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  • Yuki Tejima

Educating Myself in Kyoto

I’ve been in Kyoto for a few days.

In pre-pandemic times, I would hop on the Kyoto-bound shinkansen from Tokyo about once a month for purposes of work, settling into the 2.5-hour train ride with a paperback I know I must finish on my way there, as I will likely be too smitten with other, newly-found books on the way back.

For six or more years I’ve done this, staying in a different area of the city every time, reacquainting myself with the town one neighborhood at a time.

And way, way back before that, I lived in Kyoto for a year as an American college exchange student. But unlike New York where anyone can be a New Yorker as soon as they choose to call themselves so, you will never fully be an insider in Kyoto, even if you’re Japanese, unless you’re generations deep into the town’s history and culture.

When I speak with the family of a famous Kyoto sweets shop that opened its doors over forty years ago, they laugh and say, “In Kyoto you’re considered a newcomer until your business has been around for a hundred years, at least.”

So. You understand why I would never dare to call myself an expert on the culture, people, food or traditions of the great city. The best I can do is get around pretty decently without a map, and keep a growing list of favorite stops on each trip.

As a naive twenty-year-old, again, way back when, I was clueless as to the city’s offerings with regards to books and aspects of culture that didn’t have the word “tradition” attached to it.

I, like many visitors, thought the shrines and temples were all Kyoto had to offer, not exactly the defining elements of a raging college town.

What I’ve learned in the decades since is how little I know, not just about the shrines and temples, though I have visited dozens of them numerous times, but about the depths of Kyoto culture, not just in the traditional Japanese sense (tea ceremony, Japanese cuisine, craftsmanship, etc), but in terms of pop culture, music, literature, movies, and fashion.

I was a fool, I think. Every time I come back here.

In my day-to-day, I rarely, if ever, wish I could go back to my youth. I don’t think back and sigh, ahhh, the good old days. The days were good, and I was very privileged, but I didn’t know enough to be able to appreciate them then.

But if I were twenty years old now...

The thought occurs to me only when I am in Kyoto. Faced with the unsurmountable wall of culture and history (not of shoguns and samurai, but of coffee and jazz and records and novels), I suddenly become desperate to return to my twenty

-year-old self and tell her to leave those lame bars and clubs where the exchange students hung out (because we didn’t know any better), and soak in everything she can from the independently-owned bookstores (and their owners), the old kissaten cafes (and their owners), the independent cinemas (and their regulars).

Go and get yourself a real education, I would say.

Then, maybe, you will gain actual appreciation for “culture.”

Thinking such things on this trip as I drop by my favorite used bookstores, run usually by a single person, the owner, who is always there when you open the door.


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