Where to stay: Cheap & cozy in Kyoto

Around this time last year, we were looking for accommodations in Kyoto and Tokyo. Since we were on a budget, P and I had accepted the fact that we would be staying in a mixed dormitory or at least be sharing toilet/bath facilities with other travelers in a hostel or inn.

We found IchiEnSou in Hostelworld.com. It was (still is) highly rated, looked like a cozy Japanese home (which it was originally back in 1920), cheaper compared to ryokans and other inns in the area, and supposedly had an “idyllic location, one street off the main street in the most famous Geisha district in Kyoto, called Gion.” All the previous guests that booked through the website had left positive reviews–confirming that it had a great location, that it had a warm and cozy atmosphere, and special mention to the owners who took their guests on walking tours around the neighborhood. That did it. I booked two beds in the mixed dorm.

Watch out for the small IchiEnSou sign by the bottom of the door

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Kyoto, Day 6: “The Japan of your imagination” (plus, lots of tourists)

Kinkaku-ji

There it stood, stunning and gleaming on the edge of a serene mirror-like pond—an intricately-designed temple covered with gold-leaf. The Rukuon-ji Temple, or more popularly known as Kinkaku-ji or Golden Temple, was our first stop on our second day in Kyoto. A retirement villa built in the late 14th century, converted into a temple, and centuries later, reconstructed after it burned to the ground, it is one of the more famous cultural sites in a city dotted with 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shintō shrines. So famous that guide books will tell you that the UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts hordes of tourists almost any day of the year. If you want some semblance of serenity while beholding the gilded Zen temple, be there early before the bus-loads of tour groups arrive, or before the temple closes. P and I, along with our two friends from Manila, were there a few minutes after it opened and, though we were amidst quite a number of fellow tourists, it thankfully hadn’t reached Tokyo-train-station-on-a-rush-hour proportions just yet.

One of the most ubiquitous contraptions in Japan

After viewing the temple, we followed the path leading through its vast gardens, climbed a few steps overlooking it, passed a traditional teahouse, and a small shrine called Fudo Hall. Nearby are a few shops selling souvenirs, sundaes, matcha tea, and Japanese snacks like dango balls. We didn’t stop to have any of those. We did stop by one of the many vending machines outside the temple for a drink. Keeping in stock every kind of drink—water, coffee, tea, cider, soda, beer (and sometimes even food)—vending machines are found in almost every street corner in Japan.

If you’re just going around Kyoto, take note that the city buses are green

From the northwestern part of Kyoto, where Kinkaku-ji is, we had to go east to Northern Higashiyama area where we planned to spend the rest of the day—walking the Philosopher’s Path from Ginkaku-ji to Nanzen-ji. We walked to the Kinkakuji-michi bus stop to catch either bus no. 102 or 204, which both stop at Ginkakuji-michi. The way the bus network of Kyoto is mapped out, it appears as efficient and intricate as the railway system of Tokyo, with most of the former imperial capital’s attractions easily accessed by taking a bus. While the city has a helpful railway system, which you can opt to take to avoid downtown traffic or cover longer distances, it is not as elaborate as Tokyo’s. Also, in some train stations you might have to walk quite a distance, take a bus or a taxi to get to where you want to go.

A bowl of ebi tempura for lunch

Once we reached Ginkakuji-michi, we stopped by a restaurant to refuel with tempura-soba and tempura-don. Outside, the cherry blossoms beckoned. Tetsugaku-no-michi or the Path of Philosophy is a wonderful vision in spring with the cherry trees in bloom lining the pedestrian path that follows a canal. It was supposedly where Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro practiced meditation while he walked from his daily commute to Kyoto University and it’s easy to see how it could be a perfect place for contemplation. But following his footsteps nowadays may not be that easy, especially in spring, when you have to stroll the path with many other cherry blossom-seeking tourists. Being part of that group, I didn’t really mind.

Setting of many a scenic stroll, especially during sakura season

When we came upon a fork in the road, we kept to the left before continuing our Path of Philosophy stroll. The road, crowded with more tourists and lined with souvenir stores and food stalls, leads up to Ginkaku-ji.

One of the many stalls on the way to Ginkaku-ji selling Japanese sweets like yatsuhashi

Known as the Silver Pavilion, the Zen temple is another popular sight in Kyoto. It was built as a retirement villa and was meant to be covered in silver, which was never completed. It isn’t exactly a bad thing as the two-storey temple of white and brown is a soothing sight, especially next to the beautifully raked white sand. The only thing to spoil the very Zen-like scenery were us tourists huddled together, taking snapshots and getting in each other’s shots. The Lonely Planet guidebook describes Kyoto as a place “where you will find the Japan of your imagination.” Just from seeing the two popular temples and the Gion area the night before, the description definitely rings true. Just be sure to include crowds of tourists in your imagined Japan.

Ginkaku-ji, another must-see World Heritage Site in Kyoto

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Tokyo to Kyoto, Day 5: In slumber and snow (and a bullet train in between)

Shibuya Crossing on a quiet and rainy Monday morning

Our shinkansen ride to Kyoto was scheduled a few minutes past noon, but we left C’s apartment early. From Sangen-jaya, we had to go to the Shibuya train station to take the Yamanote line to Shinagawa station, where we would take the shinkansen. We wanted to have more than enough time to find Shinagawa and we also thought it would be a good idea to kill some time exploring Shibuya. After stashing our luggage in one of the lockers in the station by eight am, we headed out. (There are only a few station lockers for big pieces of luggage so if you want to grab a hold of one, be there early.)

Outside the Hachiko Exit of Shibuya Station

There was the statue of Hachiko outside the Shibuya station exit named after the loyal Akita dog, all by its lonesome, minus the constant hordes of people who have made it a popular meeting spot. The Shibuya Crossing on that cold, rainy Monday morning seemed reluctant to come to life without the multitude of pedestrians. Its blinking video screens and neon lights still in slumber. It was like our first glimpse of Tokyo from the airport. As we walked the streets of Shibuya, the entire district, which is crammed with many department stores and little boutiques, seemed to be in no hurry to wake up. There was not much activity save for a camera crew shooting a group of dancing girls for what looked like a commercial. When we spotted an open gyudon restaurant an hour later, we ducked into it for some breakfast.

One of the reliable eateries for thrifty travelers in Japan are the gyudon-ya, which serves the popular donburi dish of gyudon (rice topped with beef and onion), along with some pork variations (butadon and tondon) and salmon for around ¥500. You either pay for it at the counter or via vending machine by the restaurant’s entrance. The vending machines often don’t have an English menu so you have to rely on the photos (though it’s sometimes hard to tell the beef and pork bowls apart). The gyudon typically comes with the Japanese set meal staples of miso soup, pickled vegetables, and hot tea.

In our entire trip to Japan, the gyudon has always been a dependable and satisfying meal, so we were surprised when less than three hours later, we were seated in one of the restaurants inside Shinagawa station having another meal. We still had an hour before our train arrived so we decided to explore the station. It was filled with stalls selling bento boxes, an udon place filled with salarymen hunched over their bowls of noodles, a restaurant serving “homemade curry” as it claimed on its doorway, and a bunch of other eateries that made us crave to have an early lunch.

Hello, shinkansen!

At 12:10 pm, the shinkansen Hikari line we were to board for Kyoto pulled up in front of the platform in all its sleek, steel gorgeousness…as much as a train can be gorgeous. (Or, judging from my past entries, I could be biased for everything Japanese.) Via the shinkansen, the 460-plus kilometer distance between two cities is covered in a little over two hours. (Taking the bus would have taken it around eight hours.) I felt like I was going on vacation from a vacation—from the rapid pace of Tokyo that can leave anyone breathless (I’m sure my itinerary didn’t help) to a slower and historically-rich Japan of surreal golden temples, well-preserved castles, and Zen gardens. I was going to get a taste of traditional Japan and my mouth was watering.

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