Living in: Kyoto
Kyoto's Shirakawa Canal is lined with teahouses. (Mark Hemmings/LPI)
Kyoto’s tranquil temples and traditions often act as a palate cleanser for travellers looking to escape Tokyo’s intensity. The Japanese city beautifully balances the preservation of its past with modern conveniences and access to the surrounding countryside. For those who live here, Kyoto is a home with a peaceful soul and a contemporary sheen.
What is it known for?
From geishas and ryokans (traditional inns) to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, the city’s ties to the past can be found beyond the modern streets and structures. Kyoto was once the imperial capital of Japan, and many of the city’s ancient monuments are today listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites. Gion is the medieval district, packed with tea houses where geishas (skilled entertainers who serve tea and entertain male guests) and their trainees (maiko) ply their trade.
Kyoto is also blessed with a gorgeous natural setting. The city is located in a valley surrounded by mountains on three sides -- the Higashiyama, Kitayama and Nishiyama -- and with three rivers running through it -- the Kamogawa, Shirakawa and Takano. Every spring, sakura (cherry blossoms) transform the city in a shower of pink blooms, especially along the riverbanks of the Kamogawa, and in late autumn, the koyo (gold and crimson foliage) attracts leaf peepers from all over who come to see the mountains explode in glorious technicolour.
But the city is not all ancient lanes and ryokans. It is also home to modern institutions and architecture, like the Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art’s cylindrical, concrete-and-glass annex by Tadao Ando that allows visitors to view the museum’s lush gardens from below ground, and the state-of-the-art Kyoto Concert Hall. “If you are interested in any aspect of Japan’s traditional arts and culture, [Kyoto] is the place to be,” said Michael Lambe, a longtime ex-pat and Kyoto resident who runs the Deep Kyoto blog.
Where do you want to live?
Districts in northern Kyoto, including Iwakura, Kitayama, Shimogamo and the Demachiyanagi, are very popular, in part because their distance from the city centre makes them less expensive. These areas are all close to public transport, have a good sprinkling of bars and restaurants, and are located closer to the mountains. “They feel more rural and are very scenic places to live,” Lambe explained.
Many of the apartment buildings in Kyoto are old, so newer stock can go for a premium. On average, a 20sqm one-bedroom apartment rents for around 50,000 to 60,000 yen a month, while apartments with more square footage go for around 110,000 yen a month. Some people who have lived in the city for a while move out to the Shiga prefecture, east of Kyoto, which is an easy commute into the city via train but has much lower taxes.
There are many day walks around Kyoto, up hills and mountains such as Arashiyama, Ohara, Daimonji and Mount Hiei. In the summer, residents head to Omi Maiko beach on Lake Biwa to the east, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. Nagano, where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held, is northeast of Kyoto and is a big draw in winter for snowboarding and skiing. Both are easy rail trips on the Shinkansen, the bullet trains that speed through the Japanese countryside.
The trains also link Kyoto to Tokyo (two and a half hours away) as well as Kobe and Osaka, both of which are about an hour away and have a more happening nightlife scene than Kyoto. There is no airport in Kyoto, but Kansai International Airport is slightly more than an hour away in Osaka.
It requires legwork to find a place to live in Kyoto. Students from Kyoto University, foreign workers and the other ex-pats looking to rent all must contend with the Japanese system of “key money” and guarantors (to buy a property you must be a permanent resident). In addition to having a deposit, which gets refunded when you move, prospective renters must also give “key money” to the landlord, which is a non-refundable fee. Aside from rent, lessees are usually responsible for utilities such as water, gas, electricity and internet.
“Kyoto has a small-town feel,” said Lambe. “And the beauty of the natural world is never far away.”
The Kyoto Shimbun News: an English-language guide to festivals and events in the city
Kyoto Journal: a quarterly literary and culture magazine
Deep Kyoto: an ex-pat blog covering restaurants, markets, cultural events and life in the city