Wander or Bust is an Elite Daily travel series that follows young women/femme-identifying travelers all over the globe to record their journeys as they experience the thrill of the far-flung and unknown.
They'll track their budgets, where they stay, where they eat and drink, and where they took that amazing Instagram that got them ~maximum exposure~. The internet is full of travel advice, but none from young millennials just like you. Read on for the tips no one else gives you, and when in doubt, get on the plane.
Here's Elizabeth Blasi's Wander Or Bust guide to Kyoto, Japan.
My Name: Elizabeth Blasi
What I Do: Travel and Lifestyle Writer
Where I Live: Charlotte, North Carolina
Where I Went: Kyoto, Japan
How Long I Stayed: Eight days and seven nights
My Spending Style: I try to find ways to balance my spending budget, depending on the vacation. If I’m interested in experiences and excursions, I cut costs on logistics like accommodations and transportation (opting to rent bikes and use the local subway system). I tend to exchange preferences when visiting different destinations, depending on what the city or region is best known for.
THE GAME PLAN
Where I Got My Recommendations: While I did a fair amount of research on Kyoto through guidebooks and travel publications, some of my best recommendations have come from travel (or Kyoto expat-specific) Facebook groups. Asking locals (outside of big hotel/excursion chains) what their favorite spots are upon landing is also a great way to learn insights.
Exchange Rate At Time Of Travel: $1 USD = ¥111.74 JPY
What That Looks Like IRL: $50 USD = ¥5,587.10 JPY
Preferred Payment Method: International-friendly credit cards (in particular, Visa and Mastercard). Most places in Kyoto take credit cards, but I tried to maintain at least 10,000 Yen — that I initially exchanged at the airport — in my wallet at all times for things like temples, tips, and any emergency situation.
Phone Bill: Since my telecom provider does not have free (or decently priced) international data plans, I purchased and changed out SIM cards once I landed in Osaka. I switched to Narita local service, as it was one of the highest-rated telecom companies in the region (it was super efficient and speedy). For 4G of data, I paid (equivalent to) $38 USD for my entire stay. Hint: Earrings make great tech tools when swapping phone SIMs.
WHAT I PACKED
Luggage Type: I checked one bag, and brought a carry-on and backpack.
The 10 Most Important Items I Packed:
2. Universal travel adapter
3. Power bank
4. Leather jacket
5. My favorite pair of jeans
6. 2x a day of undergarments
7. Shoes fit for adventure
For extra essentials:
9. Eye Drops
What Shoes I Brought: Since it was November (and cold) in Japan, I went with boots (with a tiny block heel to be worn during the day and at night), as well as a pair of tennis shoes.
HOW I GOT THERE
Mode of Transport: Airplane
Price: $724 USD (includes international flight and the domestic flight from Tokyo to Osaka)
Extra Costs: Since Osaka is the closest airport to Kyoto, we paid for a car transfer between the two cities.
Transport Total: $842 USD (includes flight, airport transfer, and lounge access during layover)
WHERE I STAYED
Accommodation: Rented apartment
Location: Karasuma District in Kyoto, Japan
Price: $18 USD per night
Extra Costs: Taxes + fees
Would I Recommend It To Someone Else? 100%. The unit was in a great location and extremely affordable for a private space in Kyoto. It even had a mini kitchen!
Accommodation Total: $155 USD
THE FOOD SITUATION
Breakfast Cost: $5 USD per day
Since I tried to save my food budget for nice lunches and dinners, I made breakfast daily at the rental. As soon as I arrived in Kyoto, my friends and I went to the local grocery store. Being a foodie — and someone who loves to cook — exploring grocery stores is one of my favorite activities when arriving in a new destination. This is especially true in a place like Japan. There are so many different offerings of produce and goods that you’d never see in the United States. (Tip: Download a translation app before shopping.)
Lunch Cost: $30-$45 USD per day
We ate some of the most amazing meals in Kyoto. I made it a point to seek out the best restaurants in the city and make lunch reservations, as they’re the same (or similar) dishes served at dinner. For example, one of the premium steakhouses in Kyoto, Hangago Gion, would run $120+ USD for dinner. The same meal for lunch would cost around $40+ USD.
To not have lunch interfere with daily activities, we split up the explorations into morning and afternoon shifts (with the mornings outings being more active).
Dinner Cost: $10-$20 USD per day
While not as elaborate or "fancy" as some of our lunch meals, dinner was always a fun experience in Kyoto. From ramen ordered via vending machine, to food market sampling, it was always an adventure. One night we gave ourselves a $15 USD cap to buy dinner at 7-11 and ate at a local park. (7-11 in Japan is an awesome place, as there are very interesting and delicious food choices to choose from.)
Average Total Cost: $55 USD per day/$400 USD total for eight days
Tip Situation: Leaving a tip can actually come across as disrespectful in Japan.
Food Situation: As a huge fan of food tourism and exploring culinary cultures when traveling, Japan is one of those places that truly stands out to me. From the diversity in flavors and elements of traditions built into the food offerings, it’s not hard to love *almost every meal.
*I say almost, because I suggest tourists be mindful when trying some of the local delicacies. One of these dishes is fermented soy beans. This particular dish has a strong, bitter taste, and will likely be served at a restaurant or two during your visit. Consider trying a singular bean or two with rice and soy sauce if you want to taste. In a rookie move, I ate an entire mouthful of fermented soybeans and instantly regretted it. The taste was a potent, bitter flavor, and very difficult to get down in such a large amount. I consider myself a pretty adventurous and risky eater, so this surprised me.
Favorite Restaurant: Kushi-Tanaka
If the idea of a smorgasbord of deep-fried, tempura goodness sounds like a dream come true to you, this is the place to go. A space designed in traditional Japanese fashion, cushions cover the floor and low-to-the-ground tables float in a relatively small space. What initially drew me to this restaurant was the large number of locals surrounding the door on one of my walks home.
Kushi-Tanaka is a prix fixe 20-course Kushiage tasting menu, all for under $35 USD. Kushiage is a style of cooking in Japan, where the dishes are deep fried, then served on a stick. The meal consists of fried shrimp, beef, cheese, fruit, and even pumpkin bread (amongst many other bite-sized dishes). This dining experience was by far one of my favorites.
*There is no website for Kushi-Tanaka (as it's super old school), so try arriving early for a table or read reviews on Yelp to see if this is the spot for you.
Location: Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto
Price: $35 USD
Honorable Mentions: Ichiran Ramen
Having a special place in my heart for ramen noodles, it was necessary to explore every possible ramen house I could while in Japan. One of my favorites was Ichiran Ramen, located near Nishiki Market. Not only is the broth out of this world, the entire experience is done without human contact. The order is purchased through a vending machine, and your food is delivered through tiny spaces between the kitchen and your table.
Food Total: $400 USD
THE NIGHTLIFE SCENE
Nightlife Situation: Picture this: an entire nightclub engaged in one synchronized dance routine. This is an average Friday night in Kyoto. The nightlife culture is merged with that of the tech/games/anime space. The dance routine performed at the club can actually be learned from the game Dance Dance Revolution. In Kyoto, I often found myself at a mix of bars and clubs, as well as arcades, bowling alleys, and karaoke bars. This city’s nightlife can definitely be described as interactive and engaging.
What People Wear Out: While significantly more relaxed than Tokyo, Kyoto has a mix of wardrobe styles for evenings out on the town. From jeans and blouses, to Harajuku styles (Harajuku is a district in the city of Tokyo, known to house signature Japanese street styles that reflect mixtures of punk rock and cosplay attire), there’s a significant mix of fashion choices throughout Kyoto. Like any other major city, the attire also depends on the individual, occasion, and venue.
Average Cost Of A Pint: $4-$7 USD (However, I highly recommend local sake over beer while visiting Kyoto.)
Extra Cost To Know About: Many nightlife spots in Kyoto have extra costs. Karaoke and arcade bars have entrance or play costs, while clubs charge cover fees.
Last Call: While places vary on closing times, most bars have a 2 a.m. "last call"; clubs can run much later.
Average Total Cost Of A Night Out: $35-$60 USD
Cheapest Bar I'd Actually Go Back To: Barcode (karaoke bar)
Going Out Total: $250 USD
HOW I SPENT MY DAYS
What I Spent A Lot On That Was Totally Worth It: Japanese beauty products. Between the unique skincare and makeup offered in the region, it was a no brainer where I spent many afternoons.
What I Spent A Lot of On That Was Totally Not Worth It: Taxi rides. With the lack of other ride services, Japanese taxis can charge a pretty penny for each ride. Thankfully, there’s a solution. By renting a bicycle for your allotted stay, you’re able to get around the very bike-friendly city of Kyoto in a cost effective and efficient way.
What I Spent Little Or No Money On That Was Awesome: 7-11 pancakes. I love Japanese 7-11s. Not only are they on every street corner, but they’re home to some of the most magical breakfast/snack items on the planet. Their pancakes are extremely fluffy and come pre-packaged with butter and maple syrup inside.
Favorite Thing I Did, Regardless Of Cost: A local homestay dining experience with the platform Eat With. When in Japan, my friends and I decided to take part in a local meal cooked and served by a resident of Kyoto. This was by far one of my favorite experiences in Japan. Not only was the food authentic, but we learned some common Japanese phrases and discussed the culture of Japan you may not find in any museum.
Hidden Gem I Found: On my travels, I typically try to avoid stopping inside a Starbucks and embrace local cafés and regionally brewed coffee. I broke my rule in Kyoto, and I swear it was for a good reason. In one of the popular neighborhoods of Higashiyama is a discrete-looking Starbucks that was actually built inside a 100-year-old townhome, according to CNN. It features tatami mats, floor cushions, and its own garden.
The Photo I Took That Got The Most Attention:
Best Excursion: While exploring temples throughout the region and escaping to the bamboo forest and Red Gates were exciting, my favorite excursion was taking the day to venture out to Lake Biwa. We rented kayaks and enjoyed the view, as the lake touches beautiful snow-capped mountains.
Extras Total: $350 USD
Best Kyoto Hack: Renting a bike. I can’t sing enough praises about bike riding in Kyoto. Not only is it a great way to save money while visiting your favorite sites, but it’s also beautiful to ride along the Kamo River and see historic Japanese architecture on a nice day.
Advice For Anyone Traveling Alone: Kyoto seems like an extremely safe place to visit. The locals are respectful and value honor to the highest degree. For example, on a bike ride, I stopped into a market to grab a drink. As I walked back to my bike, I noticed I left my new iPhone in the basket. Having been away for 15+ minutes, and being in one of the most popular (foot-trafficked) spots in Kyoto, I was surprised no one had taken my phone.
In addition, if you're going out at night while traveling alone — in any destination — I recommend having an accountability buddy. Whether you're keeping someone in the loop back home about your whereabouts, or meeting a travel companion during your journey, always try and have a buddy.
Total Trip Cost: $1,997 USD
Worth It? Kyoto is one of the most extraordinary places on the planet. Not only do I desperately want to go back, I’ve repeatedly told loved ones that if I could convince enough people to move over, I’d permanently relocate myself to the Japanese city.