Fun, Cheap and Free Attractions in Kyoto, Japan

Fun, Cheap and Free Attractions in Kyoto, Japan

Traveling in Japan is notoriously expensive and there’s truth to that.  If you want a roof over your head and to travel between attractions, you’re going to need money to be here (unless you find a Japanese girlfriend with the Tinder app).  Because of space limitations and a shy culture, I’ve had minimal luck with couch surfing (except as a way to connect to fellow travelers).  I love to walk and have no problem walking an hour to a destination but despite what the brochure says “Kyoto: the walkable city”, there’s no way you can cover Kyoto by walking.  Despite these challenges, I’ve found some ways to have fun and keep things affordable in the “City of a Thousand Shrines”, including several free attractions in Kyoto.  Here’s some suggestions of budget-friendly ways to see this city (some of it applies across the country). 1) Shrines And Temple Grounds Can Be Visited For Free! In Japan, you have two main types of religious places of worship: shinto shrines (ninja) and Buddhist temples (otera).  As a general rule, shrines are free to visit.  Usually their names include “-jingu” and have a flowing water source with ladles, which should be used to purify yourself before entering.  The Japanese approach these altars by bowing twice, clapping their hands twice, bowing a third time then praying.  In Kyoto, definitely visit the Yasaka Shrine in the heart of Gion (the geisha district) and Fushimi Inari Shrine (the shrine of a thousand gates, which has a good hour-long hike to the top of the mountain) both of which are free.  There are smaller shrines throughout the city and since they don’t charge admission, it’s a great way to experience Japanese hospitality. Buddhist temples usually charge admission (300-600 yen) and their names are often end in -dera, -tera or -ji.  A large, FREE Buddhist temple right down the street from Yasaka Shrine is Chugen-ji, which provides a more realistic view of real-life Buddhist practice.  I don’t think too many tourists visit but I enjoyed walking around, seeing Buddhist graveyards and bumping into wandering monks, including the site scribe doing calligraphy in open room. Another tip for visiting temples is that you can often access most of the gardens and grounds for free.  For example, Kiyomizu-Dera temple is a UNESCO world heritage site and I didn’t actually pay to go inside (since usually you can’t see inside any of the buildings anyway) but I could explore the surrounding gates and gardens and cute stone figures dressed in colorful clothes.  Surrounding the temple, you can also find shops selling traditional treats, artisan crafts and souvenirs so you can shop too. I paid for the UNESCO Golden Pavilion temple since it was one of the reasons I came to Japan.  It’s a beautiful, glimmering serene building on a lake but your ticket basically just gives you access to walk around the lake so understand that’s what you’re paying for. 2) Day Trip to Saga-Arashiyama With a quick 20-minute trip on a train from Kyoto station (free if you have a JR pass), you can be transported to a serene, riverside mountain-side getaway with… you guessed it!  More temples!  But not only that.  Preserved historic villages,  a monkey park (~500 yen for mediocre macaque monkeys) and hiking opportunities.  In general, it’s a cute town, a nice change of pace and you can entertain yourself nearly all day, just by walking around.  3) Japanese Tea Party For penny pinchers who want to sip tea peacefully, you can find cafes around town with gardens who will give you access to their oasis, a cup of tea and a sweet for approximately 500 yen.  I bumped into several of these around Saga-Arishiyama but I’m sure you can find something similar in Kyoto too. For a tea ceremony experience, check out En in Gion area or you can consider creating or joining up with a private event at Totousha tea house (both cost ~2000 yen including snacks and tea).   Lucky for me, I had a friend-of-a-friend who lives in a beautiful “share” house in North Kyoto so I had the pleasure of attending a semi-traditional tea ceremony at the second location. Totousha runs matcha tea ceremonies in a beautiful traditional-style house with open walls, bamboo mats and decorations personalized for the occasion, which for me was a moon honoring ceremony.  There was about twenty of us in attendance, sitting in a circle behind out bamboo mats in candlelight, feeling the post-thyphoon breezes from the open door.  As a ceremony for friends, it was a little louder, more fun and less formal than a true traditional ceremony but it still lasted a few hours and followed the traditional sequence....

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 1: New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 1: New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville

If you like free live music and hearty soul food, this road trip is for you! Explore the origins of jazz, blues and bluegrass where it all began. We moved quickly across the south with only a night in each city so here are budget-friendly attractions suggested by locals. We tried to keep admission prices under $5 and meals under $10 so you can have fun without breaking the bank. I’ve included a few things that we didn’t get to see but were highly recommended to us. Much of what we decided to do depended on the day of the week so I highly suggest you check out event calendars for each city you visit. New Orleans: I wrote a whole post about this city back when I was feeling ambitious.  Find the detailed itinerary here! Indianapolis, MS: You’ll feel like you’re the Deep South with this stop because there’s not much going on in this town beyond cotton fields. We stopped here to break up our drive with an amazing museum visit. • B.B. King Museum and Mississippi Delta Interpretive Center (400 Second St, Indianola, MS, ): Fantastic, interactive exhibits that provide an overview of Mississippi Delta region, B.B. King’s life and the beginning of Blues. We debated this museum or the Blues Museum in Clarksdale, MS. There’s probably more to see in Clarksdale (especially if you can go to Ground Blues restaurant and live music venue, opened by) but after comparing our options and experiencing this, I’d highly recommend you chose the same!  Tickets for students are a steal for just $5. • Blue Biscuit Café (501-503 Second Street): good southern soul food and authentic, live blues right across the street from the B.B. King museum. Apparently, you can even spend the night in one of their two villas! Memphis, TN: Although there’s not much shaking on Sundays (when we arrived), Memphis had a surprising number of things going on and could have easily spent a second day. • Explore an Egyptian obsession: Apparently, the people of Memphis love to compare themselves to Egypt, the country who houses Memphis’ namesake city. Both Memphis and Egypt strongly depend on their rivers (The Mississippi and the Nile respectively) and the city is dotted with tributes to this ancient nation. The University of Memphis has an impressive Egyptology Gallery (142 Communication & Fine Arts Bldg.
The University of Memphis) and a giant Ramses II statue on a lawn. The city’s skyline includes a giant pyramid that will house the world’s second largest Bass Pro Shop. It wasn’t opened when we visited but they expect to open December 2014 and the building will include climbing walls, laser galleries, bowling alley archery range and fitness facility. • Riverfront: The city has built paths along the Mississippi with beautiful views of the skyline and the river. Check out the Steamboats at Beale Street landing. • Mud Island: Right near the riverside visitor center, there’s a monorail station that will take you to Mud Island (by monorail $4 or by walking). At Mud Island, you can walk along and get your feet wet in the giant sidewalk scaled model of the Lower Mississippi. It’s a good place to go to spend time outside and learn more about America’s biggest river at their Mississippi River Museum. • Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St): We didn’t have time to visit but everyone raved about this museum and we checked out the interesting exterior. Partially housed in the Lorraine Motel where MLK was assassinated, you can stand where the assassin shot him and see the room he was staying the day he died. • Central BBQ (147 E. Butler): “Go where the locals go” for Memphis-style barbeque. Here you can taste the slow-cooked pork served wet with the sweet, tangy, molasses/tomato/vinegar-based sauce that the city is known for. • Cheesecake Corner (113 GE Patterson Ave): This unassuming cheesecake, quiche and wine bar doesn’t look like much from the outside but all the locals know it as the best place to get dessert in town so you will probably have to wait in line. $10 buys you a mighty slice of delicious cheesecake and you can chose from dozens of flavors. • Duck Parade at Peabody Hotel (149 Union Ave): What began as a joke after a hunting trip has become a true tradition at the fancy Peabody Hotel. Each day at 11 AM, a red carpet is unrolled for the hotel’s ducks to march from their penthouse on the top floor to the fountain in the lobby. At 5 PM, the ceremony is reversed as they march back to their home for the night....

Day Trips from Yerevan, Armenia: Garni, Geghard and Khor Virap

Day Trips from Yerevan, Armenia: Garni, Geghard and Khor Virap

As convenient as cities are for a home base, I’m always happy to escape and see another part of the country. I let Grig, the lawyer who works for Interpol, figure out where to go and I just had to hop in the car and enjoy! According to my guidebook, Garni and Geghard are must-dos or people won’t believe you’ve been to Armenia (conveniently, they’re close together so easy to see on the same day). Khor Virab Monastery is important historically (as the location responsible for turning Armenia Christian) and has some incredible views. All three places are less than an hour from the capital so they make perfect day trips from Yerevan and you’ll pass pretty scenery on the way! “When I look up from the canyon to the temple of Garni and see how the sun plays upon the stone and actually makes it glow, then I understand how perfect that world was” -Rafael Hakopian Garni Pagan Temple The first stop was the most ancient attraction of our day trip- Garni temple from the Hellenistic Period (1st century AD). This was the only pagan temple that survived the Christianization of the country three centuries later. They constructed it out of basalt, in a Greco-Roman style, and it used to have a bath next to it. Supposedly the king loved the bath and the views from the temple so much, he made an exception to his command to destroy it. Although the temple was impressive, the views made the structure especially imposing. Two rivers meet at the temple site, dropping over 300 feet with dramatic rock formations on either side- aptly named “symphony canyon” because it looks kind of like organ pipes. The temple had collapsed in 1679 but was restored about 30 years ago and now is the perfect well-formed place for tourists to climb all over. Geghard Monastery Just when visiting churches was beginning to get boring (the ones in Georgia and Armenia tend to be quite plain… at least their interiors), Grig took me to Geghard Monastery, a UNESCO site, which was unlike any church I’ve ever been in. This 12th century monastery was built around a sacred spring and named after the spear stuck into the side of the wounded Jesus Christ, which is supposedly stored here. Just down the road from Garni, this scenery surrounding this site similarly makes it spectacular. The church is cozily nestled between towering cliffs from the river gorge. Certain rocks have caves cut in them, where monks used to live, reminiscent of Cappadocia. To enter the monastery, you’ll walk past a parking lot of Soviet cars, a line of old ladies selling sweet bread and sheets of dried fruit. Before the main entrance, you can toss a pebble to see if it lands on a ledge, which will grant you a wish. You can up stairs to look down on the church, while having an opportunity to examine the elaborate crosses (khatchkar) carved in stone into the hillside. Just through the back door, by a river, we found three men butchering a sheep that they hung from a shed… it seems like a lot of trouble for a picnic! So although the church doesn’t look particularly unique from the outside, entering the church is an Indiana Jones-esque adventure! The door opens to the main room, which is completely dark except for candles and extraterrestrial-like spotlight shining from the ceiling. People line up to take photos in this sacred spot, where you supposedly receive the Holy Spirit (and simultaneously look like the victim of an alien abduction). This room opens up into several smaller side rooms, filled with stone carvings of animals and crosses, with another mini-Holy-Spirit photo opportunity. The sacred spring flows through one of the rooms, which people take home in bottles for its holy properties. Grig made sure we each bought three candles to light to ensure that our dreams would come true (because we weren’t too good at throwing pebbles). He also taught me how to exit a church properly, walking backwards so you don’t turn your back to the altar. Some of these practices and traditions are similar to what I saw with Orthodox Christianity in Greece and Georgia but Armenia actually has its own unique sect with its own bible and patriarch. Geghard was a mystical place to get acquainted with some of these practices in person. Khor Vhap Monastery To see where Armenian Christianity all began, Grig took me to Khor Virap Monastery 30 km on the other side of Yerevan. The scenery on the other side completely changed from craggy river canyons to flat, fertile farmland and...

Navigating The Old City: Mtskheta, Georgia

Navigating The Old City: Mtskheta, Georgia

After a weekend of being spoiled by having my own personal Tbilisi tour guide, it was time for me to explore Georgia on my own. Gela recommended I see Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia, just 20 kilometers outside the modern city center. He flagged me down a cheap cab, instructed the driver to drop me off at the bus station and wished me luck. When the bus dropped me off at a semi-circular turn-around where mini-buses, cabs and personal vehicles were playing an extra-dangerous-version-of-Traffic-Jam, I realized I needed his well wishes. This area wasn’t just a bus station- it was a crossroads of everything coming together at an accelerated city pace: a marketplace of fruit vendors, animal killers (well, meat sellers), flea market of household supplies, a playground for children in addition to the haphazard collection of vehicles. I walked around with a paper that read “Mtskheta”, looking for someone to help me navigate the cryptic Georgian script that might be written on a piece of paper and taped to a bus window… if you’re lucky. Eventually, someone pointed me to an unlabelled ticket window behind a pharmacy, I handed the lady a 1 lari coin and hopped on an (also unlabelled) minibus, hoping that it would take me to the right place because she didn’t really speak English and there was no obvious schedule. Fortunately, I was one of the last people needed to fill the bus so moments later, we lurched off into the agricultural lands surrounding the capital. After 30-40 minutes, the bus reached its final stop and the driver urged me to get off at another semi-circular turn around, this one much more non-descript and less crazy than the previous. I spotted two men with a guidebook and flocked to them like a moth to a flame. It turns out that these two older gentlemen were from Poland, visiting their buddy at the Polish consulate. They were more than happy to allow me to tag along as long as I took occasional photos for them (and with them) and nodded and smiled when they launched into huge political conversations about Al Gore and Hilary Clinton running for president. One of the pair lived in Texas for a couple years, loved the fact that I was from a conservative state (North Carolina) and couldn’t wait to discuss the latest Republican victories. Unfortunately, I was ill-suited to contribute anything substantial to this conversation but he was so enthusiastic that my occasional nods and smiles tended to appease him. St. Nino Church Following his guidebook, he led us to the first stop: St. Nino church. I already forget the story behind this particular place except that people who lived close by tended to wear black, even if they weren’t actual nuns or monks and there was no funeral to attend. This depressing clothing didn’t seem to be a town-wide fashion trend but one woman explained that it was traditional for the area on a daily basis. On our way out, we found an ancient bearded man in red velvet with an imposing staff, surrounded by a crowd of villagers. One (who spoke Russian) communicated to my Polish translators that he was a very special saint and that we were lucky to meet him. We nodded admiringly. However, this saint man seemed to be more excited about meeting us and started to pose for pictures. We appeased him with a few photos then moved on. Up until this point, Mtskheta seemed to be an unremarkable, rather ordinary town and we weren’t sure why it earned the UNESCO seal of approval but it became clear as we rounded the bend and approached Svititskhovelli Cathedral. With support from the United States and several other countries, they renovated the cobblestone streets and filled the curvy streets with small country cottages. They remodeled the buildings so recently and pristinely, the area has an artificial Disney-World-esque but it’s definitely a cute and relaxing place to hang out. The village surrounds the mammoth Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (another UNESCO site), which has been the burial site for Georgian kings for centuries. The church was constructed way back in the 4th century, supposedly over the grave where Christ’s shirt was buried. Supposedly, the pillar placed over this site, while building the church, levitated in the air until St. Nino commanded it to return to earth. To this day, people go on pilgrimages to see this “life-giving pillar” that has cured diseases, and allegedly illuminated light and radiated fragrances over the years. Great Views From Javi Monastery Our final major (UNESCO) stop in the town was Javi monastery, overlooking the estuary of two local...

Sweet Saranda: Cheap Albanian Getaway for Beaches, Ruins and Gourmet Food

Sweet Saranda: Cheap Albanian Getaway for Beaches, Ruins and Gourmet Food

When trying to find a place to meet around Greece and Albania, Simone and I had a surprisingly hard time. I was coming from Nepal and she was based in Athens, Greece with only a four-day vacation. She could fly cheaply and easiest to Western Europe, which meant I would need to retrace my steps significantly to return to Turkey. Furthermore, Western Europe doesn’t interest me the same way other places do- I wanted to be riding a camel in Petra, Jordan or exploring Egyptian temples while tourism is still cheap. She brainstormed a few places to compromise, choosing cheap, quirkier destinations like Izmir, Turkey (I’ve been there), Tbilisi, Georgia and Saranda, Albania. I knew absolutely nothing about Albania so I jumped at the last suggestion, and I’m certainly glad I did. Simone and I made Saranda our home-base for our three-days together and a weekend is all you need to see to major sites in the area. If you’re a more leisurely traveler, Saranda is a cheap and enjoyable place to lay on the beach and eat gourmet food at unbeatable prices. Day 1: Gourmet food, seaside siestas and sunset panoramas We arrived at Saranda around lunchtime on a mini-bus, trying to decode the cryptic directions to our hostel. “Make a left at the bank with the palm tree”, “stop at the creperie and ask for Tomi”… it seemed straightforward until we were surrounded by a sea of banks and creperies, punctuated with dozens of palm trees and people kept pointing us in opposite directions. Fortunately, someone at a newsstand offered to call Tomi for us, offered to share his shaded stall and buy us an ice cream while we waited. Tomi arrived on a bicycle, which he used to wheel Simone’s bulging duffel and assured us that coming to our rescue was “no problem, no problem” and welcomed us warmly to the city. The private room we booked through SR Backpackers, actually had an upgraded location in a hotel overlooking the Bay. After plopping down our bags and breathing in sea breezes, we made lunch our next mission. As with most things in Albania, the local restaurants aren’t well documented… Even if you can find the name of an eatery online, it rarely has an address and never has a menu. Simone had spotted one of the Tripadvisor restaurants the way in, so we headed to Mare Nostrum (Address: Jonianet 20, Saranda) to pursue their menu of Greek, Italian, Albanian and seafood dishes. Since the tourist season in Saranda does not start until July, we had the place to ourselves. We giggled at elderly tourists lumbering by the seaside path in excessive sun hats then a magical appetizer appeared! Some sort of crispy bread accompanied by a creamy herb dip, soon joined by the sesame-seed encrusted fried feta cheese balls and fig jam that we ordered. Just when we thought our meal couldn’t get more delicious, the main course arrived. I had the vegetarian roasted vegetable salad with cheese. After over a month of eating cooked vegetables drowning in curries, this dish was exactly what I needed: crispy vegetables topped with roasted peppers, eggplants and topped with salty Albanian white cheese. Simone ordered some chili-lime shrimp, which looked a little scary when they arrived on skewers, peering at her with beady eyes, but she also raved about her meal. The waiter proved that dreams do come true when he surprised us with a complimentary dessert: some sort of banana pie, crystallized in a caramel glaze. To top it all off, the meal cost about $7 USD. We took our food coma straight to the beach, which we had almost exclusively to ourselves. We felt better about the eerily vacant promenade and shoreline when we later learned than Albanians take siesta from 3-5 PM. After our siesta on Saranda’s pebbly shores, we put on our walking shoes and hiked up the 5 meters to Lekursi Castle, which they converted into a restaurant. It took longer than expected but we made it in time to enjoy breathtaking views of the city and the sea during sunset. If you go during July/August (the tourist season), you may be able to catch traditional live music. Once the sun went down, we decided to head back down the hill. Lucky for us, a taxi driver offered us a free ride and we used the time that we would have spent walking for a drink on the waterfront. Day 2: Day trip to Butrint ruins and Ksamil beaches If in Saranda, Butrint is cultural “must-see” and UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s an ancient port from Hellenistic to Ottoman times,...

Travel Albania: Enjoy Hospitality from Tirana to Berat

Travel Albania: Enjoy Hospitality from Tirana to Berat

I don’t know if Albania’s flag contributes to its ominous reputation. At first glance, it is pretty terrifying. A demonic looking two-headed eagle silhouetted against a dark, blood red background. When talking to an Albanian friend, I confessed I found it a bit intimidating. He chuckled and said, that it wasn’t supposed to be scary at all. Apparently, the eagle has been the symbol of the area since the Byzantine Empire. Various stories surround the introduction of the two-headed eagle but they all seem to agree that the double-head represents unification: unification of North and South when the country had to fight the Ottoman empire, unification of church and government (which I find a little strange since at least now, Albania doesn’t have a strong religious identity and open-mindedly welcomes Muslims, Christians, etc.) and unification of the Albanian people. My friend summarized, “the two heads represent eagles helping each other, until out they become one.” I found this selfless, helpfulness everywhere in Albania… more than any other country I’ve been to. Sure, the cab drivers tried to rip us off and charge us 5 euros for a two-minute ride. But for all the times that happened, three locals would literally stop what they were doing to deliver us to our destination and make sure we got the right bus. We received at least three offers of free ice cream, a free cab ride down the mountain and dozens of incredible conversations. In addition to amazingly generous locals, the country itself is beautiful and still relatively untouched. It’s so refreshing to go to a country without any McDonalds, Starbucks or Burger King, where the closest thing you can come to American fast food is “AFC”: Albania Fried Chicken. It’s tempting to keep Albania as a “best-kept secret” but I think I owe it to all the Albanians who helped me to share my enthusiasm for this place. Albania may be a leap into the unknown for you as a traveler, but I guarantee it’ll be a rewarding and enjoyable experience! Tirana: Albania’s Colorful Capital City For more items to add to your Albanian itinerary, hopefully my last 24-hour blitz tour of the North will inspire you. After a ferry ride from Corfu and a 6-hour bus ride to Tirana, a friendly face and a good meal was exactly what I needed. Alban, a lawyer born and bred in various parts of Albania, wanted to show me around for the day (I was surprised he still wanted to meet me after the million question pre-departure questions I bugged him with). We started at Oda’s, his friend’s mom’s restaurants, for an epic feast featuring traditional Albanian fare. In between bites of doma (stuffed grape leaves), byrek (flaky vegetable pie pastry often with spinach or feta cheese), eggplant stuffed with cheese, beans and an endless supply of other things, we looked at the random Albanian artifacts around the perimeter of the wall. The husband of the restaurant owner was a cinematographer who collected old photographs, which added to the museum-like atmosphere of this cozy and delicious dining establishment. We drove around the central Albanian square and he pointed out important ministries and churches, many of which were painted in a cheery yellow. In regards to Albania’s colorful capital, my Make The Most of Your Time of Earth: 1000 Ultimate Travel Experiences (Thank you, Meghan Westlander- I love this book!) explains, “Tirana’s torrid twentieth century was dominated by one color: a Communist red so deep that the country severed ties with the Soviet Union because brutal dictator Enver Hoxha believed the USSR had turned anti-Marxist since Stalin’s death. The capital’s skyline is still dominated by the concrete apartment buildings thrown up in the postwar period but, under wildly popular city mayor Edi Rama, these bleak structures have been daubed in all manner of murals, patterns and multicolored stripes. Formerly a painter himself, and armed with a lifelong passion for Picasso, legend has it that one of the first things Rama did when he took office in 200 was order in paint. Now after encouraging tenants and housing cooperatives to get involved in brightening up this most maligned of cities, Tirana has been transformed into a riot of purples, yellows, greens and yes, even a little red” –Rough Guides After our resting off our food coma, Alban and I decided to drive about an hour and a half to Berat, another one of Albania’s UNESCO museum cities. The first part of the drive was relatively straightforward but the last 60 km or so revealed why people complain about Albanian roads. There were no streetlights and these mostly-unpaved roads contained car-sized...