Kyoto is a no-brainer when it comes to must-see cities that define Japan. As students with constrained budgets, we still managed to have a lot of fun without emptying our pockets, thanks to online booking and some sense for adventure.
Today’s post is a longread, so feel free to click through to sections that you find the most interesting.
- 1 Day One – Kyoto discoveries
- 2 Day Two – Bicycle endeavours
Day One – Kyoto discoveries
Staying at a staff-less hotel
Affordable yet safe options are always available in Japan, as long as you don’t mind sharing your room with strangers or, on the contrary, isolate yourself in a capsule. We were looking for something more standard however, and found something no less than awesome for an almost ridiculously low price 🤔
Don’t be fooled by its two stars (not their review rating). Japaning Hotel Gozen in Kyoto offers affordable rooms in a number of sizes, but we struck an exceptionally great deal by booking last-minute and off-season. Japaning Hotel is a chain, and the Gozen seems to be one of their cheapest offerings. What we got for the price is almost unbelievable. If anything, this hotel was a little far from Kyoto’s most famous spots, but at the same time it was still fairly central in the city.
Before we divulge how cheap it was, here’s what the room offered. Starting with the basics, it was an ample, non-smoking room with a tv, two seats, a coffee table, a wardrobe, shelves, and an additional bed underneath the big one to make it a room for three. There was also a small terrace, just big enough to hang-dry clothes.
The bathroom was better than expected. It included a fancy, feature-rich Japanese toilet, a sink, blow-dryer, shower and small bath — with its own waterproof television. Tooth brushes, small tubes of tooth paste and good quality Shiseido shampoo and the like were all provided.
In addition to that, there was a multipurpose entrance hall with a washing machine, as well as a small kitchen, fully equipped with a large refrigerator, a microwave, induction heater, large sink, as well as all necessary kitchen equipment for three (think tableware, pots, pans, spatulas and knives).
By offering a kitchenette but no breakfast, the Gozen hotel keeps its costs low: there is no restaurant or room service, room cleaning is only done once every three days and there is no staff at check-in — instead, you’ll be interacting with one of two friendly iPads. Nonetheless, the experience was far from unpleasant: the room was impeccably clean and there was a phone sitting right next to the tablets. All we had to do to talk to a human in case something went wrong, was to lift the horn and wait for about five seconds.
We saved the best feature for last! To really go with the times (and this is something we didn’t know beforehand), the room included a smartphone instead of a chunky old phone, and guess what: guests are free to take it off its charging dock and leave the hotel with it during their stay! It even includes unlimited data over 4G LTE and unlimited calling. Getting a pocket-wifi or local data plan yourself on top of regular hotel costs would easily end up being a much more expensive affair than the all-in-one package we found at this a hotel.
Right next to the hotel is Fresco, a well-stocked supermarket, open 24/7, leaving you with nothing to worry about in terms of stuffing your empty stomach.
We promised to keep the price a secret until the end, so here it is. Splitting between us two, this room was only ¥4006 (€31,26) per person… for two nights!
Nijō Castle: Like walking through a Japanese painting
On Day One, we walked our way to the impressive castle complex of Nijō. The domain is quite large and is surrounded by fortifications and two moats. Among the many buildings are a number of lush Japanese gardens.
Being there felt like walking through history. This is the place where Tokugawa Shoguns resided when they were in Kyoto. Impressive wall paintings in typical old Japanese style made us feel as if we were walking in an ukiyo-e (understandably, taking pictures of the interior was not allowed).
The sun was burning our skin when we were out, but walking through the wooden interiors of the castle buildings, where paper walls let the outside daylight flow in softly, was really pleasant.
We cooled off with a kiwi-flavoured kaki-gōri, and yes, this is their usual size. It’s basically shaved ice with fruit on it, but there are froyo-like types as well.
Strolling through Gion
Narrow streets, paper lamps, and seeing a geisha through an opened door. It was all very pretty – except for the restaurant prices. I’m sure a lot of ¥10,000 bills were being passed around on the crowded overhanging terraces. We looked hard for a place to eat, but then, finally, we saw an affordable menu of an Italian restaurant, and so we walked towards the end of this fancy-looking entrance…
Only to find out they were full for the night. 😑 Pro tip: reserve a seat if you want to eat in Gion.
Day Two – Bicycle endeavours
Evaluating our first day in Kyoto that evening, it was clear that the great distances between the various must-see spots were the biggest issue in our planning. Thinking back to my great experience cycling my way through and around Nara, I suggested to rent bicycles on Day 2.
We didn’t rent our bikes at a chain or fancy-looking shop, but at Maruyasu, an unassuming local shop at a street corner. For ¥500, we each got ourselves a one-day mama-chari rental, which are bikes with baskets that are called as such because mostly mothers ride them in Japan. That way, we could put our stuff in the basket for more riding comfort.
Preparing for the rain at a 100-yen shop
Before renting our bicycles, we stopped by the Daiso, a 100-yen (about €0.80) shop chain, to prepare for the rain. Since we really wanted to go for it despite the weather, we decided to buy a poncho, rain pants and protective covers for the bike baskets, should our rentals have those, all at the 100-yen shop. Since these are compact things, taking them back home would not be an issue. If you ever need something specific on your trip like us, there’s a good chance the Daiso or another 100-yen shop has it.
There were a few things we were hoping to see. Our planned itinerary was roughly a circle on the map. First, we’d go south from the bike shop towards the Kyoto Railway Museum. Next, we’d ride on to Nishiki Market. After that, we were hoping to see the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) or who knows, maybe even Kyoto’s “Monkey Mountain”. Ambitious. Maybe a bit too ambitious.
The Kyoto Railway Museum: A boy’s dream come true
Number one on our itinerary. I remember the glorious day when I received my first and only miniature railway set. It came complete with a Eurostar and an E3-series shinkansen (see picture on the right). I loved them so much that I carried them around everywhere – railways or not. But a little boy’s love grows big, and so we included a visit to the Railway Museum on our first ever trip to Kyoto. It’s a brand new museum, having opened only two years ago in 2016. Its predecessor opened in 1974 and focussed on steam locomotives.
If you visit on a bicycle, like us, the first three hours of parking are free. We spent nearly half of our three hours at the museum in the entrance hall alone, and my girlfriend gave me all the time I needed to indulge in the experience. I was mostly impressed by a fine species of the very first bullet train (Japanese: shinkansen 新幹線), which began carrying passengers in 1964.
Further down the hall, next to an old Osaka Metro set, is a dining car. We lined up to get in and were told to order before ‘boarding’. There was a selection of ekiben, the kind of lunch sold at Japanese train stations, and while some were served in ordinary bento boxes like this 🍱 the little boy in me wanted one of the lunch sets which are served in a bullet train-shaped lunchbox, which you can take home afterwards.
Before you think “Wait, isn’t that for kids?”, let me defend myself by telling you that this 700 Series Shinkansen was specifically aimed at adults. The one for children was its yellow variant (Doctor Yellow, for train fans).
The fun didn’t stop there. Inside, more trains were displayed, some of which you can go in, some with moving parts, and lots of miniature replicas of trains and railway stations, as well as original parts and railway attributes. A see-through, working ticket gate, shows what happens behind the scenes tens of thousands of times each day when Japanese have their passes or tickets scanned for their commute to work. Short texts provide explanations throughout the museum, but this is clearly the kind of museum where you can have lots of fun without ever having to read anything.
From the observation deck you can see a constant flow of numerous kinds of trains passing by in all directions, including bullet trains, and the famous pivoting ‘train selector’ with working steam locomotives around it. In other words, a great place for train spotters. It’s possible to take a ride in a steam locomotive too.
Unusual items at Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market is a must-visit, but very crowded. Park your bikes here or here (links to Google Maps), for a small fee like we did, and simply walk to the covered shopping street. At Nishiki, you’ll find all kinds of specialised items, such as blubbery ‘mochi’-soap, small egg-filled octopuses on a stick or, a bit more controversial, plumed and grilled sparrows on a stick – not for the faint of heart… Otherwise, it’s a very nice place. You can find lots of tsukemono if you like that kind of Japanese food. There are also handmade goods, second hand shops and a street branching onto the market is known for selling the typical signs, lamps and machines seen at many Japanese restaurants.
Another secret Chopstick Tip, this time for a very contemporary souvenir (and for those who cherish their smartphones): there is a shop somewhere at Nishiki Market which sells truly beautiful handmade Japanese-style smartphone cases (mostly iPhone).
Cycling to the Golden Pavilion: a Grand Failure
Actually, convincing my girlfriend to explore Kyoto on a bicycle was not an easy task, so it was a gift from Heaven that all went well until that point. We were prepared for the rain, so that wasn’t an issue. But then, disaster…
The way to Kinkakuji, the famous temple at the pond every tourist visiting Kyoto wants to see, appeared to be way more hilly than my girlfriend would have liked, and our bikes weren’t electrical. My girlfriend was suffering behind me, for a large part because of the humid heat, and she was doing it all for me!
Meanwhile, return time for our rental bikes came closer, so we could not take it slowly. And when we thought we would finally see Kinkakuji, we noticed an announcement at the entrance of the park where it is situated. It wasn’t even 6PM yet, and apparently the whole domain was CLOSED. Oh, the guilt I felt for making that sweet girl do all of this for nothing… Cycling was my idea, so I should have checked the opening times. Naomi, if you read this: I’m so sorry!