*Clause – This post was written prior to a change in focus on the blog. *
I am a teacher. I work hard for holidays and I want to enjoy them to the maximum. I would say that I enjoy traveling with all sorts of budgets. I have splurged on expensive hotels before and I have definitely spent my fare share on amenities and comforts to make sure that I have a great time in the place that I am visiting. However, when it came to planning my trip to Japan I decided to do this one on as tight of a budget as I could. This meant doing a bit of research beforehand on cheap places to stay and how to best navigate the complicated and potentially expensive train system.
For my October holiday, I decided on Kyoto as my base. I knew that I only had a week and I have already visited Tokyo on more than one other occasion so the Kansai region was where I set my sights. This was my itinerary:
Day 1: Kuala Lumpur – Kyoto
Day 2: Kyoto
Day 3: Kyoto
Day 4: Kyoto
Day 5: Hiroshima
Day 6: Miyajima Island / Osaka
Day 7: Osaka
Day 8: Kyoto – Kuala Lumpur
I had heard fantastic things about Kyoto and decided that I would spend most of my time there exploring the city and getting a real taste for this older, more traditional city. I have no regrets and I enjoyed every minute of the trip. Kyoto offered culture, food and a relaxed vibe. My side trip to Hiroshima provided history and reflections on the tragedies that occured in that city. Miyajima Island was beautiful and a well-worth visit and Osaka was full of great food options to end the week.
Other options for the Kansai Region could include a day trip to Nara or stopping off at various points on the train en route to Hiroshima. I think Nara is the one place that I intended on visiting that I never got a chance to.
Flights were relatively inexpensive with direct Air Asia flights from Kuala Lumpur to Osaka. I think I spent about 800rm ($180usd) on round trip airfare to Osaka.
Transportation is fast, modern and easy to navigate in Japan. However, you need to be careful about what sort of transportation and train you are going to use. It is always cheaper to get Japan Rail (JR) passes before you arrive in Japan. I have no idea why this is the case but it just is. JR passes are sold outside of Japan and will cost you much less if you purchase them before you arrive.
Because I was travelling in the Kansai region, the pass that I chose was the 5 day Kansai Hiroshima JR Pass. This provided access to everyone that I needed to go, for a total of 13,000Y ($116), instead of 14,000Y ($125) if I waited to buy it at the airport or train station. Now, that is not a huge savings, you’re right. But, when you are attempting to save as much as you can, every little bit counts.
The real savings in train travel is evident in Japan’s 7-day JR Rail Pass which can amount to a huge savings. I would recommend this if you are not just staying in the Kansai region and especially if you are travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto.
For example, let’s look at the prices if you are not travelling by the JR Rail pass.
All prices were checked using Hyperdia, the best way to check 1 way train fares in Japan.
Tokyo – Kyoto WITHOUT 7 day pass (1-way) – 13,910Y ($125)
Kyoto – Tokyo WITHOUT 7 day pass (1-way) – 13,710Y ($123)
Total – apx $250
This is only for your travel from Tokyo to Kyoto and return. Where a full 7day JR Rail pass (which can only be purchased outside Japan in your country of residence) is $350. It is well worth it to get the full 7 day pass if you are travelling multiple long-distance trips around the country. The JR trains are fast and extremely efficient – well worth it!
Due to the fact that the Kansai Area pass is only 5 days, I chose to begin using it when I left Kyoto for Hiroshima as it would then cover my entire train travel all the way back to Osaka. Therefore, I had to find the best way of starting my train travel from Osaka Airport to Kyoto Station and the best deal was the ICOCA & HARUKA pass. A 1-way Osaka airport trip to Kyoto station will cost 1,600Y which is the Haruka Pass, but you must also buy the 2,000Y ICOCA card which has a 500Y deposit that can be refunded when are finished with the card. That means that 1,500Y will be on the card for you to spend on buses and trains which can be helpful while hopping around the city of Kyoto. I spent it very quickly so it was not a big deal.
For accommodation, I searched a variety of budget places including Air BnB (By clicking this link, you will receive $27 if you signup), Booking.com, Hotels.com and Agoda.com.
Prices in Kyoto were expensive on all sites. I settled on a great little Hostel called J-Hoppers Kyoto Guest House which had great reviews on TripAdvisor. They also have branches in Osaka and Hiroshima and you can build up small monetary gifts from them for every 4 or 5 nights you stay with them. I really enjoyed this place and the best part of it was its proximity to Kyoto Station. Kyoto Station is the main hub of transportation in Kyoto and being nearby meant that it was always easy to return home and find buses and trains because most would end up at Kyoto Station. I highly recommend staying nearby this station. J-Hoppers was within a 5-minute walk to the station which made it super convenient.
The total cost of 5 nights at J-Hoppers Guest House was $110 usd! This was for a mixed dormitory which was clean, quiet and you really only sleep there since Kyoto has such great sites to visit.
Another nice little bonus of this place is that there is a higher-end hostel called Lower East Nine Hostel down the street (2min walk) that has a great, trendy coffeeshop in the lobby with delicious bread and honey. The menu is limited but by eating here each morning I saved a bit of money. There is also a delicious bakery next to the Lower East Nine Hostel.
Food was one of the most exciting parts of the trip. My favorite food is Japanese food and I absolutely love authentic Japanese cuisine and couldn’t wait to try out some local favorites and some great markets. My first morning began with exploring the famous Nishiki Market.
Keep in mind that I was trying to spend around $50 / day in Kyoto on all expenses. Therefore, I had to be selective and careful with how I spent my money on food.
The market was great and visiting a market on your first day gives you a good feel for some of the local foods and what to keep your eye out for while out on the streets.
My real mission was to find great Okonomyaki. Okonomyaki is a Japanese-style pancake that is famous in this region. It is fried using ingredients like cabbage, flour, meats, seafood and vegetables and topped with the most important ingredient – the sauce. They make it in front of you and you eat it right off the grill! On a previous trip to Tokyo I found it very hard to find this food but in Kyoto and Osaka it is everywhere and everyone is trying to be the best and most authentic. I found a great little spot near my hostel on the way to Kyoto Station and ate there 2 out of the 5 nights I was here.
Okonomyaki sells for an average price of 800Y to 1100Y ($7 – $10) making it a great budget cuisine. You will not be disappointed by eating this.
Normally, I would eat meals for less than 1000Y ($9) and would only eat Japanese food for lunch and dinner. I tried to eat when I was hungry and keep prices to a minimum. You can certainly eat cheaply in Kyoto if you look around and are a bit patient until finding the best price. Markets are great for filling up on small eats and local restaurants always have the menu outside for your to browse before committing to sitting down. The grocery stores are also full of sampling stations of local sweets, pickled vegetables and other snacks and I found just by wandering through I filled up within a few minutes! I don’t recommend doing this everyday, however.
Besides food, accommodation and travel, the only other major expense is going to be what you spend on sightseeing. The good news is that there are plenty of free places to visit and most temples or major sights will not cost you that much. Japanvisitor.com gives a good breakdown of the top 10 free temples and shrines to visit. Unfortunately, the ones that were high on my list were not free to visit but they were certainly affordable.
Temples and Shrines will not cost you more than $5-$7 at the most. It is best to travel Kyoto by area since the city is nestled amongst the mountains, most of the main sites are around the periphery of the city. The best way to navigate your sightseeing plans is to choose regions and stick to that area for the day. The first day in the city can be spent getting to know your neighborhood and possibly exploring the historic area of Gion. Don’t forget to try and spot Geisha’s at night. I enjoyed this and was able to see a few working with their clients and briskly walking through the crowds en route to the tea houses that were hidden amongst narrow alleyways. Lots of fun and this activity is completely free!
Kyoto is a fascinating city. This budget guide only tips the iceberg of possibilities when it comes to things to do, places to stay and food to eat. Please leave a comment below if you had other amazing adventures in the city and let us know how much they cost!