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10 Ways Life in Kyoto is Different than Tokyo

Hotter in summer, colder in winter and so much more chill all year round.

By 6 min read

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

Maiko geishas walking on a street of Gion

Kyoto has its own –ben, or dialect. It’s a more lyrical and idiosyncratic version of Tokyo’s standardized Japanese. Under Kyotoben intonation, for example, the final syllables of both arigato and gozaimasu are raised. Kyoto shares some Kansai regionalismslikeokini(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

Woman with umbrella in snow in Kyoto

Wedged in between mountains as it is, parts of Kyoto Prefecture reach more than 1000 meters above sea level, with the city itself averaging at around 50 – 60 meters. Consequently, it’s 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.

3. Summers are hotter, too

Participants of Gion Festival (Gion Matsuri)

If you’ve experienced the exhausting humidity of a Tokyo summer, you might find it hard to believe that some urban areas in Japan are even hotter, and Kyoto accomplishes that feat. The city’s geographical positioning inland helped push its July 2017 average temperature (28.4 degrees), a whole degree higher than Tokyo’s (27.3 degrees) and a roasting two degrees higher in August (28.7 vs 26.4).

However, the greater amount of greenery in Kyoto means that there are areas still cool enough to allow residents to recuperate. In fact, Kyoto-ites are experts at the art of summer refreshment; kawadoko, for example, is the picturesque activity of dining above a river, while summer dishes like nagashi-somen or “flowing noodles” involve actually catching your food as it flows down the river itself.

4. Nature is closer

People relaxing in Kamo river. Its riverbanks are popular walking spots for residents and tourists.

Kyoto-ites cool off in summer by jumping into one of the nearby rivers, than hanging around until evening for a beer or two. Although Tokyo also has a number of major rivers and many smaller waterways running through it, Kyoto’s are not only more inviting — urbanization has leeched Tokyo’s rivers of much of their beauty and cleanliness — but its rivers and green areas, in general, are much closer to the city. Kyoto’s most famous river, the Kamogawa, runs right alongside the city center.

While Tokyoites keen on wetting more than just their feet have to take an 80-minute train ride to get out to the Tamagawa river in, say, Mitake, from Kyoto’s downtown Shijo subway station it takes half that time to get up to the Hiragino dike on the upper Kamogawa.

5. You need a whole lotta pedal power

Bicycle outside a Kyoto traditional townhouse

Most people who live in Kyoto find cycling the easiest way to get around. With an area about 2 1/2 times smaller than that of Tokyo’s central 23 wards, the scale of the city is conducive to bike riding, as is the relatively flat landscape. The lower traffic volume compared with Tokyo also helps and the grid system under which Kyoto’s streets were laid makes navigation easy.

Cycling also helps to fill the gaps left unserved by public transport. While Tokyo’s intricate network of around 60 train lines and more than 500 train stations leaves few areas out of reach, Kyoto’s two subway lines and about five private train lines don’t quite have the same effect. The buses take up the slack and are particularly useful to tourists since many of Kyoto’s leading sights lay at the edges of the city.

6. It might be in–combini-ent

Convenience store in Kyoto

There are two things in Kyoto that, compared to Tokyo, can be more difficult to find — convenience stores and vending machines.

In 2018, Tokyo had 7,280 convenience stores, according to data from the Statistics Japan website. Kyoto, as a prefecture, had 1,086. On a per capita basis, Tokyo ranked number three, with 53.44 stores for every 100,000 people (slightly less than Hokkaido and Yamanashi prefectures), while Kyoto Prefecture reached 30th spot (out of the 47 prefectures) with 41.69 shops.

7. Living is low-rise

Kyoto's low-rise cityscape

A widely known zoning rule is one that restricts all buildings in Kyoto City to the height of a five-storied pagoda. Construction is also not allowed to damage the scenery of significant culture sights.

All this means that apartment housing is relatively rare in Kyoto. Universities have dormitories and increasingly there are elderly Kyoto-ites renting out rooms in their old machiya (literally, traditional houses in the middle of town) to lodgers.

8. There’s a deeper heritage on the surface

A Young Salary Man Walking in front of a Temple frontage Displaying Sponsor Lanterns inside a Shopping Arcade

While the rigors of modern development have hidden much of Tokyo’s heritage, Kyoto’s history is tangible and accessible on a surface level. Living in Kyoto means coming face-to-face with that heritage on a daily basis. It makes a person more interested in the history.

Unlike Tokyo, which was thoroughly damaged by the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and bombed heavily during World War II, Kyoto has been relatively unscathed by natural disasters and modern fighting. Most of Kyoto City was destroyed in the Onin War of 1467–1477 and reconstructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century. The street grid he created then and the key landmarks he founded at that time remain almost unchanged today.

9. It’s easier on the eyes

Arashiyama, Kyoto in fall with boats

The nature, the old buildings, the surrounding mountains — add to this a population density almost 3.5 times lower than that of the Tokyo metropolis — and it all works to make Kyoto more beautiful than its flashy, upstart cousin in the east.

The aesthetic in Kyoto draws heavily from the objects and culture around it and is softer and more refined than Tokyo’s sleek, modern look. Tokyo is by no means short on visual stimulation, but there’s something pleasing about meeting with a beautiful sight — an old entrance gate, a sweeping temple roof, a tree-covered mountain — on your way to the post office.

10. There are university students everywhere

Kyoto University at fall

Kyoto has the highest concentration of university students of any prefecture. In 2017, among every 100 Kyoto residents, 5.35 were tertiary students according to education ministry data shown on the Stats Japan website. Tokyo came in No. 2 with 4.72 students among every 100 people.

The high rate of students helps make Kyoto a vibrant place, especially as they have become involved in the organization and execution of local events, sometimes assisting local government initiatives. The concentration of about 40 postsecondary institutions in Kyoto makes university jobs a common sight on long-term foreign residents’ resumes. It also contributes to creating a culture in which learning is valued, offering a nurturing environment that is particularly appealing to Japanese language students.

Beyond Tokyo

As Japan’s leading city, Tokyo is full of opportunity and many people have found success there, but it tends to be success as defined under the Japanese model: study hard, enter a good university, join a top company. The concentration in Tokyo of Japan’s government, media, leading institutions and corporations has created a Tokyo-centric culture that amplifies adherence to that model there. Moving out of Tokyo can dislodge that mold a little.

Yasaka Pagoda Kyoto, Japan

A lot of dreamers go to Tokyo to find success. Others choose Kyoto to live out their dreams.

Are you team Tokyo or team Kyoto? What’s your experience of the two cities and how would you compare them?


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