March 4th 2017 – Day 4/40. Backpacking Kyoto – Know Before You Go.
It was a dark, cold, and rainy night in Kyoto. The hostel owner was nowhere to be seen. After traveling over 8 hours by train from Tokyo, we couldn’t check in. Now what?
Today, we start our journey to backpacking Kyoto! For the first time since being in Japan, Jaz and I woke up early enough to be at the Yoyogi train station with the morning Japanese businessmen. They crammed into trains like sardines in a can.
We used the free website Hyperdia.com for the fastest route to Kyoto and it told us to take the Japan Rail (JR) express train from Shinjuku Station.
On a side note, it cost us around $125 USD for the 5-day unlimited JR Seishun 18 Kippu. You don’t have to use it every day and can space them out. Luckily for us, we’re only using one day to get to Kyoto, so $25 per person to get to Kyoto (because $125/5 days = $25).
That’s great because a flight one-way from Tokyo to Kyoto was $50-70, not including the cost of getting to the airport. And a Shinkansen one-way was $150-200. The airplane would have taken about one hour to get there. The Shinkansen would have been around 2 hours. Even though taking the local train is slower (about 8 hours), if you have time to spare, it saves you money.
Overall, it’s not that Hyperdia was wrong. We just thought that the JR Seishun 18 Kippu ticket would allow us on all JR trains that aren’t Shinkansen.
The Journey to Kyoto
If you take the path we took to Kyoto, you’ll wind around the eastern coastline. It’s full of beautiful coastal views and quaint small cities bustling with food and shopping.
After two hours on JR local train, we arrived at the Atami station.It was nestled between the tall mountains behind and the beautiful bay in front. Being our first time outside of Tokyo, I didn’t know what to expect. In New York, after you get 1 hour out of the city, some towns are small and quiet, with barely any people walking.
Atami, on the other hand, was bustling and teeming with life. There were people everywhere in the malls, shops, and restaurants, all within the station! Outside, we could see rows upon rows of shops going down the street in every direction. These cozy little shops lured us away from the station but we didn’t venture far because the next train was coming soon. It’s definitely a place to visit and check out. It’s cute, charming, and cozy. A picturesque small town.
The beautiful thing about taking the scenic route is it, well, it’s scenic! We passed idyllic small town after idyllic small town. On the Tokaido line from Tokyo to Hamamatsu you’re also straddled between the ocean and the mountains. And you have an amazing view of nature and human development cohabiting in harmony.
What We Did to Entertain Ourselves on The Long Ride
Because the JR trains don’t have wifi, we used the wifi router we got from Day 1 when we landed in Tokyo. Using the wifi, we watched Japanese anime because we wanted instant immersion with the language. We listened to the Japanese in the anime while learning Japanese words in our daily interaction with society.
We watched some Kuroko no Basket (a basketball anime) on Jasmine’s phone that connected to the wifi router. The episodes were 20 minutes each, as are most anime, and they make perfect distractions on long train rides.
We also played A LOT of Gardenscape on our iPhones. It’s the free game where you have to connect flowers to progress. Playing Gardenscape and watching some anime was a perfect balance because they would be short enough that we could put them down and transfer trains at any time.
We found that books weren’t conducive for train rides because we would get too immersed in them. It was challenging to read and still be constantly vigilant as to what the conductor was saying and where we were getting off. But we found that playing games on our phone left a part of our brain to still be attentive to announcements. Maybe this will work for you and maybe it won’t. Try it!
It was getting dark and we still had about 3 hours till Kyoto. It’s 6pm now. I’m slightly worried about how our experience will be in a new city in a new country. Not to mention, navigating at night to a hostel.
Made it to Kyoto
9:47pm. Just making it to Kyoto station where we booked a hostel within a thirty minute walk north of the station.
I have since blocked out the name of the hostel from memory. What happened was that not only did we arrive later then we expected because of train delays, we had so much trouble trying to find the place because it was so hidden on the street at night. The map on our iPhone also wasn’t much help and we ended up walking back and forth past the hostel about 2 to 3 times.
Keep in mind, we’re backpacking Kyoto and carrying around two big heavy backpacks. By the time we actually found the place, it was 11:30pm.
I saw online that the hostel stopped checking people in around 11pm, which makes sense, the owner has to sleep too. But I emailed the owner early in the morning saying that we would be about thirty minutes late, judging from when our train was arriving in Kyoto.
I never got a confirmation back but the email was sent and I’m sure the owner had enough time to read it. When we got there, everything was already closed for the night. No one was there to greet us except for an Indian computer engineer who was up late working on a project in the lobby.
He told us that the owner had gone to sleep. He even tried calling the owner but the owner picked up and told us no more check-ins allowed. Even though it was only 11:30pm and we were thirty min late. So Jaz and I spent some time on our wifi looking up anywhere else that looked like they had decent accommodations and ended up booking a stay at the Hotel M’s Plus hotel right down the street from this crappy hostel.
It was a very good decision. For $50 a night, the hotel was amazing. The room was standard but the service was so courteous. They even had these cool magnetic door signs in your home room instead of the paper ones.
They were professional and friendly. The lobby was immaculate and they even had rows upon rows of the prettiest orchids in gigantic pots. Later on did I realize that those pots of orchids were like $300 USD each, or 32,000 yen or more. And they had at least 10 pots of them lining the corridor of the hotel lobby. Why would you spend $3000+ USD to line a corridor with orchids?!
To keep in line with being careful of where we spend our money while backpacking Kyoto and Japan, I had my credit card company cancel the hostel charge because of what happened. It worked. Then Jasmine and I partook in the free breakfast they had at the hotel as well 😃 Double save!
What You Should Take Away From This Story
Backpacking is fun, educational, and sometimes stressful, kind of like life. For backpacking Kyoto, it’s no different. If you’re arriving late to Kyoto, or any city in general, a hotel would be a better option for your first night because you have more flexibility for checking in, in case of travel delays, etc.
If you’re arriving early or on time, then a hostel will definitely help you save money when backpacking Kyoto. The hostel for the night would’ve cost us approximately $10-20 USD. The hotel was around $50 USD a night. Even at $50 a night, the hotel was still a fantastic deal by American standards.
The average hotel in America is around $100-200 a night in New York, for like a Hilton or Holiday Inn. For a crappy motel that’s full of cockroaches, it’s like $40 a night. This is why it’s so amazing to see for our first hotel in Japan, that for $50 a night, we could be staying in a 4-star quality hotel for 2-star prices. Like OMG! Oh did I mention it was raining the whole time? And it was cold…
Conclusion For Backpacking Kyoto
The TL; DR version of tips for backpacking Kyoto:
- Read the fine print on ticket sites.
- Use Hyperdia to plan your public transportation. It has the info of all JR trains.
- Stay flexible in case things don’t go the way you want them to.
- Plan ahead and keep forms of entertainment with you.
- Have extra battery packs to charge your phone.
- Save where you can. Even if means asking credit cards for refunds and taking advantage of free breakfasts.
- Book Hotels via Expedia Japan, Booking.com, Agoda, Hotels.com, etc.
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