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kyoto budget breakdown

2005-06-07 - 8:56 a.m.

all photos © 2005 by Elaine Radford
detail, kiyomizu-dera
detail, kiyomizu-dera
Note: My Kyoto trip report starts right here, continuing to part two, and concluding with part three. If you're interested in how I did this trip on a budget, you have come to the right page.

It all started with the bargain airfare. My round-trip ticket, with all taxes and fees, from New Orleans, Louisiana to Nagoya, Japan was $538.47, for which I would be awarded a total of 27,952 miles after I'd finished my trip. At less than 2 cents a mile, the Nagoya flight sale was interesting enough to spark discussion on flyertalk. Several people took the trip just for the miles -- turning around and going home after an impromptu tour of the new Central Airport which is built on an artificial island. However, I wanted to actually get a taste of the place, so I booked tickets allowing me to stay a week. Not all of the mileage runners were onboard with that idea.

"Japan is where money goes to die!" proclaimed one poster.

Another poster humbly disagreed, saying the way to save money was to immediately take the bullet train out of Nagoya to Kyoto and to spend your ground time in that area. I researched his idea around the internet, especially at the lonelyplanet website, and also acquired a copy of the Lonely Planet's Kyoto guide. It began to look like the trip was indeed plausible.

shrine, fushimi-inari
down every path at fushimi-inari you'll find some atmospheric little shrine
Then came another glitch. The bird guide to Japan was out of print, and various people selling it online wanted $200-300 for a used copy. Yikes. I put out a call to my local birding community, and a kind-hearted person mailed me a loaner copy of his book. I was bowled over by this thoughtfulness, which really made a difference to a tight budget. I could see what he'd paid for postage, so I quickly sent him back a check in that amount, and upon arriving home, I shipped the book back Priority Mail with delivery confirmation and a tracking number. All told, the cost of borrowing the book was around $15 -- way less than $200-plus. Of course, if you go this route, you have to be very, very careful that you don't misplace the irreplaceable.

mouse shrine
check it out, a shrine with two rodents guarding the way instead of two lions or foo dogs or foxes wearing red napkins, what do you know, kyoto is full of little mysteries like this, nearby was another shrine with a parrot and a monkey instead of a matched pair of guard animals, weird
I don't speak or read Japanese, and I never under-estimate my ability to get lost and wander around in circles, so I put convenience at a premium. Therefore, for the first and last nights of the trip, I made reservations at the Comfort Hotel (the same as the Comfort Inn in the United States) at the Nagoya airport. Going out, I wanted to get off the plane and be able to quickly get a good night's sleep. Coming back, I wanted to wake up and already be at the airport. But there was a price to pay for such convenience -- 10,000 yen or over $90 a night. Yikes.

Fortunately, I was able to get the average cost per night of my hotel stays waaaaay down by booking 5 nights at K's House Kyoto, which turned out to be a superbly well-located hostel with a shared kitchen, living room with library, and courtyard. They warned that I might find it difficult to locate the first time, but actually their directions were crystal-clear and I strolled right up to the place with no problems. Best of all, I got a private room for 5 nights for the grand total of 19,000 yen. And if you wanted to gamble a little, it looked like you could save a couple of bucks a night (as in 200-300 yen) if you walked up instead of reserving your room in advance. In any case, I ended up paying about $370 total for a week's lodging.

Not too shabby for the place where money goes to die!

Ground transportation to/from Nagoya to Kyoto was around 125,000 yen -- less than $120 dollars. I took a train from Centrair to Nagoya train station, where I caught the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto, which leaves you at the well-located Kyoto train station across the street from the Kyoto space needle. Going back, I took the shinkansen back to Nagoya, but took the bus to Centrair instead of the train, so I could get a better last look at Japan. You can save around 500 yen or so by not reserving your seat on the shinkansen but I didn't know that going out and the ticket seller's mastery of English wasn't good enough to explain it to me. Oh well, you need to have a little slack in the budget for these slight misunderstandings! I did have a great seat. The bullet train will stop with its cars lined up with the correct numbers, so if you have Car 5, Row 5, Aisle Seat C, then you can wait at the number 5 and actually expect that car to pull up right in front of you. Most impressive.

so you'll see the very well-endowed badger figure in front of every noodle shop or small business, look around, you'll see it, sometimes just a tiny figurine, but generally a good-sized statue, this ancient badger figure was not in front of a business but actually just inside the grounds of a small temple in arishiyama

I got different theories on the cost of food. I guess if you are coming to eat at fine restaurants and visit private clubs, then there's a conspicious consumption ethic that drives fine restaurant prices through the roof. At the other end of the scale is the suggestion from some of the die-hard thorntree posters that you can get a free meal by picking at all of the great many free samples on display in the "Cube" and the two basement floors of the Isetan department store, both located in the Kyoto train station. It's true that there are lots of freebies on offer, but I can't hike all day on the calories in pickled vegetables and dried blueberries.

Fortunately, there is a third way, and it isn't too expensive. Eat like a real Japanese tourist. Near the popular tourist sites were the stalls selling delicious little deep-fried chicken or pork thingies on a stick, as well as other stands selling refreshing green tea ice cream cones. There were hot and cold boxed lunches sold not just in the Isetan department store but in the many convenience stores, and often these lunches might be marked with a "sale" price. They might even heat the boxed lunch up in the microwave if you ask nicely and get your meaning across. Finally, there are little noodle shops everywhere with models of the food in the window. The prices should be posted prominently in front of the restaurant; so if you don't see a price, it probably isn't going to be aimed at the budget traveler. Even if the waiter doesn't speak English, you can point at the model of what you want in the window, and you'll be fine. Well, actually, one time I did end up getting a different meal from what I ordered -- a fish instead of a pork -- but it was probably healthier and it was actually cheaper. I did like those deep-fat fried pork cutlets though. However, my favorite dish was "soba" noodle soup with a long, flattish sardine-tasting fish on top. I had that three times and never got tired of it. You might have to be a sardine fan though. If you eat your main meal at lunch, you can probably get away with spending the equivalent of less than $8 or $10. Make your dinner a boxed picnic "lunch," and you'll be probably be eating as cheaply as you do at home.

geisha perform in private clubs for japanese on expense accounts and you're not getting into one of those clubs, bunky, so don't even think it, but you may see trainee geisha on the street and they are very pleasant about posing for pictures and certainly wouldn't dream of hitting you up for a fee, so do like the real japanese tourists do and enjoy the kodak moment
The biggest money leak was probably the vending machines that you will stumble over every few feet. The Japanese do not vandalize their vending machines, and the vending machine owners keep up their part of the social contract by not having cans of soda get stuck in the machine where you can't reach them, so it is very easy to get out of the habit of not carrying a water bottle since you know that you can purchase iced coffee, any number of soft drinks, regular bottled water and sports water, and even beer and "vodka-based" beverage from a machine. However, if your budget is really tight, you can buy a bottled water and refill it from the tap to carry your own water, since the water in Japan is perfectly safe to drink. Water is heavy, I was juggling the world's Heaviest Antique Digital Camera Held Together by Aluminum Foil, as well as bird book and binoculars, so I'm afraid I donated more heavily to the machines than I normally would. To me, it was worth it, but there are certainly alternatives to slipping 120 yen in the coin slot every time you work up a thirst.

black kite
on a bridge along the water, a flock of black kites circled, implying strongly that i should share any picnic lunch

I did not buy any special tours or train passes. I would go to one area by bus or by train and pretty much spend an entire day exploring that area. Since I'd never been to Kyoto (or any part of Japan before), I knew that I would want to take my time, especially when it came to enjoying the gardens and the forests. So I spent less than 500 yen a day on bus or subway. Have a little extra money on hand. With so much to see free in Kyoto, I don't suggest paying 300 yen here and 500 yen there for every sub-temple that has a fee. Some of the most spectacular areas, such as the forests around Arishiyama, Fushimi-Inari, and Daimonji-yama were completely free for the hiking. However, do have a little coin for the special temples you want to visit. I paid small fees to enter Tenryuji, Ginkakuji, and Kiyomizu-dera, and I consider it money well spent. There are many other fine temples that I'm sure would be well worth a small admission fee, but I ran out of time. You can also request a tour of the Imperial Palace, which I think is actually free, but -- again -- I just ran out of time. The point is, it's a great walking town, and if you enjoy being outdoors, then you will have more trails past photogenic old shrines and atmospheric old graveyards than you can shake a stick at. If you're the kind of person who likes to stroll up a mountain path or along the river, then you'll be amazed at what you can see and do without ever being hit up for a fee, except from the Black Kites who want your leftover fish (fat chance, guys!) or the carp who would appreciate your bread crumbs.

kyoto train station
kyoto train station building with reflection of the kyoto tower

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