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Local Japan: Higashiyama Sanjo, a Hybrid of Japanese History and Modern Culture

Ever since the very first time I set foot in Japan in 2015, I immediately fell in love with a lot of Japanese characteristics. The air, the culture, the society, the food, and how convenient everything is compared to where I came from. In my deepest heart, I already knew that I would love living in this country and little did I know that my dream would eventually come true.

Fast forward to 2016 my then-boyfriend got accepted in Kyoto University for his graduate study. He proposed to me right away, we got married in 2017, and finally moved to Japan together soon after.

Being our first time to live in an unfamiliar living situation, we opted to live in one of Kyoto University’s international houses because of its accommodation cost that is considerably cheaper from the reality. The rooms are already furnished and family-friendly, so we did not complain, even for the fact that it takes around 10 minutes walking through a steep road to get to the dorm from the nearest station, Misasagi. I mean, it could always be worse and I’m finally living the dream!

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The backyard of Kyoto University Misasagi International House

Misasagi is a quiet suburb area in Yamashina ward, the eastern Kyoto. As soon as you walk out from the station you will immediately see a few hills surrounding the area with little to no sight of tourists. It is a fascination considering this place is only two transfers away from the busy Kyoto Station and few stations away from ever-so-lively Sanjo Kawaramachi, the downtown area. There is a different air surrounding the place. It’s still the typical laidback Kyoto, but more unobtrusive. After sunset, everything becomes even quieter where the things you can only hear outside are the crickets (in summer) or cars passing.

The first three months were blissful, with me being excited at every trip to konbini and supa to browse for a new dessert to try, me completely in awe about how most people are minding their own business while still being really considerate about other people, and me feeling secure that I can get to where I want to be at the exact time that I need to be because the public transports are so reliably punctual. It’s the safe haven for an introverted person like I am, who just want to live peacefully without hating another human beings.

After a month of adapting and acting like a tourist, I found a job and started working part-time as a kindergarten teacher in an international school, which apparently the best job that I could find considering the Japanese language skill I had. The fresh, unfamiliar Japanese custom soon became my banal daily life. Despite my mere basic understanding of the language, the Japan public facilities are pretty much user-intuitive so I navigate myself around like a local pretty soon.

Misasagi was warm, welcoming, and a good place for me to transform from an outsider to a resident. However, our luxury did not last long. We can only stay at the university dorm for a year (and ever a mere six months for students who are single), and the rule stated that we have to find another place to live because we are considered to be knowledgeable enough to find a real place to live after a year.

When looking for a new place, the most ideal place for me is certainly a place within my budget and with the shortest distance between the place and the nearby station, as I recalled my working commute to be slightly depressing. I don’t want to hike for 10 minutes after an especially long day or with heavy groceries to carry.

After a short ordeal, me and my husband finally agreed on a smaller, unfurnished apartment (just like the typical Japanese apartment basically anywhere across the country), with an obviously double the rent from what we paid for the university dorm. It’s in Higashiyama Sanjo area, just five minutes away from Higashiyama station and 10 minutes in walking distance to the busy Sanjo Kawaramachi downtown area that I mentioned earlier. As a bonus, this place is also few bus stops away to my husband’s campus and few stations closer to my workplace, which means I can add a good 40 minutes to my sleeping time, as if starting to work from 1:30 PM is not convenient enough.

The nearest supermarket and convenience store are within five minutes walking distance, much closer than 10 minutes walk to Misasagi’s convenience store and 20 minutes walk to Misasagi’s supermarket. There are few good Chinese restaurants that sell amazing gyoza, a McDonald if I want something quick for breakfast, and I can always walk downtown if I ever need more dining options.

Our moving process was also a unique experience to remember as it was actually the first time me and my husband had to go hunting for furnitures and home appliances as a family (we had a furnished apartment before, if you remember). As we are a pair of a part-timer and an unemployed graduate student, obviously we have to be frugal and lucky for us, second-hand furniture shops are not difficult to find.

The differences between Misasagi’s international house and our Higashiyama apartment are quite stark. The new apartment is obviously livelier, now that we can hear our neighbours watching the TV and playing with their babies. Or now that our room is located directly above the parking area that we will always know when somebody comes and goes.

We no longer can see hills and the sunset from our window, and even at 4 AM we can always feel that this part of town never completely sleeps. The sight of tourists and foreigners are also common because now we live within the walking distance from ever-so-famous Geisha district, Gion. Although if I feel like it, I can still walk a little to the nearby small stream to dip my feet in the middle of summer so as not to completely lose touch with the nature. The big Kamogawa river also does not feel out of place stretching alongside the busy streets and nightlife spots.

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Kamogawa River, stretching across Kyoto

Sanjo Kawaramachi deserves to be mentioned a little, as this place is the main source of my shopping and dining entertainment since the very beginning. When I crave a spicy (at least according to Japanese taste buds) Ichiran ramen, I will go to Sanjo. When I need to buy a birthday present, I will go to Sanjo and browsing through the shopping arcades. When Blade Runner 2049 came out, me and my husband visited Sanjo to watch it in MOVIX Kyoto and snacking on cold beer and huge salty popcorn. When there’s an acquaintance of mine or my husband’s that’s in town, Sanjo is the place we always recommend as the rendezvous point for a quick karaoke session, a visit to izakaya for some yakitori and 300-yen drinks, or just chilling out beside Kamogawa at night under the city lights with cold beers from the convenience store.

The activity choices in Sanjo are not as many as what you can find around Kyoto station but this place still offers a good selections of modern entertainment amidst Kyoto’s traditional culture and composure. And obviously my transformation from a tourist to a resident means increasing needs for modern entertainment rather than temple or bamboo forest visits. Moreover, now that I have moved to Higashiyama, I can have fun in Sanjo until late at night without worrying about the last train home because it is now within a walking distance!

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An intersection near our apartment

Like a profesional reviewer of everything that I’m still trying to be, I don’t want to worship the Japan life until I’ve been living here for long enough. Coming for a third-world country where most of the citizens don’t seem to know how to wait in line and where crossing the streets can mean risking my life, I was amazed by the Japanese order and security. The ample choice of skincare products and delicious desserts at one’s disposal are also something to admire. But after a year, I passed that phase already and now in the new phase of acknowledgement that Japan too can be mundane and stressful in its own way, and doesn’t matter how delicious that bowl of ramen is, I will still forever miss the explosion of spice in my food and chilli peppers that can actually make my tongue burn.

But for now, Japan is still at the top of the most ideal place for me to call home and the safest environment to raise the baby inside my belly right now. I sure hope that within the next few years to come I will still have the honor to call this beautiful country a home, though I will definitely still be coming back to my home country for at least once a year to have a food galore because, sorry Japan, my taste bud is the only thing you can’t ever satisfy.

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