Date of stay: May 2008
Where you stayed: Guest House Kyoto Costa del Sol
Tour or pre planned: 5 week backpacking tour of Japan. Kyoto selected as first destination to witness ancient Aoi Matsuri (“Hollyhock Festival”)
Japan has a reputation for being an expensive city to visit, but there is no doubt it is a feasible destination even for the most frugal of travellers. The American convenience store chain 7-eleven is very popular here, where you can purchase decent Japanese food at cheap prices – don’t expect the labels to be in English, however, so bring your adventurous spirit when it comes to sampling the convenience store cuisine! Guesthouses and hostels are common and, although perhaps not entirely on par with the standard of what you would expect in Europe or North America, serve as a completely liveable and affordable accommodation. Western style hotels are in abundance, but these are a lot more expensive than traditional guesthouses and hostels. The cheaper accommodation usually has shared toilet facilities and tatami mats with small roll out cushions as beds. Initially your back may not thank you after the first few nights spent on a tatami mat, however after a while your body gets used to it. Accommodation usually must be paid in cash upon arrival, so I would advise using sites such as www.hostelworld.com to find and secure accommodation prior to travel, and bring plenty of yen with you to pay in cash when you check in.
Travelling throughout Japan is also cheap for foreigners. The Japanese Rail (JR) offers a Japan Rail Pass at a discount for all foreigners travelling in Japan. Please note that this rail pass must be purchased in your residing country prior to travelling to Japan. The JR Rail Pass is good on all JR railways, including the shinkansen (bullet train), JR ferries, buses and commuter rail. The JR Rail Pass is only valid on lines run by Japanese Rail, so some undergrounds and metro routes are not included in the offer. Rates for the JR adult economy rail pass are currently £222 for 7 days, £354 for 14 days or £453 for 21 days (www.jrpass.com). Although this may sound expensive, one can traverse all over the country, from the northern tip of Hokkaidō to the southern island of Kumamoto and everywhere in between by using this pass. It is definitely value for money and strongly recommended for anyone travelling around Japan.
Kyoto is definitely a city that you must visit to get a real taste of mysterious and multifaceted Japan. Combining ancient history and traditions with modern architecture and technology, Kyoto has everything to offer for the dynamic and adventurous traveller.
A stone’s throw from Kansai International Airport (KIX), Kyoto is the gateway to Japan’s traditional culture and a spot where much of Japan’s history took place. With 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, over 1600 Buddhist Temples and 160 Shinto shrines, Kyoto is one of the culturally richest cities in all of Japan. But don’t let the history and ancient sites fool you into thinking this is the land that time forgot, Kyoto also has some of the most amazing and modern architecture of anywhere in the world. Kyoto’s main train station, for example, is easily one of Japan’s most arresting and modern buildings. A goliath of glass and steel containing what looks more like a small city than a central transport hub, Kyoto’s main train station has posh eateries, health spas, department stores and even a museum within its sleek and stylish concourse. Kyoto also has its own version of the Space Needle – the Kyoto Tower. For ¥700 (approx £5.50GBP) you can visit the observation deck set 100 meters high with views looking over all of Kyoto. For views even further afield, there are free mounted binoculars available.
The back streets of Kyoto, where you will find most of the cheaper accommodation, contains rows and rows of traditional Japanese homes, referred to as Sukiya-zukuri. The area looks like what can only be described as a postcard of what one would imagine traditional Japan to look like.
Upon arriving at the Guesthouse Kyoto del Sol, I learned I had 6 hours before I would be able to check in to my accommodation. So I left behind my bags and, taking with me my travel guide and a small day bag, went to explore the area on foot. Right next to the guesthouse is the Higashi Hongan-Ji, a traditional Buddhist temple from the Jōdo Shin-shū school of Buddhism. Japanese Buddhist temples have such a spiritual air about them, it’s hard to not be taken in by the atmosphere. Once through the gates leading to the temple, there is a dignified atmosphere. The temple grounds are impressive and monumental in proportion. In the great hall I watched as monks dressed in black kimonos lit candles and incense as part of their prayers. In front of them were Japanese people of all ages (including school children), kneeling on small tatami mats praying. Although I do not consider myself a religious person, nor could I understand what was being said, I could not but help kneel alongside the locals and pray with them.
After soaking in the solemnity of the Buddhist temple, I figured it was time to see another side of Kyoto and made my way towards the Gion District. Gion is the renown entertainment and geisha district of Kyoto city. With its neon signs and rows of nightclubs and bars, this couldn’t be further from what I had just encountered in my first few hours in Japan. I sat in one of the many udon cafés, ordered gyoza, washed it down with Asahi beer and took in my surroundings. Although it was loud, congested and chaotic, there was still a peaceful order to the neighbourhood.
As I walked along Gion Street, amongst the bars, clubs and pachinko parlours (Japanese pinball games), I turned a corner and suddenly appearing right in front of me were two geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha). Reportedly there are only around 200 geisha and maiko still practicing in Kyoto, and so secretive is the world of the geisha that by all accounts it is very rare to see any during a visit to Japan. So to stumble upon two in my first few hours of being in Japan was nothing short of amazing.
Aoi Matsuri – 15th May
The following day was the Kyoto Aoi Matsuri, or Hollyhock Festival. The Aoi Matsuri dates back to the 6th century and is considered one of the oldest festivals still practiced in the world. It was originally established in order to appease the deities to provide a bountiful harvest and to prevent bad weather. Starting at Kyosho Gosho (Kyoto Imperial Palace) it is lead by an Imperial Messenger on horseback, ox carts and 600 people dressed in traditional Heian robes. Archery displays and purification rituals take place as part of the procession leading from the Imperial Palace to Shimogamo shrine and then finally ending at Kamigamo shrine. To witness the festival is completely free of charge and it starts at the Imperial Palace at 10am sharp.
The Guest House Kyoto Costa del Sol was basic but comfortable accommodation based in the backstreets of Kyoto, walking distance to Kyoto main train station and Higashi Hongan-Ji. All rooms are ensuite with tatami mats and cushions. A double room for 2 nights cost a total of ¥4950, approximately £38 GBP, no meals included. Cash only upon arrival – no credit cards accepted. I advise to book online at www.hostelworld.com.
134 Ebisu, Shinmachi
Check in time 15:00 – 21:00
Would you recommend this destination: Yes
Would you recommend your tour: NA – backpacked on own
Would you recommend your hotel: Yes – Guest House Kyoto Costa Del Sol
Overall rating destination: 3 out of 5 (based on hostel standards)