10 ways life in Kyoto is different than Tokyo

By Kirsty Kawano

It’s in the words, it’s in the air, it’s in the history: the differences between life in Tokyo and life in Kyoto may be endless, but here are 10 to get us started. Which one would encourage you to make the move (or stay)?

1. It’s all about that Kyoto-ben

Kyoto has its own –ben, or dialect. It’s a more lyrical and idiosyncratic version of Tokyo’s standardized Japanese. Under Kyoto–ben intonation, for example, the final syllables of both arigato and gozaimasu are raised. Kyoto shares some Kansai regionalisms — like okini (thank you) — with neighbors like Osaka, but Kyoto-ben is differentiated from them by a soft, somewhat feminine air.

The Kyoto dialect even adds an extra level of politeness via the use of the auxiliary verb haru. It’s more polite than regular, familiar language but not as stiff as the respectful keigo (polite honorific Japanese). It goes like this: instead of Doko e ikimasu ka (Where are you going)? a Kyoto-ite would say, Doko ikaharimasu ka? or perhaps break it down further to Doko e ikaharun desu ka?

2. Winters are colder


Wedged in between mountains as it is, Kyoto is more than 1,000 meters above sea level and consequently much colder in winter than Tokyo, which sits at a low 40 meters above sea level. Kyoto’s average temperature for January 2018 was just 3.9 degrees Celsius compared with Tokyo’s 4.7. The gap spread further in February: 4.4 degrees vs 5.4 degrees. Still, as Kyoto-ites will tell you — that’s way better than summer.

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Kirsty, Kyoto is not 1000m above sea level, even the top of Hieizan is only 700m! In fact Kyoto's elevation is 50m and Tokyo's is 40m. For me the biggest difference is that from anywhere in Kyoto you can hike up into the mountains without using any transportation at all, and be completely on your own. The Kyoto Trail through the mountains circling the city is a marvel.

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It helps to have read some history of Kyoto to appreciate the streets and landmarks of the last 1,000 years there, the traditonal home of the imperial court. For example I found Yoshikawa Eiji's easy-to-read historical novel The Heiki Story seriously illuminating.

NB Great for a few days' visit but those bicycles are not as easy as they seem. Kyoto has a serious problem with cycling manners; there are signs everywhere urging you to pay and use the designating cycle parking lots. Free bikes belonging to the hostels have identification on them. Be aware that people are looking where you leave your bike, and can and will report you.

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