10 Unique Kyoto Customs That Even Japanese People Find Confusing
Kyoto was Japan’s capital for over 1,000 years, during which time it served as the country’s political and cultural center. Even today, domestic and international tourists flock to this city that’s overflowing with history in the form of its many shrines, temples, gardens, castles, and other historical sites. Kyoto also boasts its own unique culture that you won’t find in any other Japanese prefecture, and which largely remains a secret to outsiders. This hidden side of Kyoto is one of the things that make the old capital a one-of-a-kind jewel in the crown of Japan. The good news is that it’s possible to learn all of the city’s secret customs, which will help you avoid all sorts of trouble during a trip there and allow you to experience the real Kyoto. In this article, we’ll discuss 10 Kyoto customs and bits of knowledge that will help you think and enjoy the city like a true local!
Oct 21 2021 (Oct 25 2021)
Why Does Kyoto Have So Many Unique Customs? The Answer Lies in the City’s History!
Kyoto has so many deeply-rooted and unique rules and customs that even Japanese people from other prefectures lament about how difficult it is to live there. The reasons behind these rules and customs lie in how Kyoto developed during its 1,000-year-long history as the capital of Japan, which started all the way back in 794. You also have to examine how the city changed after Edo (modern-day Tokyo) became the capital in its place.
When Kyoto was the capital, it was the country's commercial, political, and cultural center that attracted people from all over the land. After Edo became the new capital of Japan, Kyoto continued to develop on the commerce front. In order to form better interpersonal relationships, which were incredibly important in business, the people of Kyoto created many unique rules to build stronger bonds of trust and to avoid conflicts with other people. Though some customs have faded over time due to the influx of tourists from all over the world, many are still implicitly shared and practiced among the locals today.
1. Trust Is More Important Than Money? Turning Away Unknown Customers
Kyoto City, with its plethora of shopping districts and tourist spots, is surprisingly so compact that you can easily get around it on a bicycle! There are many traditional stores that have been around for hundreds of years as well as locals whose families have lived in the same area for generations. In Kyoto, all the neighbors know each other well, and due to the strong relationships between them, rumors spread like wildfire, no matter whether they're good or bad.
Due to the above, Kyoto locals highly value trust. Even for shops, relationships with customers are extremely important, to the point where some stores will turn away first-time customers whom they don’t know. However, these first-timers may be admitted with an introduction from an existing customer that the shop already has ties with. Many stores have relaxed this rule over time, but some are still quite strict about it.
While this rule may seem a little bit much in the eyes of travelers, Kyoto locals would rather focus on building strong connections that bring long-term benefits over short-term profits. In recent years, however, it has gotten easier to visit these kinds of stores thanks to intermediary hotels or travel agencies. If the place you want to visit normally turns away first-time customers, there are businesses out there that can help you get in.
2. Being Vague and Avoiding Outright Saying Yes or No to Stay Out of Trouble
Over the 1,000 years that Kyoto was the capital of Japan, the city experienced countless wars and changes in government. It wasn't unusual to see someone flaunting their power and wealth one day, only to have them lose it all overnight. In such times, being close with someone who fell out of favor like that could lead to your downfall, too. So, in order to survive, Kyoto locals developed a culture of "being vague about which side you're on."
This vagueness works great for people who grew up in that culture, but it has been the source of a lot of frustration for outsiders visiting Kyoto. Let's say that you're having a meal with an acquaintance from Kyoto. If they said, "Thank you so much for always inviting me," wouldn't you think that they enjoy spending time with you? Well, in reality, they could be thinking, "I don't understand why they're always inviting me, but it's rude to just tell them to stop, so I'll just stay vague about it until they get the hint and stop.”
That’s why communicating with people from Kyoto goes beyond just words. You also have to observe their facial expressions and general vibe, which even Japanese people from outside the city can have trouble with! If you're still unsure about what a Kyoto local is thinking, sometimes it's best to just ask those around you or even the person themselves for clarification. They'll happily be honest with you if you ask politely.
3. If You're Served Ochazuke, Hurry Home Before You're Kicked Out!
Ochazuke is a simple Japanese dish made by pouring tea or broth over cooked rice. In Kyoto, it is sometimes called "bubu-zuke," as "bubu" is a regional word for “tea.” In Kyoto, a customer or guest may be asked if they'd like bubu-zuke right when they're getting ready to leave. Saying yes in that situation is a big social faux pas that can really sour the atmosphere. That’s because offering bubu-zuke is the Kyoto way of politely telling you to please go home.
However, a more positive theory about this strange custom states that offering ochazuke to guests is actually a formal though vague way of saying “I wish we could have talked more.” Like we said: Kyoto locals don’t like revealing their true intentions. So, if you’re ever offered ochazuke by a person from Kyoto, the polite thing to do is to refuse and say something like "Maybe another time. Goodbye!"
4. How Kyoto People Ride the Escalator: Do What the Person in Front of You Is Doing
How people ride the escalator differs from country to country, but did you know that in Japan it also differs by region? In Japan, it’s common to stand on one side to clear a path for those in a hurry. In Tokyo, you usually stand on the left, while in Osaka people tend to stand on the right. Other regions follow one or the other. However, in Kyoto, there are no hard rules about which side you should stand on. Instead, you follow the lead of the person in front of you.
So, when you're in Kyoto, have a look at which side is not moving before getting on the escalator. Also, if you're lugging around something big, make sure that it doesn't obstruct the other side. Furthermore, during busy times, expect both sides of the escalator to be occupied by standing people. In conclusion, while there are some basic rules to riding the escalator in Kyoto, it ultimately depends on the actual situation at hand.
5. On Festival Days, the City Buses Are Often Late
Japan's transportation system is known for its punctuality, but Kyoto city buses are an exception. Compared to other major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, Kyoto has very few train lines. Instead, they have many buses, which most people—both locals and tourists—rely on to get around the city each day. So it's not uncommon for buses to be late due to problems like travelers not knowing when to change buses, how to pay the fare, or how to deal with large luggage.
Another reason why buses can be late in Kyoto is the frequent occurrence of traditional events and festivals. Kyoto has a lot of seasonal celebrations such as the Gion Festival, during which buses detour from their usual routes or even stop in the middle of the street to allow crowds and festival floats to pass.
In cases like that, all you can really do is either wait patiently or try a different bus route. For most destinations, there are usually multiple ways of getting there. We recommend checking the official Subway/Bus Navi information to see all your options ahead of time. Also, these kinds of delays sometimes result in two buses arriving at a stop at the same time, so don’t be surprised if it happens to you.
*See other language options or the latest version of Subway/Bus Navi: https://www.city.kyoto.lg.jp/kotsu/page/0000019770.html
6. Most People in Kyoto Get Around on Bicycles
You’ll always see a lot of people riding around on bicycles in Kyoto. Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto is quite compact with flat terrain and roads arranged in a grid pattern, making it perfect for biking. Furthermore, since the city has a lot of narrow alleys and one-way roads and the city buses are often late, traveling by bicycle can be faster than by car or other forms of public transport. This is why a vast majority of Kyoto locals choose to get around on two wheels when commuting to school or work or when going shopping.
There are many bicycle rental places around Kyoto, so that’s how many travelers have been getting around the city in recent years. There's parking by most temples and shrines as well as paid parking areas throughout the city. Since many restaurants, cafes, knick-knack stores, and crafts shops in Kyoto are only accessible through narrow alleys, exploring Kyoto by bicycle is a sure way of unearthing some real treasures! It costs around 1,000 yen to rent a bicycle for a whole day, so why not give it a try the next time you're in Kyoto? You'll surely fall in love with how refreshing it feels to bike around this historic city.
7. Did You Know Very Few Geishas in Kyoto Are Locals?
One of the most uniquely Kyoto scenes imaginable is a geisha elegantly strolling around in a traditional kimono. But did you know that most of these women are not from Kyoto? They are often maiko—apprentice geishas between 15 and 20 years of age—who come from all over Japan to train at Kyoto's "okiya" geisha houses.
Also, please keep in mind that it's quite rare to come across a geisha or a maiko in Kyoto, especially during the day. That’s typically when geishas and maiko train, so most of the ones you see strolling around the city around noon are most likely travelers enjoying some type of “geisha for a day” experience.
To meet a real geisha or maiko, head to a tea shop in the hanamachi quarter (originally a red-light district; nowadays, the courtesan and geisha district). The cost varies wildly depending on the number of people, price of the food and drinks, fees for hiring the geisha, and the type of entertainment she offers, but, at a minimum, expect to spend over 20,000 yen per person. While that may seem expensive, it's a chance to experience something that you can’t get outside of Kyoto. Ryokan inns, ryotei restaurants, and travel agencies often have reasonably-priced plans for travelers, so why not go with them if you're unsure of where to start?
8. Ajari Mochi – An Affordable, Delicious Souvenir That Kyoto People Love
Ajari mochi is a famous Kyoto sweet dating back to 1856. This semi-baked confectionary is made from lovely, chewy dough that’s filled to the brim with delicious azuki red bean paste. It’s an incredibly popular souvenir among travelers and Kyoto locals.
The secret to ajari mochi’s popularity lies in its deliciousness, which is the result of only using carefully-selected ingredients to make the sweet. For example, the filling is made from red bean paste made specifically for ajari mochi through a production process where every step has been honed to perfection, from the selection of the beans to the flavoring and preparation. Furthermore, the store that came up with the sweet has done its best to not raise prices, so even today, a piece of ajari mochi costs only 119 yen! This combination of high quality and affordable price is what won over the notoriously discerning people of Kyoto, who are one of the most frequent buyers of ajari mochi.
If you're interested in buying some for yourself, don't wait until the end of the day! The sweets are available everywhere, from the original ajari mochi store and its many Kyoto branches, to department stores and even souvenir shops inside Kyoto Station, but it's not unheard of for them to sell out by evening during public holidays and the like.
9. Kyoto Locals Don't Know a Lot About Their Own City
Kyoto is a world-famous tourist destination full of historical wonders, such as the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes 17 temples, shrines, castles, and other monuments. Overall, there are 800 shrines and 1,700 temples officially registered in the city. Furthermore, owing to its 1,000-year-long history as the former capital of Japan, Kyoto is filled with a plethora of historically-significant buildings, roads, and other relics of the past.
However, despite the city's rich history, most of the people who were actually born and have lived their entire lives in Kyoto don't know about many of those spots. This is perhaps because, to them, they are just part of everyday Kyoto scenery, even though some of these places are famous enough to have appeared in textbooks. It's like how many Tokyo locals have never gone to the top of Tokyo Tower, which is equally surprising to Japanese people from other parts of the country.
To travelers, though, Kyoto is a treasure trove of places to explore, so travel around the city at your leisure and unearth parts of the city that even the locals haven’t discovered yet.
10. Even Kyoto Locals Can't Stand the City’s Scorching, Humid Summers and Freezing Winters
Kyoto is situated within a basin and doesn't get a lot of rain. As a result, the differences in temperature between summer and winter, as well as day and night, can be extreme. The mountains surrounding Kyoto block winds, so it gets especially humid and scorching in the summer. Then during winter, the cold air settles at the bottom of the basin, so the city becomes freezingly cold.
You need the right know-how to survive such extreme weather. In the summer, change out your cushions and bed covers to ones made out of smooth material specifically for summer weather, and hang up wind chimes to stay cool and relaxed. In the winter, consume lots of locally-grown, nutritious vegetables to keep your strength up. A few traditional events where you can sample simmered dishes made with such vegetables include "Daikodaki" and "Kabocha Kuyo," which are held every December.
As a traveler, you should make sure to check the humidity and temperature before coming to Kyoto. That being said, what you actually experience can drastically change depending on how crowded a place is or the weather that day, so just prepare yourself for multiple contingencies.
Kyoto is filled with customs that even other Japanese find peculiar. While it might take a bit to get used to the ways of the Kyoto locals, understanding the reasons and sentiments behind them is akin to getting to know Kyoto itself and its rich history and culture. After all, what makes Kyoto so attractive is not just the old-timey townscape, but also the people living there.
Of course, there are many more rules and customs in Kyoto than what we've detailed above, and you're bound to run into some of them during a visit to the city. And when you do, we hope that you will embrace them as a quirk of this fascinating city and continue to enjoy your time there.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.