Nagoya, Japan.

Once I was standing outside a gas station in Las Vegas and felt my anxiety peaking. Along with the fuzzy haze of heat in the air the noise of the gas station door was bothering me. A stream of people went in and out but no one bothered to hold the door for the person behind them. So it opened and closed every few seconds with a loud slap.

To me this distills Las Vegas: a place where we become obsessed with ourselves and the short term, where carnal desires come to feed. More than the noise of the door it was the total lack of caring about each other that bothered me.

Japan feels like the opposite of Las Vegas. People here care deeply for each other. The most obvious sign of caring is the masks people wear when they’re sick. Why would a caring person want to make someone else sick? They wouldn’t, so the masks are everywhere.

Another sign of caring is the lack of theft in Japan. People don’t even lock up their bikes. There is also no bumping into each other on the subway, no smoking while walking in the streets, and no angry arguments or loud phone calls. Rarely does someone even talk on a phone indoors, and never on the train.

It’s hard to get irritated with someone in Japan because everyone is too nice and careful not to piss each other off. While buying lunch someone bowed to me four times.

The combination of all these traits makes Japan feel remarkably safe. Much safer than the United States. In Osaka and Maibara I felt no hesitation to get off the train on a lark and wander the unknown city for a day. Nothing of mine was ever stolen. One man chased me down to return a dropped 100 yen coin (about $1).

The safety extends back into the culture from the top. It was just as normal to see kids playing in the street far from their parents as it was to see strangers helping each other out. It’s so pleasant to visit a society where the default behavior isn’t to be a dick to each other.

My initial impression of Japan from the internet was that it’s both reserved and chaotic. This still seems true. Reserved: the men of Japan wear a lot of suits and the women overall seem shy. Chaotic: Tokyo intersections are a mad rush of bodies.

Japan also has a reputation of sexual liberation. I didn’t go digging for it and didn’t easily come across it. It only came to me once in an alley where I saw a sign offering a massage that was too expensive to only be a massage. That aside, Japan still feels much less like a country of perverts than the United States.

Looking back on my visit what sticks out most about Japan is its attention to detail. The trains run on time to the second, the food at convenience stores is high quality, and even the dirty things are somehow cleaner than you would expect them to be in the United States.

Everyone warned me that Japan would be very expensive. I found that Japan doesn’t have to be expensive because everything here is done so carefully. Even the cheap stuff is great.

My $25/night hotel was just a small room in an old building. Other than obvious signs of age it was perfectly fine. The shared bathroom was regularly cleaned, the room didn’t smell. A low end hotel in the United States would certainly cut costs by cleaning less frequently. That’s not how things work in Japan.

Most of my meals were at convenience stores or small restaurants. I never checked reviews of any restaurant ahead of time. Even the cheapest food in Japan is fantastic, even the desserts from a refrigerator at the corner market are very well done. Adding together my expenses at the end of the trip I spent about $70/day.

My one big regret was not planning well enough to eat at Sushiwa in Kyoto. It was supposedly Steve Job’s favorite restaurant in the world.

Finally here’s the part of Japan everyone has seen before: the deer, the flowers, and the temples. They are truly gorgeous.

The temples are so clean that to my American eyes they look like reconstructions. I still refuse to believe that some of them are over 1,000 years old. As with everything, the country and its gardens and its temples are well kept. The worst part of the whole trip was probably the feral deer on Miyajima which smelled rough but still looked great.

Japan, I’ll be back soon.