Living in Kyoto- aka How to Play by the Japanese Rules

Read all the exciting things our scholars have been up to!


Kon’nichiwa readers! I arrived in Kyoto a few nights ago- due to a delay we came in much later than expected. I was too tired to do anything but sleep the first night, but the next day I was ready.

I know a lot of people are interested in travelling to Japan. Hey, I was one of them! So I thought I might start off by talking about some of the differences I’ve noticed between Kyoto and California (plus a little bit of Tokyo), and how I’ve needed to adapt. Playing by the Japanese rules, if you will.

Unlike back home, people board the bus from the back only. It’s also not uncommon to be standing, the buses can become pretty packed. You pay the fare once you disembark from the front of the bus, quite the opposite from the Los Angeles Metro. During the ride I was hyper vigilant, scouting for any sort of landmark I could use to serve as a sign for me to remember to get off the bus. I needn’t have been worried, this was towering above my school’s bus stop:

Back in Tokyo, I never rode the city bus. They intimidated me, so I didn’t try to use them. That isn’t an option here in Kyoto. Everything from school to the supermarket requires a bus trip, unless of course you prefer to spend all day walking. But Kyoto summer weather doesn’t make this the most comfortable plan. It`s already been above 90 degrees several times this week. This also isn’t anything like a dry California heat, the sheer humidity guarantees you’ll work up a sweat within minutes. Luckily there are many vending machines scattered along the streets, so beating dehydration is a breeze.

There’s at least one on almost every street.

One accessory that I’m not used to carrying around is an umbrella. Used for both sun and rain protection, Japan is definitely an umbrella society. This is evidenced by the stands within any restaurant or store. The weather just isn’t consistent enough to go without one. It can be pouring one minute, then dry the next. I wanted to resist bringing an umbrella. It’s another item to lug around, plus its so easy to forget it while you’re out exploring the sights. But my goal for this trip was to act like a citizen, and the people living in Kyoto chose umbrellas over rain ponchos. So “kasa” it is.

Note: kasa is Japanese for umbrella. There’s plenty of places to store your kasa while you’re out.

The last thing I`ll discuss is this- the fact that I’m not an American citizen here. Instead, I’m a Japanese guest. Now, of course I don`t mean this literally. My passport didn’t change overnight. But, many of my mannerisms clash with the citizens of Kyoto, and I’ve had to correct myself multiple times in an effort not to offend.

Kyoto is quite small, really all of Japan is. So it’s especially important to stick to one side of the sidewalk. It’s easy to fall into the habit of walking side by side with friends. But consider the poor person behind you trying to catch the bus. Always, always go single file in Japan. That’s how I walked with my friends to our group meal of shabu-shabu.

Shabu-shabu is the onomatopoeic term for the sound the food makes as it’s being cooked…at your table of course. A hot pot of broth sits at the center of the table, and you take turns dropping in ingredients and share what you cook up. It was definitely very interesting. I wasn’t able to include a pic this time, but I encourage everyone to try it out for themselves!

Getting back to unspoken rules, it was at this dinner where my group broke a big one. When I think of a typical night out, I can immediately hear the loud music, the laughter of those I’m sitting with, and a friendly server speaking up to be heard over the noise. That just isn’t the case here in Japan. The ambiance is much more relaxed and subtle. If there is music it is often mellow, and you are expected to be quiet. My fellow classmates were loud and boisterous, often shouting across the room to another table. It’s painful, sitting and realizing everyone is staring at you in annoyance. Hopefully the next meal goes a lot smoother.

I’ve only just landed, and the growing pains have already begun. There was less pressure to acclimate in Tokyo, it almost feels like there’s a magnifying glass on me this time. But I got a head start by learning about the country first. Now it’s simply a matter of practicing until it becomes second nature. And I’m up for the challenge.

A typical view on my way to school.

My group has several excursions planned for the coming days, so my next post will hopefully be a bit more exciting. See you then!