Kyoto is full of literally thousands of temples, even more tourists, and pretty wooden houses and lanterns in the older parts. The tourists basically come in two varieties: European (kinda jarring to see so many white people after two months in Taiwan - like, wait, why is she taller than me?) and Asian (mostly Chinese and Korean, I think). Few Americans, interestingly. Most of the Asian tourists walk around Kyoto in rented wooden platform flip-flops and kimonos, which look both pretty silly on most people and uncomfortable. The temples are pretty, although I had some bad luck with seeing things - the most scenic hillside temple is currently covered in construction netting, trains were getting cancelled and delayed when I tried to go to the red-gate shrine park, and I arrived at both the castle and the famous Golden Pavilion right after closing time (that last part is probably more bad planning than bad luck). Many of the tourist sites are surrounded by shopping streets selling sweets, kimonos, fans, swords, tea, delicious pickled vegetables, and other things that look very exciting until you see the price tags. I was a little disappointed in the main food market - you can find most of the selection in a Taipei night market, but with more action and for a third of the price.
The Kyoto National Museum is off the main tourist track, but I went in on a whim and was so glad I did: it's beautifully curated and illuminated and has some incredible statues on loan - seeing the Bhuddist hell gods definitely makes you want to avoid Bhuddist hell. (Not sure how one does that, actually. Liz and I toured a huge Bhuddist monastery near Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, where we got VIP treatment because my mentor's uncle is the village mayor. The museum there emphasized entirely non-religious, liberal-westerner-friendly values - compassion, tolerance, charity, etc. But that's a particular Taiwanese sect known for being pragmatically focused. I'm sure how different Japanese traditions are; there wasn't a lot of information posted in the temples.) The other part of Kyoto that I really liked was Arashiyama, an area on the northern edge of the city. There's a little bamboo forest swarming with tourists, tourists getting photographed in geisha makeup, tourists sitting on rickshaws getting pulled by Japanese men in cone hats, etc. But I went farther, as instructed by the Turkish staff guy at Hostel Santiago, and had a really nice long walk through little villages and more temples.
I went to Osaka for a couple hours yesterday evening. It's different from quiet, cutesy Kyoto - very modern, very colorful, and very loud. I wandered around the boisterous shopping arcades and saw a small outdoor concert, then had chirashi and plum wine (good stuff).
The train system is super-elaborate, which also makes it hard to navigate. I was kind of amazed by how much harder it felt to get around than in Taiwan - after all, I still don't speak much more Chinese than I do Japenese; but somehow Taiwan feels familiar enough now that transportion doesn't feel like a challenge. (Having an unlimited data plan helps, too. I was reminded this weekend that paper bus maps are a thing that exist, and what a wonderful thing they are.)
Japanese toilets, including in public bathrooms, are exactly as high-tech as one might hope. On the other hand, soap is not a thing in a lot of places - slightly disconcerting in restaurants. (It's unclear to me why the CDC considers Japan to have American-level food safety standards, but Taiwan to be an aah-don't-touch-the-street-
food third-world danger zone.)
Everything is super expensive, especially compared to Taiwan. Prices for food, transportation, hostels, tourist attractions, etc. are even higher than American ones, I think.
None of the meals I ate were exceptional - definitely not for the price. Flavors are generally mild and portions quite small, although things come beautifully presented with a bunch of tiny dishes.
People generally don't seem super-friendly (except this one old man in a village who kept smiling and waving at me from across the street) - even the information-counter staff made me
feel as though they were doing me a big favor. People do seem to warm up once you talk to them a little more, though. My perception here is probably colored by several cultural factors: first, Japanese people don't generally seem comfortable in English (nor I in Japanese, of course). I think it might also be the case that they tend to be uncomfortable with foreigners in general; that's what I was told by Taiwanese coworkers, but I don't really have enough evidence to judge. It also seems that facial expressions are used differently - that people just tend to smile less, which my American lens translates as coldness.
Maybe my biggest impression, unfortunately, is how patriarchal and sexualized the culture is, and how immediately obvious that is. I noticed as soon as I got off the plane that women dress differently than in Taiwan. The Taiwanese notion of femininity (which is already much more constraining than in the West) generally involves a cute, innocent look - think loose, shapeless dresses over white t-shirts. Japanese women dress much more to emphasize their figures. It seemed like practically every young woman, especially in Osaka, was wearing heels, full makeup, carefully done hair, a tailored outfit, etc. I parsed this at first as just a difference in sartorial taste, but after seeing the cities, I think it's more a reflection of cultural expectations - pretty exhausting ones, too. Kyoto and Osaka are both filled with an impressively creative variety of methods of objectifying women: hostess lounges, special massage parlors (best name: "Mrs. Banana"), strip clubs, geisha parlors (this culture is huge in Kyoto, and I won't pretend to know enough about it to comment further), "girl karaoke", cosplay-girl party centers, porn mags at the ramen counter, and on and on. I talked about some of this with a Ukrainian professor of art history, who specializes in Japanese culture, that I met in the Kyoto hostel. She told me about some elements of the cultural background - like the absence of a Judeo-Christian concept of forgiveness, which makes "saving face" so crucial, and the expectation that women take up as little space as possible, even to the point of holding their thumbs folded in. She said that for her Japanese women friends abroad, it's much easier to live outside Japan because the burden of expectations is so much smaller. Interestingly, she also talked about the near-nonexistent rape rate - she seemed to feel that the open sexuality somehow contributes to keeping violence low. My hunch, though - supported by this harrowing Quora thread - is that assault of various forms exists but is very rarely reported or prosecuted. I had some drunk businessmen lunge at me on the street (in an "oh ha ha white person let's yell in English that sounds fun" kind of way, not in an intimidating way); it seems hard to believe that said wasted businessmen, in an environment where women are provided for their amusement, would never fail to "be a gentleman", as the sign outside "Geisha Beautiul Ladies Hostess Lounge" instructs. Some other fun facts from cursory Googling: workplace sexual harassment is not illegal; the pill was illegal until 1999; until last year, women (but not men) were required to wait six months to remarry after divorce, and there's still a waiting period for pregnant women.
I've been realizing, this summer, just how much a child of the West I am. Even in Taiwan - which is by all accounts the most liberal, gender-equal, and generally most West-like country in Asia - the culture can feel stifling. People are constantly surprised that I do X by myself (with X often as simple as taking a bus to work!). I'm not sure to what degree that's because people just generally don't do things alone much, to what degree it's because I'm a foreigner and don't speak Chinese, and to what degree it's because I'm female. I suspect a little of each. A lot of things that are really important for me - independence, spontaneity, risk-taking, heterogeneity - are just not part of the culture here.
I went to a MISTI training a couple of years ago where they talked about the anthropological division between group-oriented and individual-oriented societies. I didn't get what that meant while travelling in Europe or Israel, but I'm coming to understand it now, and it's real. I think the difference is enough that I could never really feel like I belong in Asia (even setting aside physical distinctiveness), in the same way that I could be comfortable in Europe or the US or Canada or Israel.
That's certainly not to say I don't like it here! I've really enjoyed my time in Taiwan (would recommend a visit to everyone - probably more than Japan tbh, especially if you're on a budget...), and I want to see much more of the continent (in part because I've spent the last couple of paragraphs generalizing about a couple billion people based on my passing familiarity with a few cities, and that seems slightly problematic... especially since Taiwan considers itself culturally closest to Japan, which means that the differences among other countries in Asia are probably greater than the difference between Taiwan and Japan). But I'm looking forward to coming back to the undignified, mixed-up U.S. coastal bubble. And I wonder if I can squeeze in an anthropology class next year...