I’ve just come back from a conference in Kyoto.

I’ve never been to Japan before, so although this was a very brief visit—the four-day conference wasn’t quite enough to get over the jet lag—it was always going to be an interesting one.

Inevitably my perception was coloured by comparison with Taiwan, a place I’ve been to a few times which has seen a certain amount of Japanese influence for obvious historical reasons.

A few things that struck me:

  • It’s quiet. Perhaps this is just Kyoto, but I was surprised by the difference between the harsh door chimes of 7-11 and Circle-K shops in Taiwan, the general outdoor noise, the brash and badly-transcribed classical tunes played by rubbish trucks there, and the quiet door chimes of the same places in Japan, the cheeping road crossings, and surprisingly pleasant tunes on the Metro lines.
  • Similarly, there are hardly any smells. Even the fish stalls on the covered market in central Kyoto don’t smell and there seemed to be few pungent restaurant or snack foods. This in particular makes the place feel unexpectedly local, as if you’d just travelled to another city down the road rather than going half way around the world.
  • Kyoto has a terrific location—a flat valley plain surrounded on three sides by mountains. It has a fairly big city feel (and a greater population than any in the UK except London) but it’s straightforward to get around, there are several small rivers and watercourses dividing it up, and it’s easy to get up into the forested mountains in almost any direction.
  • I couldn’t remember any Japanese. I learned some about a decade ago and could even read a bit but, never putting it to use, I forgot it all again. I had imagined that with a bit of prompting, some of it might come back—but no, not at all. (I wonder how many other things I knew ten years ago I would be completely unable to recall now.)
  • A bit of Chinese was useful though. Not the spoken language (they have nothing in common) but I can recall enough written characters to give a sense of pleasant familiarity to things like street signs. It’s rather nice to be able to see that the Japanese street name you don’t recognise simply means “big west road”. Of course, this probably hinders my remembering any Japanese—when I see 出口 and read it as chukou, my brain isn’t giving itself much chance to remember deguchi.
  • Japanese crispy mackerel skeletons are right up there with pork scratchings as the finest pub foods imaginable.
  • Given the clean and healthy air of the place generally, it seems surprising that you’re allowed to smoke in many cafes and restaurants. Some of my colleagues were absolutely delighted by this.
  • I don’t cope with jet lag as well as I used to, or else my recollection from previous trips to Asia or Australia is flawed—either way, it makes me feel rather old. Though waking up irrevocably at 4am with your body telling you you’ve just had a quick siesta does give you a good opportunity to go for an early-morning run, which is a joy in a place like Kyoto. It’s just a pity about the consequences for the rest of the day.