How I Spent Less Than $800 USD a Month Living in Kyoto
Japan's cost-of-living index is often ranked as one of the highest in the world, so when I decided to spend 6 months living in Kyoto in 2016, I wanted to see just how low I could budget without spending any nights under a bridge on the Kamo River or sleeping in McDonald's (yes, that's a thing in Japan). Knowing that I live a pretty simple life and wouldn't be hiring any geishas or buying a Densuke black watermelon, I was pretty confident in setting an initial goal of staying under $1,000 USD a month.
My first month expenses totaled $790 USD, or 79% of my monthly budget. Asameshimae~
- Accommodation: $519
- Food: $222
- Transportation (1 bus, 2 trains): $30
- Attractions (4 temple fees): $19
I remained well under budget in my first month, and that quickly became the norm, with some successive months even falling under $700 as I found cheaper places to buy vegetables from locals and switched to a smaller room in the shared house I was living in. Budgeting wasn't inhibitive to exploring. In fact, I went somewhere new almost every day. Here's how I kept costs low and still covered a lot of ground.
Living in Kyoto was my first experience using Airbnb, and as first experiences go, it couldn't have been better. When I saw the listing and pictures for "Tatami Room in the Bamboo Forest," my normally subdued impulse took a straight path to the reservation button. And despite initially renting the most expensive room in the house (it was the only one available at the time), it was still cheaper than my apartment in Asheville, North Carolina by $100. The obvious "con" for the lower cost would be that the common areas like bathrooms and kitchen were shared with other tenants, but when you live with such nice people as I did, that con actually becomes a pro. The large kitchen was the favorite room in the house and often doubled as a place to socialize.
The house originally served as a traditonal restaurant before being renovated for shared living, but some maps still seemed to think it was a place to eat as the occasional hungry and misinformed visitor would knock on the door in search of a meal. Unfortunately, I never did convince any of them that a bowl of my homemade instant noodles was worth a hundred bucks. Cheapskates.
The surrounding walkable area was home to dozens of historic temples, and the famous Bamboo Grove was just a couple minutes down the road. For exercise, there were several trails crawling into the nearby mountains, as well as more than enough cycling routes across the city, including a 28-mile (45 km) path running from Kyoto to Nara. Food stores, post office, and other conveniences were a mere 10-minutes away. In terms of value for money, the share house was one of the best living experiences I've had.
Transportation in Japan is excellent, albeit expensive. My solution was simply to seldom use it. However, it wasn't purely a cost-saving measure – I love cycling in Kyoto! The share house allowed me to borrow a bicycle, which quickly became my favorite form of transportation. In fact, by switching between the roads and sidewalks, I was able to cross the whole city in roughly the same amount of time as the bus, give or take about 5 minutes. And if you've ever attempted the near-impossible task of disembarking a Kyoto bus when a tour group of three dozen Chinese tourists is packed as tight as a box of crayons between you and the exit, you'll know why a bicycle ride can potentially be much more preferable.
Honestly, cycling enabled me to explore far more of the city – even areas outside the city – than I ever would have by other means. Areas that were too far to walk, inaccessible by bus, or just too much of a hassle to figure out public transport for every time.
If you're staying in Kyoto for a while but are unable to borrow a bicycle, the Kyoto Sayonara public group on Facebook has a lot of second-hand sales from people leaving Kyoto. I've seen used bicycles for as little as $15 USD. In terms of maintenance costs, there's not much. Bicycle shops in Kyoto keep an air pump in front of the entrance or just inside the doors, which is free to use, so running low on tire air pressure is rarely a worry. I did have one tire leak, but it was a cheap fix. Japan mostly uses bicycle inner tubes with a Dunlop valve, also known as a Woods valve or an English valve, which features a rubber hose that may degrade over time and leak air. It's an easy and very cheap replacement. You can find it at any bicycle shop, as well as some of the larger ¥100 JPY shops.
One of the most significant savings for my budget in any country is preparing my own meals and drinking only water, which has the added benefit of being much healthier as well. However, I still found it necessary to be mindful of prices when grocery shopping in Japan, because common produce can easily result in a painful surprise at the checkout. With the exception of cheap bananas, it was easier to just pretend that fruit didn't exist. $2 USD for an apple, $3 for a mango, $20 to $30 for a watermelon or cantaloupe...no wonder instant ramen was invented. Fruit can be seen as something of a luxury item, which is why some special near-flawless fruits are given as gifts and can fetch ridiculous prices, like $200 to $300 USD for one melon.
For food shopping, I avoided the plentiful convenience stores and the cost of convenience that comes with them and instead frequented Gourmet City and Kyoto Co-Op. For even better savings though, I soon learned to seek out local farmland. It's common practice across Japan for some farmers or even a family with a garden to leave a small wooden shelf at the entrance to their driveway with fresh vegetables and a payment box operated on an honor system. Reference the price on the sign for the vegetable you want and place the money in the box. What a great system!
The best farmland I came across in Kyoto is situated between Daikaku Temple and Hirosawa Pond. Many of the homes sell vegetables at the end of their driveway. Better still, at the north end of the area there's a "local vegetable vending machine". It's basically 54 lockers with transparent doors, which allow the contents inside to be browsed. You choose the vegetable you want and then insert coins for the price displayed on the locker and the door pops open. Most of them are ¥100 JPY, but some are ¥200 to ¥400.
As the former capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, Kyoto has a lot of history and preserved sites to discover. There's plenty of options to open your wallet for, but there's just as many to keep it closed. For starters, there's more than 1,600 temples and at least 400 shrines. And while many of them charge a small fee to enter, some do not. In fact, it's even possible to leave some richer than you entered. On one occasion while hiking, I was enthusiastically welcomed into a Buddhist shrine high in the mountains and given a whole bag of free food upon leaving!
Also free are the 2.5 miles (4 km) of iconic red torii gates at Fushimi Inari-taisha, the beautiful Imperial Palace and its huge grounds, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, the Gion historical area, Philosopher's Walk, miles of cycling paths, Kyoto Station rooftop terrace, Kamo River walking paths, dozens of relaxing parks, and many seasonal events and parades.
For the more adventurous and nature-inclined, there's the Mount Daimonji Hiking Trail with incredible views of the city, especially at night, or the Mount Atago Hiking Trail that climbs up to a mountaintop shrine in an ancient forest. My personal favorite is the Kiyotaki to Takao Hiking Trail along the Kiyotaki River, which is a peaceful walk through a beautiful part of Kyoto that sees far fewer visitors.
As with many places, life in Japan can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. I was able to keep costs low while still having one of the most enjoyable living experiences of my life.