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!

Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, Kyoto, Japan

Hanging out with a local couch surfer at Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, Kyoto, Japan

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.

Entrance on Kiyomizu-Dera temple, Kyoto, Japan

Entrance on Kiyomizu-Dera temple, Kyoto, Japan

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.

Golden Pavilion Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Golden Pavilion Temple, Kyoto, Japan

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.

The river at Saga, Kyoto, Japan.

The river at Saga-Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan.

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.

Ready for the tea ceremony!

Ready for the tea ceremony!

 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.  We began with snacks and sake (maybe not so traditional… haha).  We nibbled on sticky rice, edamame, mushrooms, tofu, warmed ginkgo nuts and persimmon, playfully joking around with each other.  Once we devoured the snacks, things got quiet and serious as we opened placemats on our plates and everyone read a poet saluting the moon.  We then shifted toward the open door so we could honor the moon as the tea master prepared the tea.  And for a tea ceremony, there wasn’t much tea.  After ceremonious washing of the cups, dramatic pouring procedures and serving on a special platter, we were each delivered precisely one drop of a strong grassy tea.  After honoring its surprisingly intense flavor, we passed our cups back for a second drop of tea, from the same leaves but a second pour.  I would have never guessed that a three-hour tea ceremony would culminate in two drops of tea but savoring those drops teaches you to appreciate the small things in life.  We meditated over this tasty and profound experience, then were suddenly jolted back to reality by two traditionally dressed attendees who began a traditional Japanese chant/ fan dance.  Before this performance, I would have expected Japanese song to be filled with flutes and fluff, songs that would play as you skip through a wooded forest.  However, this song felt more like an Asian Flamenco, with heart-wrenching, jaw-twisting yodeling.  The man and the woman called to each other from opposite sides of the room then the man arose with a fan.  He moved in short, staccato movements, pausing in dramatic poses to accent his wailing.  The whole performance ended as suddenly as it started and all of a sudden, we were munching on green tea sweets and chatting more informally again.  You can check out something similar to the fan dance I experienced at the link down below, but I highly recommend trying to seek out one of these experiences in person!

Nishikki Market, Kyoto, Japan

Nishikki Market, Kyoto, Japan

4) Octopus-On-A-Stick, Convenience Store Booze, Japanese Arcade Games & Free Electronic Massages

Tea ceremonies and temples are great, but Japan’s not all about stoic seriousness.  One rainy afternoon, my Israeli friend and I decided to partake in the sillier side of Japanese culture.  Start in Nishiki market, a covered area of food, spices and specialty items for purchase.  You can try octopus on a stick, tofu donuts, all sorts of pickles and food that looked so mysterious I can’t imagine what it is.

One of the many strange contraptions at Tokyo Hands

One of the many strange contraptions at Tokyo Hands

From there, we swung by 711 to pick up cheap, also mysterious, artificial-grape flavored potato-alcohol beverages and headed to the Japanese Arcade.  Here, you can see teens pound away at taiko-drum versions of Guitar Hero and little girls tear up when they fail to win the fluffy cat head at a nearly-impossible claw game (with just two prongs! It doesn’t seem fair!).  We donned 3-D glasses and teamed up to eradicate lumbering zombies.  After our inevitable (but still unfortunate) demise, we moved to Tokyu Hands, a chain shop specializing in items that make your life “more comfortable and enjoyable”.  Like these flapping airplane wings that works out your face to improve your smile and make you look younger.  So we giggled as we explored four floors of things we never knew we needed then found our way to the massage chairs.  For people like us, who can’t afford a doting geisha, their strange massage chairs provide a memorable, free alternative.  The butt-cushion vibrates wildly as two thumb-like balls, unrelentingly poke and prod their way down your back.  You can add the neck massager if you enjoy violent, almost choking sensations from behind!

In conclusion, Kyoto has it all: adventures for nature lovers, spiritual temple visitors, cultural snackers and people who like to giggle.  And it doesn’t have to cost a fortune… enjoy!

Song of the Moment: Kyou-no-Shiki “four seasons of Kyoto” (video is a traditional fan dance)

If YOU want to go to Kyoto:  For visiting Japan in general, I have found booking hostels at least a week in advance is a good idea- my plans have already been significantly altered by not being able to find available/ affordable housing.  All the hostels I have been in so far have provided toiletries (soap, shampoo, etc. which is nice and unusual, compared to my past experiences.  You will probably have an option of Japanese-style accommodations (a mat on a straw floor) so if you are morally opposed to sleeping on the floor, you may not want that.  I haven’t tried it but AirBnb does exist here… it’s probably an especially good option if you’re traveling with a group!

Japanese-style hostel accommodations

Japanese-style hostel accommodations!

Transportation: Kyoto has a subway but most of the tourist sites are better accessed by bus- buying a 500 yen daily bus pass will pay off quickly if you’re trying to hit temples in different areas of the city (since a 1 way ticket costs 230 yen).  You’ll find out that you need to pay for buses in exact change but buses have a fare exchanger by the driver to turn your 1000 yen bill or 500 yen coin into more helpful denominations.  In general, Japan has the easiest to navigate bus system that I’ve ever been on… TV monitors regularly announce and display upcoming stops in both Japanese and English.  Just make sure you hop on the bus going in the right direction (that’s probably obvious for anyone riding a bus anywhere but jumping on the first 206 bus I saw cost me an hour and a half after days of travel to arrive in the city).

Food:  Bento box meals in convenience stores are a good option for affordable food.  There’s also vending machines all over the city that sell everything from water, juice, coffee, beer and cigarettes (not too many snacks though).  Apparently, Japanese people don’t eat or drink on the go (except for ice cream… they are always eating ice cream), so you might want to pack a picnic and enjoy your meal sitting down in a peaceful place.

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