Teaching in Japan: Part 1

My first week in Japan

by Rachael Hornsby

After months of saving for flights, researching jobs, and attempting pretty unsuccessfully to learn some basic greetings in Japanese, I was eager to get over to Japan and find out for myself what it was like. I packed up all 25kg of my life in my snazzy new Tesco suitcase, said goodbye to all my friends and family, and left my lovely England once again so see what the homeland of sushi and sumo was to have in store for me.

Having caught the travel bug teaching in Thailand for a year, I had decided to set my sights on a new Asian adventure, and since everyone I’d met who’d been to Japan had loved it, and there are such great TEFL opportunities there, it seemed like an ideal place for the next step of my journey. Rather than choosing one of the many jobs I perused online, I decided to play it safe and follow a friend to a job and location I knew she had loved, and took a position teaching kindergarten in Kurume, a small city on the island of Kyushu in South West Japan.

After a long flight from Heathrow, and a short stopover in Seoul, I finally landed on Kyushu in Fukuoka, a city closer to North Korea than it is Tokyo. It was evening when I arrived, so my first sights of the island were just of big city lights on the drive from the airport with my colleague, with my main impressions being ‘why is everyone driving around in tiny white toy cars?’. My hotel on for the first night was pretty much like any other hotel, apart from the shower that only reached as high as my chest (the first of many ‘tall girl Japan problems’), and of course the infamous Japanese toilet, with its innumerous temperature, direction and pressure settings for your post-business ‘shower’- even more impressive than my beloved ‘bum gun’ in Thailand.

After a little tour of the not-too-exciting Wednesday night down town Kurume, my friend took me for my first Japanese meal to a gorgeous little yakitori restaurant. We sat at the bar eating sticks of meat and fresh salmon sashimi (my first ever!), surrounded by a strong aroma of tasty barbecuing and annoying cigarette smoke (it’s still legal to smoke inside here).

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Salmon sashimi, part of my first meal in Japan

I moved into my adorable little apartment the next day, which made me feel yet more like a giant (I get through my door ways with about an inch to spare above my head). The flat has all traditional Japanese sliding doors separating the rooms. The bedroom floor is all tatami (Japanese straw mats fitted together). The furniture is low to the ground, and the bath is deep, almost cube-shaped (my first few bath times were a bit of a floating somersault act!). It was one of the most stereotypically Japanese buildings I’d see yet, and I half felt as if I was moving into museum exhibit of what a period Japanese house should look like! I was also given a little moving in guide, complete with an ‘earthquake preparedness’ check list, which told you about how to get ready for an earthquake- it sounded just like the stuff we were learnt about in geography at school, so felt weirdly unreal, like I’d jumped into a textbook. Little did I actually know how soon this information would actually become relevant!

Other new essentials handed to me by my school included my inkan, which is a little bamboo stamp with my name on the end that I use instead of a signature for all my important documents (they could only fit the Japanese kana for my first name on- レイチェル, ‘Reicheru’), and my company car (woop!). I got off to a slightly awkward start driving. Having never driven an automatic car before, my foot tried to find the clutch and slammed the break down on my first drive, with a truck behind somehow avoiding crashing into us. But luckily Japan drive on the same side of the road as the UK, so after getting to grips with their road rules I was soon buzzing around town with ease down the city’s tiny roads the width of driveways. (Although I still sometimes set off my wipers instead of the indicators, as they’re on are the opposite side to my car at home. Some habits are hard to shake!)

My little automatic car ❤

The timing of the school year in Japan means that new teachers are lucky enough to experience the infamous ‘sakura’ season (the blooming of the cherry trees) almost as soon as they land. In my first week the blossom seemed to suddenly appear everywhere at once, making, for example the carp-filled canal below our building look even more picturesque. The way the blossom it is anticipated and celebrated in this country, helps you really make the most of it and appreciate the beauty. It’s a great example of the stunning nature of Japan that drew me here, and the people’s special relationship with nature that I think we should all try to emulate. As wishy washy as that is, they still know how to celebrate like any country here- with a good helping of friends and alcohol, specifically, in my experience, day drinking their way through cool boxes full of beer and sake under the blossom!

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Blossom at a park on my drive to school

At the Hanami (the picnic held under the cherry blossom trees) I had my first experience of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. This is done at different events throughout the year in Japan, and put simply it is someone serving you a cup of tea, but it involves a precise process carried out by professionally trained tea ‘makers’ (no idea what the term is for that!). Ours took a quarter of an hour or so, and I could write a whole blog post on all the elaborate steps, but basically we knelt beside a lady in a kimono who was preparing the tea with a little traditional stove, were given a sort of swan-shaped sweet to prepare out palette, and after its long preparation, were each served a bowl of bitter green matcha tea, before watching whilst everything was methodically cleaned and put away. (I have since found out there are many different ‘schools’ of tea, with their own unique ceremonies, and this is just one specific style). The whole thing was so slow and delicate it made you feel quite peaceful, giving a nice contrast to the noise and energy of the party, but afterwards I still had a bit too much sake (not wanting to be rude and turn down drinks from my new acquaintances of course!) and ended up cycling home along a slightly wonky line…

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My first week here was crammed with many more episodes, including starting my job at school, taking a trip to a stunning nearby temple town, and trying my first 100 yen sushi. And my first month here was even more eventful when the island was rocked by its strongest earthquake in on record…

#TRAVEL – JAPAN: 3 Attractions of Arashiyama

Kyoto is well known in Japan for being an historical and picturesque part of the country, as many travel articles you read to encourage you to visit.

#TRAVEL - JAPAN: 3 Attractions of Arashiyama


Arashiyama is located in western Kyoto, and it is everything you want from Japan: it’s breathtakingly beautiful and the tranquility is gladly welcomed if you have just spent a few days in bustling Tokyo, or Osaka

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嵐山モンキーパーク


Probably the main attraction of Arashiyama is Iwatayama Monkey Park, which is located on Mt. Arashiyama. The climb to the park itself isn’t the easiest, especially when the powerful Japanese summer heat is suffocating you, but the view and the experience at the top are worth the slog. Random electric fans are strategically placed along the inclining pathway to provide some relief—just don’t forget to take water.
The park itself is a quirky little place, inhabited by hundreds of macaque monkeys who are on a mission to eat. Snacks for the monkeys can be purchased from an attendant, but feeding them is only allowed through a metal fence.
Even if adorable little monkeys aren’t your thing, then the gorgeous scenery and the panoramic view is still worth the mini-hike!

右京区嵐山


The second biggest attraction in Arashiyama is the bamboo forest. A google search will bring up unspoiled images of gorgeous greenery and thousands of shooting stalks—unfortunately, that isn’t the reality. Like most tourist attractions, I personally found the bamboo forest overrun with people and I didn’t find the whole experience that interesting. But, as I was already in the area, I don’t regret checking it out.

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保津川下り


Whilst strolling around Arashiyama it is impossible not to notice the winding banks of the Hozugawa Kudari river. A trip down the river by boat looks quite appealing, but expensive. Due to the fact I am a poor backpacker, I didn’t splash the cash, however, If I returned I would make sure I had enough money to experience the entrancing opportunity. I did find walking along the river banks enjoyable and relaxing!


I think it is worth noting that aside from these 3 main attractions, Arashiyama is crammed with local shops, restaurants and coffee shops, that are worth checking out!

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Don’t forget your TRAVEL GUIDE –

Teaching in Thailand vs. Teaching in Japan

Teaching in Thailand vs. Japan

by Rachael Hornsby

Having started my TEFL adventures in Thailand, I have now spent a year teaching there, and another 6 months teaching in Japan (with a year back in the UK in between). If you might be considering either of these countries to teach English in, or are deciding between East and South East Asia in general, here’s my brief take on how these countries have compared so far for me. Enjoy!

The dosh

It’s of course not all about the money, but, in terms of bare numbers, in Thailand my teaching wage was 30,000 baht per month (around £ 700), whereas in Japan I earn 250,000 yen (~£2000). In both cases it is pretty much the standard amount for an inexperienced teacher.

My Thai wage obviously wasn’t a lot in UK terms, but the cost of living is so low in Thailand that it’s PLENTY to live on. My rent was about £80 (although my friends’ were cheaper!), and I could eat out every night for as little as 25 baht for a Pad Thai (about 50p!). Thailand and S.E. Asia as a whole is SO cheap that my Thai wage managed to take me on tonnes of adventures, such as tripping around Vietnam in my school holidays, and numerous weekends around Thailand, to Chiang Mai, Bangkok etc.

Living expenses obviously all cost so much more in Japan. My rent is 45,000 yen per month (over £ 350), (although I know in big cities like Tokyo it can be MUCH higher), and bills and food add much more on to that. Again, I seem to have spent a lot of spare cash so far in Japan travelling, and unfortunately just exploring mainland Japan can be really pricey- a bullet train to Tokyo from my island of Kyushu is about £170 (as opposed to a train I took to Laos from Southern Thailand for £15!).

In short, the main difference is, if you are strict with your money, and don’t go off travelling every spare minute (it’s just so tempting!!), your savings in Japan will stretch much further if you take them elsewhere, especially to other economically rich countries, like if you wanted to pay off debts in the UK (with the pound plunging, at this rate you could go home with a small fortune!). My friends have also taken extra tutoring jobs on the side if they really wanted to fill up their wallet, although this might not be allowed in your contract. And if you’re really looking for the big bucks, jobs where the company actually pay for your flights or accommodation, like ones in South Korea, might be an even better bet.

(*WRITTEN OCTOBER 2016! The pound is changing so much these days, so god knows how long these currency conversions will be accurate. A couple of days!?*)

Culture

If you’re not hoping for a culture shock, then you’re in the wrong game! There are obviously hundreds of wonderful/fascinating/infuriating sides of Thai and Japanese culture, but here’s a few:

Although there are reasons not to get on the wrong side of Thailand (in a rare case some people I knew had a pretty rough time being deported…), the country generally really does live up to its reputation as the “land of smiles”. From the random people I’d find to help me when my moped got a flat tire (more than once!), to the chatty monks on the train (let them talk to you first, don’t just go barging up to one!), it’s a great place for restoring faith in humanity. It’s also VERY laid back. The famously slow pace of pretty much anything there can drive many people absolutely up the wall- a train that should take 2 hours, ends up taking 5 hours, etc.-, but you will start to adopt the local “mai pen rai”, care-free attitude, and pretty much all of my friends left Thailand a less uptight person than when they arrived (who couldn’t do with giving themselves that gift?).

Japan is in some ways the opposite of Thailand’s laid back attitude. From the notoriously prompt trains, to the meticulous dividing of household recycling, everything is fantastically organised and reliable. I’m constantly amazed at how efficient things are and by the different things Japan has come up with to get stuff done! As in Thailand, people in Japan are exceptionally polite and friendly, and the hospitality in Japan is second to none, to the extent that I admittedly found myself feeling a bit aggrieved without it in on a recent trip to Hong Kong, making me appreciate Japan even more. The level of politeness did at first it come off as a bit oppressive (train carriages are often silent, etc.), making it seem hard to ‘break in’ or really socialise, but of course with a little more patience you get to meet more people, and make amazing new friends. I think you could say Japan is more like the UK in that way!

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“mai pen rai” life on Koh Samet vs. ingenious conveyor belt sushi

The job



As far as the job goes, each school can differ widely depending on the age you’re teaching, whether it’s private or government, etc. etc., but there are a few general trends, which seem to be mainly extensions of Thailand’s “mai pen rai” culture vs. the super efficient Japan.

Although I had textbooks for some of my classes at my Thai school, this wasn’t that common, and it tends to be a “do it yourself” kind of attitude to the curriculum/ teaching in general. This can obviously be a bit scary if it’s your first time teaching, and can be frustrating if you feel like you’re not getting the help or direction you’d like, but it’s also great as it gives you freedom in what you want to teach, allows you to experiment with your teaching style, and is a great challenge to get you tuck into the job. You also pretty much never know what’s going on- most weeks I’d turn up to work with all my lessons planned, only to find out at least 1 was cancelled for some random reason I didn’t know of, like the day we found ourselves ushered onto a school bus first thing, with kids all prepared wearing traditional outfits, and we spent the morning sitting in front of monks in a temple listening to them chant!

Japan, on the other hand, is a lot more organised in its approach. In my job teaching at a private kindergarten, I have tonnes more support, like a curriculum, weekly meetings, many of my lessons already planned for me etc. In comparison to Thailand, my job feels so much more coherent, although I’ve heard that other jobs for the larger companies can be even more structured. In a way this means you can’t use as much creativity in your teaching, and aren’t being pushed quite as hard. And I do sometimes miss the manic spontaneity of Thailand (in my first month here, I was actually thrown into presenting an assembly without notice, and secretly loved it!). I also have to work evenings this time, like many other language schools, but I do have a lot more free time in the day that I don’t have to spend planning lessons, and generally feel a lot less ‘at sea’.

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Thai assembly 

Things to see and do



You obviously can’t spend all your time gallivanting around if you have a teaching job, but you can pack plenty of sightseeing into your free weekends and holidays if you fancy (and why ever not?!). In Thailand you’ll find more elephants, street markets, and idyllic beaches, and it can be more of a wild party scene if you land a job near a tourist area (I’ve had more ‘buckets’ of cocktails than I’d care to remember…). Japan has more impressive mountains and hiking  (being made up of volcanic islands), there are hot spring baths and karaoke bars everywhere, and you can go skiing in winter (which I’m 99% sure you can’t do in Thailand!). It also has its share of good nightlife (especially in the big cities), and even has gorgeous beaches and great scuba diving spots down in balmy Okinawa. Basically, Japan and Thailand are both popular tourist destinations for good reason- they both have beautiful scenery, endless temples, fascinating festivals etc. etc. So, unless there’s something you’re absolutely itching to do, like climb Mount Fuji or rave at a full moon party, you’ll find plenty of weird and wonderful ways to keep you occupied in both!

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Beach in Koh Chang vs.  Hike in Nagasaki

Getting down and dirty

Thailand is by no means a third world country, but Japan is miles ahead of it when it comes to things like infrastructure and sanitation, and feels even more developed than the UK in some ways. Japan is probably the cleanest place I’ve ever been, and they have technology for everything, from heated toilet seats to shoe vending machines (probably the name for it!) at the bowling alley. Thailand, on the other hand, can take a little getting used to for a Westerner. Rather than having heated toilets, we had to flush the loo using a bucket in our Thai school, and if you’re doing things on the cheap (which you might as well!), then you’ll find yourself, for example, sitting on plastic chairs at a food stall in street, with stray dogs wandering around you whilst you eat your dinner. There are also more critters around in Thailand- I often found cute baby geckos living in my shoes, I was never without at least 1 mosquito bite (although I am especially attractive to the buggers!), and my town happened to be overrun with mafia-like monkeys.

The things in Thailand that seem so alien at first really don’t take long to feel normal, and to be honest I’m grateful for the experience of living with a tiny bit less luxury, for helping me appreciate how lucky we are at home, and showing me what I can actually live without. So if you want this type of challenge, I’d have to recommend Thailand, but if you want a more easy transition (dealing with a brand new Asian culture can be enough in itself!), then go for Japan. I myself am glad I did both in the order that I have, since I can appreciate the wonders of Japan even more!

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Critter friends in Thailand vs. Super sleek Shibuya 

The language

Both Thai and Japanese are a world away from English, and I can’t profess to be much of an expert at either, but here goes. The Thai language has 1 ‘alphabet’ (or set of characters,) and uses lots of different tones. These can be seriously hard to pick up (“ma” can have a whole host of meanings depending on your tone), but luckily Thais often understand what a farang (foreigner) is getting at without them. They often drop unnecessary words from sentences (as in Japan!), so I wasn’t too paranoid about having bad grammar either. The little Thai I learnt came in very handy and was really appreciated, especially in tourist spots (I was all but given applause just ordering pineapple in Krabi!). To be honest you can get by with very little Thai if you wish, and it’s surprising how many Thais speak some English anyway, even in remote parts of the country.

Japanese seems harder to me. This may just be because I’ve put more effort into learning it, and so have realised what a mountain it is to really learn a language. Thailand’s “alphabet”, once learnt, can get you reading any Thai for good (I’ve been told!). Japan, however, has 3 sets of characters, and I can read the 2 basic ones (very handy for things like Western food menus), but the 3rd set of Chinese characters feels like it may take me an age to tackle (I’m sure Japanese people can’t even read them all!), and I still can’t read that much when I’m out and about. Unlike Thai, Japanese isn’t tonal, so once you’ve learnt words or phrases, it’s pretty easy to catch them and pronounce them, but Japan also seem to have many more ways of saying one thing, depending on different situations or who you’re speaking to. This can make it more daunting when trying to use it yourself, or frustrating when you don’t understand something you thought you knew! Basic English also seems less widespread here, so there are certain things I’ve simply had to drag a Japanese speaker along to help me do, like buying a phone contract, but you manage!

I’ve been frustrated at times by my lack of skill at both languages, but really learning either can take years, and many TEFL teachers get by fine speaking very little, if any. It will of course enhance your experience whatever amount you manage to learn, so you might as well give it a bash, and if you really want to get the hang of it, just get yourself a local boy/girlfriend (seems to work every time!)

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Japanese vs. Thai (Jibberish vs. nonsense??) 

“Konichiwa, Japan!” or “Sawadee Ka, Thailand!”??

The beauty of a TEFL job is you get to spend months in a country that many people only spend a fortnight visiting on holiday, which teaches you so many beautiful/ ridiculous things about a place, and so there could be a billion more ways I could use to compare these two amazing countries (I could write a whole post on types of beer! Actually I might do that…). But in super brief, Thailand and Japan are like riding a Tuk Tuk vs. taking the bullet train. One is a bit more of a slow, bumpy ride, and the other is more sleek and a bit more predictable, but they are both brand new experiences, that can be equally thrilling (you’d be surprised how fast a Tuk tuk can go!), and will take you to places to never expected! Both countries are amazing, so if there’s anything at all drawing you to one or the other, just pick that one and GO! You won’t regret it.

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Tuk tuk or bullet train?

Why I Hate Teaching Kindergarten

Why I Hate Teaching Kindergarten (…and why I love it)

Today my class staged a full-on rebellion. Crayons were thrown; blocks were spilled. “No,” their 20 little minds simultaneously decided, “Now is not classtime.” Trying to round them up was about as successful as herding cats.

The first month is always the hardest, especially with kids who are attending school for the very first time. Not only do they need to learn to understand you, they need to learn what school is and how it works. It can take weeks before the routine begins to sink in and they understand, “Okay, now is the time to sit, now is the time to eat, now is the time to play.” For a good while, you’re just the bad guy who interrupts their never-ending playtime to repeat the same strange sounds over and over again while pointing at pictures. In an ESL school you may look strange, you’ll definitely sound strange, and it’s normal for some kids to be terrified at first. Many kids cry for their parents during the first week of preschool anyway and it’s bound to be worse if their teacher looks and sounds like an alien. The concept of learning (“Oh, I’m supposed to repeat these words, draw these symbols, sing these songs…”) can only begin to be absorbed once the sensory overload subsides.

One of the most frustrating things for me is starting from scratch every single year. You spend 12 months getting these kids to the point where they understand instructions, can express their wants & needs, know the rules, and have a basic foundation of letters, phonics, numbers & vocabulary on which to build. You teach them how to hold their pencils, zip their coats, and make a line; you work on sharing, helping, and apologizing. Then you send them off to their new teacher and have to start back at ABC, 123.

There are times when it feels like all that hard work was for someone else’s benefit—as if their next teacher is getting off easy. But you gotta remind yourself that it’s not about you, it’s about the kids. If you feel you’re passing off a class of students whose skills have greatly improved, who have shown huge progress and learned a great deal, then you should take pride in that. Seeing them learn in leaps and bounds is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. Getting to know the huge personalities bursting out of little bodies, coaxing out their strengths, bolstering their weaknesses, and admiring their unbridled creativity is what makes it worth the tantrums and tears.

I’m not saying kindergarten teachers have it the hardest. It’s true that the older grade levels have their own challenges: Instead of the alphabet, it’s complex grammar and more abstract vocabulary. Instead of nose-picking and pants-wetting, it’s social drama and raging hormones. Instead of crying for mom and pouting in the corner, it’s testing boundaries and challenging the rules.

If anything, I’m lucky that popping in loudest, most colorful video I have can turn a room full of rampaging toddlers into slack-jawed zombies. With today’s uprising quelled, they morph back into their wide-eyed playful selves—cuddly little balls of raw emotion and unlimited potential—and I know I wouldn’t trade them for the world.

-Ashley

Late to the airbnb party..

Established in 2008, Airbnb has been around for a fair amount of time. However, it wasn’t until mid-2015 that I first used it.

It was a brilliant choice!

To anyone that doesn’t know what Airbnb is, it is a service that allows people to list and rent a huge range of properties all over the world. Accommodation can range from a tent on a rooftop to a Buddhist temple, slick apartments to high-end villas.  The Airbnb website and app are easy to use and make searching simple. You can filter dates, prices, location and guest quantity. It also allows you to connect to Facebook, which saves the hassle of registering and can potentially get you discounts.

My first Airbnb experience was during the summer of 2015. I stayed with a Japanese man called Yuki in Osaka, Japan. His house was stereotypically Japanese and located in a residential area away from the swarms of tourists. He was a great host—he picked us up from the train station, provided us with food and beverages and offered loads of help. This experience made a great trip even better. It enabled me to have a more authentic experience by living like a local, with a local.

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Apart from a different style of accommodation, Airbnb can also be the cheapest way to sleep while you travel. Many Airbnb prices even beat the travellers’ all-time favorite—the hostel.

Since my first Airbnb experience only a few months ago, I always open my Airbnb app before the Hostelworld one when booking accommodation. That said, I can see that overusing Airbnb would make me crave the social atmosphere of hostels.

But for now, I love it, why didn’t I do it sooner?

-Liam

#TRAVEL – JAPAN: Uncovering Kyoto

A visit to Kyoto has been on my to-do list for well over a decade now, so when I finally had the opportunity to go in 2015, I was absolutely thrilled. Admittedly, my first impression of Kyoto was far from ideal: my hostel was located along a six-lane highway with a marvelous view of concrete overpasses in either direction. However, it didn’t take long to discover that hidden amongst the high-rises and expressways were areas simply brimming with Kyoto’s earliest history and culture.

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Far from the neon streets of Tokyo, the neighborhoods of Kyoto emerged from a settlement dating back thousands of years, and as such each winding road crackles with a deep sense of character. Hiding behind offices and storefronts are countless shrines and temples, often in small clusters that offer a serene escape from city life.

The sector known as Higashiyama—nestled in the mountains and running alongside the Kamo River—houses some of the most famous and most visited temples in the country. Chief among them is Kiyomizu-dera, a massive Buddhist temple known for its large veranda overlooking the treetops, supported by massive pillars and built without the use of a single nail. The temple itself diverts a small natural waterfall known as Otowa-no-taki into three small streams that pitch over a narrow balcony into a pond below. Visitors shuffle through ever-growing lines to reach out long tin cups under the stream of their choice in hopes that drinking the water will grant them wisdom, health, or longevity.

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While Kiyomizu itself is a fairly immense temple complex to explore, the journey to the front gate is an adventure all its own. The area leading up to the entranceway is on a steep slope, with the main road being a walking market filled with every souvenir one could hope to find. Rather than having shop after shop offer the same array of knick-knacks, this market also holds many specialty shops for those looking to browse handmade fans, wall scrolls, or bamboo goods. Interspersed with both high- and low-end shops are many cafes and ice cream stands. I was lucky enough to stumble upon this area under a blistering sun on a day temperatures reached a sweltering 102 degrees, and so an ice cream break quickly became a necessity. One could safely order basic chocolate or vanilla or delve into more adventurous flavors like red bean, sweet potato, or (my personal favorite) green tea.

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Beyond Kiyomizu, there are plenty of other temples well worth a visit:
>Tofuku-ji: A 24-temple complex known for stunning landscapes containing moss and rock Zen gardens
>Kennin-ji: The city’s oldest Zen temple boasting intense murals of dragons on its ceiling
>Yasaka: A massive shrine footed by cherry blossoms and filled with paper lanterns, Yasaka is known for its traditional New Year’s celebrations

After a day of exploring the living history of Japan it’s only natural to crave a little modern fun. Don’t think that Kyoto is a town forgotten in time—even in Higashiyama you’ll find an active nightlife. All along the Kamo River you’ll find quirky restaurants and bars catering to every type of crowd imaginable while sharing the same serene waterfront views. If you’re seeking a more authentic Japanese experience Higashiyama is also home to Gion, Kyoto’s famous Geisha district, where in addition to bars and nightclubs one will also find teahouses and traditional shows.

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Higashiyama is one of Kyoto’s smallest and least populous sectors and yet is teeming with adventure—there is clearly much more to this city than I’d ever anticipated.

– Ashley

Going to Japan? Check this out –