Kyoto and First Impressions of Japan

Konichiwa from Japan!

I normally schedule all my blog posts in advance but I couldn’t help but break from routine so I can tell you guys about my first couple of days in Japan! I’m here for a family vacation; we arrived in Kyoto a few days ago and (as everyone predicted) I LOVE it. Also: I only did the peace sign in photos for about half a day before I admitted that I can’t pull it off.

Kyoto was the former imperial capital of Japan; the emperor used to live there. It is called “the city of peace and tranquility” and is known worldwide for things we associate with classical Japanese culture: emperors, samurai, temples, shrines, zen gardens, kimonos, tea ceremonies, geisha. It’s an ancient city but a very well-preserved one.  It’s beautiful, to say the least, and our few days there have been really nice.

The people are so friendly, even if not everyone speaks English. My dad also very often gets mistaken for a local, so there’s even more confusion when they realize that we can’t speak Japanese. (That’s my family on the train on our way to Kyoto.)

Here are some quick observations about Kyoto (and Japan in general) and what has lured me into immediately imagining a life here. What I’m Loving So Far:

Even the cheap food is really good. Sure, I expected amazing meals here (I love all kinds of Japanese food) but I didn’t expect even the fast food grub to be super tasty. For our first meal, we went to one of those quick lunch places with ticket machines (a vending machine where you place your orders and pay). I thought the ramen and gyoza would just be okay, after all it’s technically fast food, but both were really good. In fact it was so good that my sister Patty and I came back at 10 pm later that evening only to be disappointed because it was already closed – the restaurant has the same hours as the department store, which brings me to my next favorite thing:

The department stores are huge. Forget the 10 floors of Saks in Manhattan – the department stores here are massive. Best of all, they often have floors dedicated to just restaurants PLUS a depachika, or department basement gourmet hall. Think food stalls and farmers market in one place. Shopping and food combined? I’m in heaven.

The architecture is magnificent but the stories are even better.  For instance I loved visiting the The Nijo Castle, which was the residence of the shoguns (a shogun was the head of the military). I’ve always been interested in stories about Japanese military and Japanese warriors (I loved the last Samurai exhibit at the MFA) and it was great seeing an actual castle where the floors are squeaking (squeaking!) to warn the guards if there are any intruders. The floors of the palace corridors are called “nightingale floors” because they were designed to squeak like the birds if anyone steps on them. Even if you step as lightly as a ninja!

There are photo ops everywhere. Or: there’s no need to be shy in taking photos. Not only do people respectfully stay out of your way if they see you pointing a camera or an iPhone, or do they volunteer to take your picture even with the language barrier, but there are also designated photo stations. The photo station we tried here is at the food floor of Isetan (one of the more popular department stores) where you can pretend to be a Japanese cook.

The Japanese love their sweets. This place is a dessert-lover’s dream. Japan makes incredibly smooth chocolate – my favorite is Royce, but I also particularly enjoy the strawberry-flavored novelties from the convenience stores. The pastries and cakes are also delicious. I read somewhere that one of Japan’s best kept secrets is their French pastries, so of course I had to try them myself. There is also a lot of ice cream. Yes, it is winter, but that did not stop me from enjoying a soft serve cone.

And in reality, when Patty and I went back to the department store late at night for ramen, in my head I was also thinking ice cream.

I hope you guys enjoyed this quick post about my vacation so far.  There is so much to see and do and eat in Japan, and I’m planning to enjoy every remaining minute here. Sayonara for now! Stay tuned next week for cookies.


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