Kyoto: a fascinating base from which to explore Japan

by shevaughan

Japan is one of the most expensive countries in the world but with a few tips on saving money under your belt, you can still experience all the amazing culture on offer without breaking the bank

Don’t be daunted by Japan. Admittedly it doesn’t seem the obvious place for backpacking, but you’d be surprised how much fun you can have on a small budget!

Japan was the first stop on our 4 ½ month world trip. We set a budget of £40 per day and had a week in Kyoto before heading on to Tokyo. We chose Kyoto, the capital of Japan before it was moved to Tokyo in 1868, as our base for the first week, a great gentle place to acclimatise to the cultural differences.

Getting about

Before you leave for Japan buy a Japan Rail pass ( These need to be bought before you arrive in the country and are only for tourists. They can be purchased for 1, 2 or 3 weeks (approx £186-£380). They cover JR trains, but not the fastest Nozomi class bullet train, and some buses. Nor does it cover use of the metro system.

Where to stay

If you have a thing about sharing slippers, take your own! Most hostels expect you to remove your shoes in the porch and provide you with communal slippers. Our accommodation was part of a chain of hostels called K’s House. The Japanese have such high standards and our hostel was immaculate.

The staff were amazingly friendly, helpful and spoke good English. It’s ten minutes away from the station, hidden away on a residential street, where the lady across the road still traditionally washes off her front step every morning. The Zen café attached to the side of the hostel was great for a cheap evening meal or a few drinks with friends but the buffet breakfast was expensive. Instead arm yourself with ingredients for tea and toast from the shop nearby and use the well-equipped kitchen upstairs.

What to see

Kyoto’s main attractions are the Golden Pavilion (entry: 400 yen), Ryoan-ji (reputedly the world’s best rock garden – entry 500 yen) and the Kyoto Tower (700 yen, or free view from the train station across the road). A trip to Kyoto isn’t complete without strolling through the Gion district to catch a glimpse of a geisha or maiko.

We were lucky enough to attend a tea party held by a maiko (trainee geisha) at Kitano Tenmangu shrine (220 yen one way on the bus from the station) to celebrate the plum trees blossoming. It was an amazing event and I urge you to take up any chance to attend a tea party witha  geisha or maiko. Also worth seeing are Fushimi Inari shrine and the Imperial Palace which has free tours, but you need to apply in advance. There are many markets in Kyoto selling Japanese delicacies, so sample as many as you can, as well as the usual high street stores and kimono shops.

Day trips

From Kyoto use your JR pass to take a few day trips, taking approximately an hour on the train:
Osaka seemed just another city but the Sky Building and America Mura are worth a visit and have lunch in one of the famous crab restaurants.

Himeji boasts the World Heritage-listed castle, which is used in many Samurai movies and the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. Free tours are available on limited days and last at least 2 hours.

Hiroshima was for us a very sad and though provoking day out. Take time to ring the Peace Bell, look at the Children’s memorial and visit the Peace Museum. The train station is on the outskirts of the city and you will need to catch the local tram from the station and jump off opposite the A-Bomb dome.

Nara was the capital before Kyoto and is home to Daibutsuden, the world’s largest wooden structure built to house the enormous 16 metre high bronze Buddha. From the station the main street, lined with souvenir shops, leads to the temple via Nara Park . Unless you want to be chased, don’t feed the deer - they literally mob you!


We mainly catered for ourselves. The supermarkets can be a little daunting but be adventurous or buy a small phrase book, which will tell you the names of most ingredients. One evening treat yourself to something from the gourmet food hall in the basement of Kyoto station. Try and get a couple of fellow travellers to chip in and buy a few different dishes to take back to the hostel for a tapas-style meal sitting on the traditional tatami mats. Several other restaurants, including a sushi train, can be found in the station.

At the end of your time in Kyoto head for Tokyo on the bullet train and sit on the left hand side for views of Mt Fuji.