Kyoto on a Budget: Money-Saving Japan Tips

Visiting Japan is not cheap. Kyoto, in particular is known for ritzy restaurants, luxury hotels, and a level of personalized service via teahouses, ryokan, and geisha performances that are expensive. With that said, it is possible to do Kyoto on a tighter budget, and in this post we’ll cover money-saving tips for that.

The easiest way to spend is to live it up doing touristy things and frequenting places that cater towards Kyoto’s prolific tourist industry. This includes pretty much everywhere in the Gion and Higashiyama Districts, which offer culturally authentic experiences, accommodations, and restaurants that are primarily frequented by out of town visitors.

The flip side to that is that living like a local is the easiest way to save money. Yes, the Michelin-starred restaurants, luxury ryokan, and other once-in-a-lifetime experiences are all great, but they’re not part of the day to day life of the average Kyotoite. You can save money and have a culturally-rich experience that more accurately reflects modern day local life in Kyoto…

Airfare Alerts – Credit card churning, hacks, or miles redemptions are absolutely the best ways to save on airfare to Japan, but they are beyond the scope of this post. So we’ll simply say that free flights are (obviously) the best option.

If you’re paying for airfare, it could cost you anywhere from $500 to $2,500 per person, depending upon your origin city. That’s a huge range, but it’s possible to get flights on the cheaper end of that spectrum even if you don’t live in San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Start now by setting fare alerts on Airfarewatchdog.com for your destination cities to both Osaka and Tokyo. (Include other major airports in Japan if those places interest you.) We’re going to assume you want to visit those two cities while in Japan, so you might as well consider flight options for both.

Be patient, watch airfare, and wait for price alerts. If you want to book something now rather than waiting for a deal to fall into your lap, visit ITA Software and use the “see calendar of lowest fares” search feature. Do several searches in month increments, and make your trip length variable (e.g., 10-14). Airfare prices fluctuate substantially; the more flexibility you have, the better.

Accommodations Awareness – Before booking any flights, you need to be aware of prices for accommodations for those dates. This is something that trips a lot of people up, but that $550 flight deal isn’t such a deal if you have to pay $250/night for a hotel when the following week is half that price.

This might read like a hyperbolic example, but it happens more than you might think. Hotel and Airbnb prices in Kyoto are impacted by local special events, holidays within Japan, and holidays in other Asian countries. Those same variables are going to have far less impact on the price of flights from Cleveland (or wherever).

Hotels and rentals come at all tiers and prices. We tend to favor apartment rentals via Airbnb, as that has consistently provided us with larger accommodations for under $100/night. If you do weekly or monthly rentals, you can really save big. Our last month-long stay in Kyoto was at a nice, newly-remodeled unit in Downtown Kyoto that cost us ~$30/night.

Suffice to say, we highly recommend Airbnb. In addition to being cheaper, these rentals allow you to live like a local, whether that means doing some laundry halfway through your trip or getting food to prepare you own meals. (You can use my sign-up link for a free credit your first time using Airbnb!)

By contrast, hotels in Kyoto are typically small, expensive, or both. Many major brands have hotels in Kyoto, and while nice, these tend to be pricey. On the other end of the spectrum, a lot of the cheaper “hotel” options in Kyoto are simply apartments that have been converted into hotels. (So pretty much the same as Airbnb, but with premium pricing.)

At this point, we don’t even look at hotel prices anymore, and I doubt we’ll ever stay in another Kyoto hotel. We’ve covered this topic fairly comprehensively, listing pros & cons, and offering specific of recommendations in our Where to Stay in Kyoto, Japan post.

Skip the Transportation Passes – This flies in the face of conventional wisdom and I write it as someone who is normally a sucker for unlimited transportation passes. However, the Japan Rail Pass and various iterations of Kyoto Sightseeing Passes are far less useful in Kyoto than other cities in Japan.

This is primarily because there are so many different companies in the mix in Kyoto. JR has a few lines, but they’re not as prevalent as in Tokyo or other major cities. Keihan has a couple of popular train lines, the Kyoto Municipal Transportation Bureau operates the subway, and so on.

You’ll often find yourself using lines operated by different companies in the same day, making any of the “unlimited” passes far less valuable. On top of that, aside from getting to and from them, several of Kyoto’s main tourist districts, including Arashiyama and Higashiyama, are best experienced on foot.

This isn’t to say you should skip the Japan Rail Pass (we highly recommend it for those traveling throughout Japan–just not within Kyoto) or any of the other passes, but don’t default to buying it without charting your transportation in advance. In all of our time spent in Kyoto, we’ve seldom found any of these passes to represent good value to us. Your mileage may vary.

Free & Discounted Attractions – While there are very few combined or discount temple passes for Kyoto, some temples and shrines (particularly shinto shrines) do not charge admission in the first place.

Fushimi Inari Shrine, Honenin Temple, Ninnaji Temple, Nanzenji Temple, Yasaka Shrine, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Myoshinji Temple, Daikakuji Temple, Kamigamo Shrine, Shinnyodo Temple, Kurodani Temple, and Heian Shrine are just a partial listing of the high profile temples and shrines that have at least some free public areas, and are all worth visiting.

If you’re interested in museums, the Kansai Museum Grutto Pass can provide tremendous value on admission, especially if you’re visiting Osaka or Nara, too. Note that this is not always available.

Lawson 100 Yen Stores & Supermarkets At Night – If you’re only visiting Kyoto for a few days and want the cheapest options in an efficient store, stick exclusively to the Lawson 100 yen stores. These have a lot of the basics at very reasonable prices. (Be warned that most of the pre-made sandwiches are disgusting as compared to regular Lawson or 7-11.)

For other items or if you’ve got more time, head to a nearby supermarket. Our favorite chain is Fresco, followed by Life; there are also independent stores all over Kyoto of varying quality. Price-points are all over the place–some items are more expensive than in the U.S., and some things are significantly cheaper.

To give just a handful of examples, all fruit except bananas tends to be noticeably more expensive, fish tends to be cheaper, beef is more expensive (but higher quality!), and vegetables are a mixed bag. If you need fruit or vegetables, outdoor markets are the best bet–and Kyoto is known for its seasonal vegetables, making these fresh options especially great.

When it comes to supermarkets, visit at night. After 6 or 7 p.m., grocery stores start marking down prepared items like sushi and tempura (budget grocery store sushi is actually pretty decent in Kyoto). Most stores will first mark items down by 20%, then 30%, and finally 50%.

We’ve gone to the same grocery store near Kyoto Station night in and night out at 7 p.m., and there was little consistency about when each of these markdowns occurred.

Neighborhood Udon, Ramen, and Okonomiyaki – Kyoto is home to the second-most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world (after Tokyo) and these are unsurprisingly expensive. In fact, one of Kyoto’s cultural traditions is kaiseki, a multi-course culinary experience that is the epitome of Japanese service and attention to detail.

While there are cheaper versions of kaiseki, it is never budget-friendly. Same goes for pretty much any restaurant in Gion or Kyoto’s other chic areas. Fortunately, there are a variety of cheap neighborhood restaurants tucked down side streets and away from touristy areas. These primarily serve udon, ramen, okonomiyaki, tempura, and other staples–and you can be in and out for under $10 per person.

If you’re on a budget, you should also avoid sushi restaurants in Kyoto. The cheap conveyor belt options are not nearly as good as what you’ll find in Tokyo, and the same goes for the mid-range options. Save your budget sushi meals for another city, as the low end of the sushi spectrum in Kyoto is simply not good.

Cheap Souvenirs – There are large shops with inexpensive souvenirs near both Fushimi Inari Shrine and Kiyomizudera Temple if you want something to remember your trip.

The cheaper option, though, is the Daiso Kawaramachi Opa 100-yen store near Nishiki Market. There are a variety of 100 yen stores in Kyoto (our favorite is Seria), but this particular Daiso location has the largest selection of distinctly “Japan” souvenirs.

If you’re looking for something other than junk trinkets, try antique shops that dot Kyoto. Most of these offer a selection of cheaper items outside, with the pricey stuff inside. Better yet, visit a flea market. The most notable of these are held at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine and Toji Temple. Consult this schedule of when Kyoto’s flea markets occur.

If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit! 

Your Thoughts

Do you have any money saving tips for Kyoto, Japan? Any advice here you agree or disagree with? Wondering about other potential ways to save? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions about what we’ve covered here? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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