Today is our last day in Kyoto. We've been here for two weeks and I can count on one hand the number of tourist sites we've visited. However, we've taken Blythe to the nearby Umekoji Park, which has a huge playground, almost every day, we've ridden bikes all over the city, we've cooked several dinners and breakfast each morning, and Rob and I have both been working out regularly. It feels about as normal as life can on the road and it is just what we need right now.
Kyoto is a bustling city, but lacks the bright lights and frenetic feel of Tokyo. The number of temples and shrines is astounding. Do people visit churches when they come to the United States? Are they as much of a destination as are shrines and temples throughout Asia or, say, churches in parts of Europe? When do Japanese wear kimonos? Is it just for holidays? Do some people wear them every day? These are the kinds of questions I ponder as we ride the narrow side streets of Kyoto seeing what "real life" is like here. Here are a few observations I've made after spending time in Kanazawa and Kyoto:
- Outside of every home seems to be either a bucket of red water or large, empty bottles filled with water. Google Translate tells me the writing on the red buckets says "for fire fighting". Most of the homes here are made of wood so this makes sense, although I wonder how effective these small buckets of water would actually be? And maybe the bottles of water are for something else? I have noticed that people are very judicious about washing up after their dog, so perhaps that is what the bottles of water are for (note: as a result, Japanese cities smell much better than, say, New York)?
- Biking is the way to get around. We had bikes both in Kyoto and Kanazawa and it enabled us to explore each city in a much more thorough way, get around faster, and keep Blythe happier. People bike everywhere, including with many children onboard. For what is said to be such a rule-abiding culture, I find two things odd. First, no one observes bike lanes. You are permitted to ride on the sidewalk in most places and often there is a designated bike lane. However, you'll find people walking in it, people biking outside of it, and no one adhering to the biking on the left side of the sidewalk or lane. It drives me bonkers. Second, no one wears a helmet. Other than on some children (Blythe included), I've seen about five our entire time here, and all of them were on people riding road bikes with full kits on (i.e., not people just riding around the city). We tried to get helmets with our rental bikes and the bike shop attendant looked at Rob like he was nuts. One tricky aspect of bike riding here is parking your bike. Note what happened to us one day below:
You cannot just park your bike anywhere, you need to locate a designated lot. It's nice because your bike is locked and safe; however, this requires you to first locate the lot! That sounds ridiculous, but we were totally befuddled about where the bike lot was outside of the Nishiki Market even though we could see on the map that we were 100 meters from it. A kind man noticed we had bikes and were staring perplexedly at the bike parking map and led us to an elevator -- the bike parking lot was on the second floor of a building. Who would have thought? I have learned that you must look up in Japan because the shop or place you are trying to locate may just be upstairs. An interesting thing I noticed about bikes is that they seen to share some features by where you are located. The bikes we used in Hida and Kanazawa had a particular type of kickstand; our bikes in Kyoto have a different type. They both had a handy lock that is attached to the back wheel of the bike so there is no need to carry a separate lock.
- I had forgotten how awful it is to eat a restaurant where people are smoking until we arrived in Japan. It astonishes me how many people smoke -- or maybe it isn't that more people smoke here, but that they do it where you are sitting, eating, drinking coffee, etc. Apparently Japan is under pressure to get rid of smoking in public places (including restaurants) before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Interestingly, the Japanese government (through the Ministry of Finance) owns 1/3 of Japan Tobacco and I noticed that cigarettes are relatively inexpensive here.
- The bathrooms here are interesting (toilets aside). Typically, the toilet is in its own separate room. The bathroom has a sink and vanity and often includes the washing machine. Off this room is the shower/bath room. There is a large tub and a shower space next to it, with the handle-style shower that you can remove and adjust. The nice thing is that the entire room is made to get wet and it's quite spacious. We've started having Blythe take a bath (which she looks forward to all day) while one of us showers. An added bonus: the room has a drying function as well. After you wash your laundry, if you cannot hang it outside because of the weather, you hang it in the bathroom and turn on the drying setting and voilà! Of course, the less time-consuming and faster way to dry your clothes is in a dryer, but I digress...
- Speaking of toilets, apparently Western-style toilets are just as confusing to those who are unfamiliar as Japanese toilets can be to us! Case in point: signage posted in the bathroom instructing you the dos and don'ts of using each version of the toilet. Blythe gets very excited about the squatting toilets because it means she gets to do "stand up pee", but she rarely goes because she's too distracted by the toilet itself. Sigh.
- Tanuki are a common sight outside of restaurants, bars, and homes in Japan. Apparently these are actually a dog that looks like a raccoon and real animals that exist in Japan (they look quite different in real life). In Japanese folklore, they often appear as shape-shifters with supernatural powers and mischievous tendencies. In between its feet is a very large... scrotum.
- People do wear surgical face masks quite a bit, but perhaps not as much as I expected. Apparently the reason for wearing these masks runs the gamut from preventing the spread of germs to hiding your face to avoid social interactions. In any event, at our local 7-11 you can find a wide variety of face masks but no trash bags.
- Kyoto is the first city where I found a normal trash can in a public place. Typically, you encounter signs like the one above telling you to "Keep bringing trash with you".
- I love reading English slogans on shirts, bags, and signs. Rob and I are considering a new business called "Proper English" where we will offer our English speaking abilities at a low fee so that companies can ensure what they print on goods makes sense before they print it. But really, I can't share the funniest ones because I am not bold enough to photograph random people most of the time (although people take photos of Blythe so maybe I should do the same?!), but the English "expressions" crack me up. I've included a few below, but they really don't do this justice. My favorite is the sweatshirt that says "No. 5 Fabulous. Charm is Given."
- We had a picnic along the Kamo River last week after finding delicious sandwiches at Dai's Deli (sandwiches are a rarity). I was enjoying my BLT in peace when a gigantic hawk swooped down and took it right out of my hand. The whole experience was a blur of wings and both terrifying and hilarious (and left me hungry). I'm glad it happened to me and not Blythe, but I was quite sad to lose my sandwich. A few days later, we saw this sign at the Kyoto Botanic Gardens so at least I know I wasn't being singled out.
- I have not purchased a physical book since we started traveling except those for Blythe, but I was perusing a fantastic bookstore in Kyoto called Maruzen and stumbled upon The Japanese Mind. There are many aspects of Japanese culture about which I wonder and I question the authenticity and accuracy of the answers I find on Google. I'm hoping this book will help. In any event, when I purchased the book, I was asked if I wanted it covered, like I covered my books in middle and high school. Perhaps this is something that will be covered in the chapter on "modesty" in The Japanese Mind. Apparently I don't want anyone to know what I'm reading (I got mine covered because it seemed fun).
- Visiting grocery stores in foreign countries is one of my favorite activities. It was challenging to go in Tokyo because we had no idea what we were looking at when it came to packaged goods and cuts of meat and some of the fruits and vegetables. Our airbnbs in both Kanazawa and Kyoto are managed by a company called Japan Experience and I highly recommend them if you travel here (a separate post about what we've actually done here will be written). We had a "travel angel" in each city who greeted us at the house, explained how to use it, and answered questions during our stay. Saki, our host in Kyoto, even met us one day at a local market where she talked us through what we were seeing, helped us choose foods to sample, and provided background on how things were made. It was so helpful and informative and I tried a few foods I otherwise would have skipped. She also took us to her neighborhood grocery store (which was like a Japanese Whole Foods) and she helped us decipher some of the packaged curry sauces and the like. It was awesome. She even helped me find the right mochi to make a savory mochi dish, mochi grilled cheese, that our host outside of Nagano made us and was super delicious. Most of our other cooking here has been a bit more Western (pasta, quinoa, veggie stir fry), but with some Japanese elements thrown in (lotus root, bamboo shoots, tofu, fiddleheads, ginger flowers).
- The Japanese postal system is incredibly efficient. A letter I mailed from the small city of Takayama reached someone in Indiana in a week. The letters I mailed a few days before we left New Zealand arrived almost TWO MONTHS later. I'll be astonished if the bag of things we mailed home from New Zealand ever arrives.
- I saw some really random snacks in Muji the other day that I can't resist sharing. Anyone interested? Most of the time I have no idea what the snack offerings are because there isn't an English translation, so this was quite helpful.
Our last week in Japan will be spent in Okinawa at the beach. I'm looking forward to relaxing and not feeling obligated to sightsee or, frankly, leave the resort and the beach. More to come about what we've actually been doing here, but I don't want to forget these cultural observations, which may actually be more interesting than noting the various temples we visited.