Before I departed for Japan, everyone I knew who had been before made sure to mention to me that it was expensive. I brushed them off because CLEARLY they had no idea how frugal I am, and how obsessed I am with saving while traveling.
Japan is super expensive.
This was true especially in comparison to several other countries I have traveled to. I am sure it can be less expensive if you spend a bit more time there to integrate and find the cheap spots, or if you happen to have some friends there who can show you the way.
David and I had neither opportunity unfortunately. And despite not really spending much money on anything besides necessities such as food and transportation, we still spent a butt-ton of money.
Especially in Kyoto.
While Tokyo had a familiar city vibe to it, Kyoto was quintessentially Japan. Home to famous places of worship, the bamboo grove, onsens, traditional architecture, temple cuisine, and stunning rolling hills and fall weather, Kyoto is all encompassing. For this reason, tourists flock to the city… And so do skyrocketed prices.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Kyoto:
Figure out your transportation situation before you arrive.
If purchasing a JR Pass, know that it is an excellent investment if in Tokyo and when using the Shinkansen. In Kyoto, however, it is essentially useless. There are a strain of JR lines in Kyoto, but they’re pretty inconvenient. We didn’t even think about that until we arrived.
The second headache? Kyoto relies more on bus transportation over rail. If you don’t know what bus you are supposed to take and you are without WiFi or a SIM card, it can be exceptionally hard to figure out where you are supposed to go. In fact, even with WiFi, we couldn’t really figure it out.
Because we only stayed the weekend in Kyoto, we relied a lot on walking and hailing cabs. If I could do it all over though, I would have looked further into the logistics of transportation before arrival and mapped out my directions better. Or, better yet, I would have rented a bike!!
Experience Fushimi Inari-taisha.
Walking through the endless red torii gates of this shrine was one of my favorite experiences in Japan.
Fushimi Inari-taisha is a shrine built for the god of rice (Inari). Situated at the base of a mountain, on pillars surrounding the area are statues of foxes who sit as messengers for the shrine.
To completely hike the trails, it would take 2 – 3 hours, however there are plenty of opportunities to turn around. David and I walked around for about an hour and a half until it got dark.
Please, if you visit Japan, you must visit this shrine! It is beautiful, it is on a JR line (!!!), and, best of all, it’s free!
Go to Arashiyama Bamboo Forest.
If you have been planning on a trip to Kyoto, then you have probably seen loads of photos of the Bamboo Grove. One of city’s most famous sites, walking through lines of towering stalks of bamboo can seem surreal.
On the weekend or during the day, and especially on a holiday, it is going to be exceptionally busy. The trails are narrow, and people are constantly stopping to take photographs or watch out for carriages. If you want to try and avoid this, I’d recommend an early morning, weekday visit.
This is also free (if you just walk on the path) and is on the JR line.
And then go to Arashiyama Monkey Park.
Just a walk down the street, Arashiyama Monkey Park was hands down the best $4 I spent in Japan.
Several species of monkeys are native to Japan, and it is possible that while hiking you’d spot one in the wild. As such, there are a few monkey parks in Japan capitalizing on this, making it a bit more easy and likely for tourists to spot a monkey. It was important to me that, were I to go to a monkey park, I visit one that is humane. I researched extensively several parks to ensure that no monkeys were harmed, were caged, were allowed to be touched, etc.
Arashiyama Monkey Park fit the bill. While they do allow for the monkeys to be fed (which is why they congregate in the location), they make the people stand in a cage to feed the monkeys – rather than the other way around! Additionally, rules are located on obvious signs throughout the hike, mentioning to not look at the monkeys in the eyes, to not stare, to not crouch, etc. It was refreshing to witness the staff actually yell at patrons if they didn’t follow those rules too!
What makes this park extra special was the added amenity of a view. After hiking to the top of the trail, you can see the entire city of Kyoto.
Eat all of the street food.
Red bean pastries are my new kryptonite. When walking around Kyoto, I would stop everything I was doing for the opportunity to consume one.
While Kyoto street food isn’t nearly as cheap as some of the food you might find in Europe, it is still reasonable in comparison to restaurants. And it is SO delicious, as well as easy to find vegetarian options.
In addition to the red-bean-everything, we ate dumplings (fried rice balls covered in sweet/sour sauce), gold infused matcha, street corn, flavorful wine, and many, many ice cream cones.
Go to a sake bar.
Sake is an alcohol made out of rice, also referred to as rice wine. Kyoto is home to some of Japan’s oldest sake brewers, making it a great choice to find an authentic brew. Be ready to shell out a little cash for it though!
I think sake tastes weird, but it was certainly a great cultural experience. And David loves it.
I might be the only of-age American who has never gone to a karaoke bar. David was shocked to learn that my first experience with it was in Kyoto!
Karaoke, literally translated to “without orchestra” in Japanese, was created in Japan in the 60’s (from what I read). If you think it is popular in the U.S., amplify that times 5 for Japan!
To participate, we visited Barcode, a karaoke joint with no cover charge (apparently a rarity in the cities). I drank one too many reasonably-priced screwdrivers and poorly sang several classics. David got in on it with me during Bohemian Rhapsody, and he himself sang some Kendrick. The experience was especially hilarious to me because no one else at the bar was familiar with what the hell we were even trying to sing, and we probably looked like idiots. In fact, afterwards a person came up to us and asked us to write down Kendrick Lamar’s name so he could go home and listen to him!
This was also the night I learned that screamo is quite popular in Japan.
Think you can take a dip in an onsen if you have quite visible tattoos.
I am not too keen on hanging around in stagnant water, like baths or pools. However, taking a dip in an onsen sounded like a unique experience. While they have onsens everywhere in Japan, I decided to try and find one in Kyoto.
While searching through the sites though, I came across a conundrum. NO TATTOOS was splashed across several websites, review boards, and forums. Wellllll, I have a huge tattoo on my rib cage, a tattoo on my foot, and a tattoo on my thigh. I read that if you can discreetly cover your tattoos, you might be able to join in still. For me to do that though, I’d have to wear a bathing suit, some baggy swim shorts and most likely a giant band-aid on my foot. In a place where you are supposed to be completely naked, I couldn’t see myself as getting away with that get-up. So I nixed the idea.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t look too terribly hard because I don’t like water. If you have tattoos though, know that you might have to cover it up, find a tattoo friendly location, or just skip this experience altogether.
Pay the equivalent of $3.50 to see the Golden Pavilion.
The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) is a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. The name is derived from the fact that the entire building has historically been kept up with gold leaf to purify it of negative thoughts and pollution.
This temple was one of the features I was most excited to view, so it is possible that my expectations were too high. However, upon arrival, I was disappointed to see that there was an entry fee. I understand the need to put a price tag on a temple that requires so much upkeep, but it was kind of unexpected when the other shrines and temples have been free.
Once inside, your $3.50 doesn’t get you much. It is a quick in and out walk to see the pavilion, with not much else to see. And when there are a bunch of other tourists trying to snag a picture of the temple in the same cramped location, it is pretty frustrating.
Go on a holiday.
As I later found out, I went to Kyoto on Labor Thanksgiving Day, and I felt like a sardine nearly the entire time. Anytime I tried to take a photo, another tourist was smushing into me or was in my shot. Walking through the bamboo grove was almost arduous. Walking across one bridge took us 35 minutes. Lines to restrooms were impossibly long.
Please don’t be an idiot like me and check before you go!
BONUS BULLET POINT: See Mt. Fuji from your train window!
It’s a bonus because it isn’t in Kyoto.
If you are traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, you might just get to catch a peek at Mt. Fuji, especially if you take the Shinkansen. Here are some tips:
- Go during the prime season. Mt. Fuji is an elusive miss, and she only shows herself in ideal weather conditions. Fall and winter will be your best bets because it is less cloudy – but if even there is a hint of rain, your view will be spoiled.
- Sit on the right hand side when traveling by train. You can even ask the ticket office for the side with a “mountain view” – if any are still available. If you don’t luck out, however, have no fear. You are able to walk around on the Shinkansen. Try and walk to a hallway car with windows.
Kyoto is a must for anyone who is wanting to experience a more traditional Japan. The food is amazing, the attractions are abundant, and the city as a whole is beautiful.
Just make sure you save up a BUNCH of money before going!
Questions? Suggestions? Concerns? Leave them in the comments!