Whatever you do, don’t miss Kyoto. There are no excuses for it. Not even an “I don’t have money” one.
I know you are probably thinking, you have to pay through the roof to enjoy the wonders of high class Kyoto. If only I can afford to see Geishas, see Japanese dance, or sleep on a tatami mat room.
Well, here some inside tips on how to enjoy Kyoto for next to nothing.
1. Free Accommodation! Yes, you heard right. Stay in a tatami room in a place brimming with Japanese hospitality. J Hoppers exemplifies the warm and gracious welcome Kyoto has for budget travelers. Not only do you get free accommodation, you get to meet wonderful friends and do you bit to promote Kyoto to the world. As many reception staff are recent university graduates, they have a nose on everything that is low priced and cheerful in Kyoto. The only catch is that for free accommodation; you offer your assistance for a few hours a day! That’s all. Guests in the past have translated information in Spanish or French, so it is fun and fulfilling. You should stay for a minimum of 4 to 8 weeks to be part of this team, but if you can’t stay that long, have a chat with them and see what they suggest. Another way of getting free accommodation is wwoofing. Here you get to experience Japanese homestay in a rural setting, and again you help them for a few hours a day. www.wwoofjapan.com/
2. Free Palace Entry – Imperial Palace and associated historic villas. Imagine how the royal court lived hundreds of years ago. No you don’t have to be rich or famous to be invited, just turn up to the Imperial Palace for a free, insightful and educational English language guided tour. There are also three other Imperial villas just outside Kyoto, and also for free, as long as you make a booking first with the Imperial office a few weeks in advance. As entry is by appointment only, you are bound to have a close to private tour where you can ask as many questions as you like without being crowded by tour groups. http://sankan.kunaicho.go.jp/english/. The tours are in Japanese though, so maybe read up on it before you arrive.
3. Free Kimono Rental – Many people would like to see a Geisha or Maiko in Kyoto, and while you usually need a recommendation to enter a Geisha house, you may see them in the early hours of the evening in Gion or Pontoncho. Otherwise come to J Hoppers hostel where you can wear a kimono or yukata for free, and look like a Geisha. J Hoppers is housed in a former boutique, so traces of its former life are available for you to enjoy.
4. Free Shrine entry – Yasaka Shrine. While you are admiring the geishas in Gion, make sure there is enough battery left in your camera for some the most photogenic shrines in Kyoto. The Yasaka Shrine has a beautiful orange hue that is a photographer’s delight anytime of the day, and during festival time, has beautiful lanterns lit up at night as well. Free entry means that the shrine has a steady stream of visitors day or night, so if you want some “people free” photographs, head there early in the morning or late at night.
5. Free Museum entry – Just a short walk from Gion and 10 minutes from Higashiyama subway station is the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (www.miyakomesse.jp/fureaika). This is the meeting point for many traditional handicrafts and industrial design. You can watch the artisans at work, have a hands on experience trying to dye kimono cloth, or pick up some souvenirs at the museum shop. Every Sunday from 2pm to 330pm, there is also a free traditional Dance performance. It is open every day from 9:00 - 17:00 except the New Year holidays, but give yourself at least an hour to see all the exhibits.
6. Free cultural events and festivals: Kyoto is famous for ancient festivals celebrating its history, folklore and the four seasons, so chances are there is one when you arrive. One of my favourite ones include the Gion Matsuri in July, where a procession of 2 storey floats line the street with ancient court music, at day and night. Others have fire torches, historical costumed folk, and half naked men in loincloths running through the streets. Whatever you wish to see or experience, there is a festival or event for you.
7. Free food: Kyoto is famous for its pickled vegetables, and whether you are at Gion, the Sannenzaka steps in Higashiyama or the Nishiki markets (the kitchen of Kyoto), you may find many shops offering samples of this delicious, healthy and tangy treat. In the Department stores in JR Kyoto or downtown there are also food hall stands offering samples. And if you are staying at J Hoppers or Hana Hostel, the tea and rice are free. Just the recipe to make Ochazuke, a traditional comfort food. Of course, if you want to spend money on food, there are budget priced okonomiyaki and set menu cafes in most street corners downtown, Gion and JR Kyoto where you can get a hot dinner and drink for less than 1000 yen.
8. Free Internet and Wi-Fi. After a great day of geishas, gardens and museums, time to write home about it on Facebook or email. And with free internet PCs and Wi-Fi at J Hoppers and Hana Hostels, you can even share your memories from the comfort of your futon. Many other hostels, ryokans and hotels also offer free Wi-Fi and internet, including all the Toyoko Inns in Kyoto, which serves complementary western and Japanese breakfast every morning.
You should also look at the JR West Free Wi-Fi service, which is limited to the Kyoto Railway Station area, though they also offer it in Osaka and Kobe. To use the service, you must send a blank email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and then you will obtain a guest code (ID), along with detailed instructions which are in English and Japanese. You can then use it for up to 8 days at selected stations. It is best if you send the email before you get to the train station, as it may be difficult to find a free Wi-Fi spot amongst the crowds. I tested by sending an email from Australia, and I got a reply immediately from WIRE AND WIRELESS Co.,ltd . To ensure you receive this email promptly, you may wish to add this address to your contacts so it doesn't go to spam mail. The 8 day period doesn't start until you enter the guest code. All the information is available here.
Occasionally when you are strolling, you may come across the SSID for Wire and Wireless (Wi2) “Wi2 300”. They offer a one day wireless plan for free for Visa cardholders, with discounted pricing after that. This service is spasmodic, so don’t use it as a substitute for a phone if you are making appointments to meet people. It can be good as it does cover some cafes and public areas, so in central Kyoto you may get coverage a few times a day as you move around.
Another website that has comprehensive maps of Free Wi-Fi spots is Freespot.com, which includes listings in both the city and country areas.
9. Free offers – while you are writing home about your special find in Kyoto, you might discover the hidden travel journalist in you. If you ever dreamt of being rewarded for having the best job in the world, that of a travel journalist for Kyoto, look no further! Join up as a casual travel writer or photographer for JapanTravel.com, and earn points for your articles or photo essays ranging from restaurant meals to flight tickets with our partners. You can also follow us on our Facebook or Google Plus sites to keep up to date with the latest offers. For example, aspiring journalists can apply for the Japan Travel internship program which provides coaching, accommodation and introductions to key contacts in tourism and culture throughout Japan.