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Peak season in Kyoto: finding accommodation

Some advice on finding accommodation in spring in Kyoto (and Tokyo). And it can be useful all year round too!

“Something will turn up”, you say to yourself everywhere from freezing Gobi Desert outposts to Saigon in a tropical storm after midnight, and it always does. But not in Japan. Not in Kyoto at holiday time.
(Patrick Holland, Riding the Trains in Japan)

Early in the book Riding the trains in Japan, the author is unable to find accommodation in the ancient capital during the celebrations of the O-bon (mid august). A situation that surprises him, used to show up in any asian city without a booking and always finding a bed. And, in Kyoto, he also finds out that is impossible to sleep in the open too, so he decides to spend the nights traveling back and forth on trains between Tokyo and Kyoto. I am not sure if it’s actually possible, but one thing is certain: to find a hotel in Kyoto (and to some degree, in Tokyo) during holidays or in springtime can be extremely difficult, even months in advance. For april (when the cherry trees are in bloom), if you need something more than a mixed dorm bed and for several days in a row, you should book at least 5 months in advance.

Peak season and the growth of tourism in Japan

Finding a hotel in Kyoto can be difficult at times. It has always been, but lately it’s getting worse. It’s not only the O-Bon that Holland writes about (mid-august), but it cam be difficult to find a bed for the Gion Matsuri (17th and 24th of  July). And then there are the crowded weeks of the cherry blossoms (mid-March to mid-April, roughly) and of the red leaves (mid-October to late November) Even August is getting crowded lately.

The situation has worsened in recent years for two main reasons: first, the increasing popularity of online booking websites that allow you to easily book rooms well in advance and cancel later fo free. The second is the strong increase of tourism in Japan (double figures, some estimates indicate a growth of more than 40% in 2015). This has been fuelled by a cheaper yen and facilitation introduced for tourists from some Asian countries (as China).

I also fear that this increase of visitors can change this country that I love so much. Unfortunately it’s already happening.

Finding accommodation in Kyoto (or Tokyo) in peak season

Kyoto has a great choice of hotels, hostels and ryokans (traditional style hotels) of every level and price range. Many are really cheap, starting from 1500-2000 yen for a dorm bed or capsule to 5000-6000 yen for a private room. The problem is that the most convenient places get fully booked very soon for the peak season.

But not all the accommodations are on the online booking sites. The same applies to Tokyo, although the capital is bigger and has many more hotels.

The best advice (although I don’t like to do it, it feels like giving your freedom up) is still to book very early, at least for Kyoto, I mean five to six months in advance (many ryokans won’t accept earlier bookings, by the way).

Tip #1: the are many ways of booking a bed in Japan

  • Try different online booking sites. I know, you always use Booking, which is a great website. But also try Agoda, (which is usually better for Japan and Asia), and, as suggested by the always invaluable Inside Kyoto, try sites like Japanican Japanican (specializing in ryokan, also high-end ones) and Rakuten travel. They are all very reliable.
  • Airbnb. Of course there is also Airbnb, which is not so widespread as in other countries but it’s an option.
  • Hotel websites. Many ryokans and hotels aren’t listed on online booking sites, and others list just a few of their available rooms. Try directly on the websites of the hotels.
  • Rooms with private bathroom. If you are looking for a private room with a bathroom you will see yo will have fewer options as shared bathrooms are common in Japan, and usually extremely clean.

Tip #2: staying at a temple in Japan

Some temples offer shukubo, temple lodging, for tourists and pilgrims. Temple lodging usually isn’t cheaper than other accommodations and you have to keep in mind that is a different experience. Many temples offer shojin-ryori, the delicious vegetarian cuisine typical of temples.

Here are some websites:

Cherry Blossoms in Keage, Kyoto

Cherry Blossoms in Keage, Kyoto (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2014)

Tip #3: stay every day in a different place.

Booking four or five consecutive days in the same hotel can be impossible in peak season in Tokyo or Kyoto. An often overlooked option is to split the stay in two or three, or even changing hotel every day. In Kyoto and Tokyo this could be less uncomfortable than it sounds as they are both vast cities and staying in different places can let you explore different neighborhoods. Just keep in mind that in Japan often the check-in is at 4 pm.

  • In Kyoto for instance you can spend at least two days close to the station, an area that is excellent if you plan to go to Arashiyama, Nara, Uji by train, and very close to Toji temple and Tofukuji. Then you could stay a day or two in Higashiyama, Gion or in the city centre (around Karasuma) for sightseeing and a bit of nightlife (I love walking in the night in Kyoto).
  • In Tokyo you could stay for two days in Shinjuku which is handy for exploring Shibuya, or Meguro. Then you could go to Asakusa, to explore Ueno and Akihabara.
Ginkaku-ji, the silver Pavillion, Kyoto

Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavillion, Kyoto (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2014)

Tip #4: staying in another city

You can’t find accommodation in Kyoto? This is a measure of last resort, but the Japan Rail Pass and the reliability of the trains means that staying in nearby cities is an option too.

  • Kyoto. Options are Otsu (Shiga) or the more crowded Arashiyama, Uji, Nara. An often overlooked option is Osaka: besides the normal JR railway, central Osaka Umeda station is linked to Kyoto Kawaramachi with the Hankyu metro line, an inexpensive trip that takes just 40 minutes. If your Japan Rail Pass is valid during your planned visit you could also use the Shinkansen, so staying in Maibara (20 minutes) or Nagoya (40 minutes) become an option too. If you are staying in Osaka just choose a place close to the Hankyu or Jr stations.
  • Tokyo. Extend your search to the peripheral neighborhoods of Shinagawa, and Gotanda and then Yokohama or Chiba.

Horizon Japan book by Patrick Colgancheck out my book Horizon Japan or download an excerpt from the first chapter for free

All the texts are by Patrick Stephen Colgan. All pictures by me, when not otherwise specified, are licensed under the Creative Commons licence by-nc-sa. For commercial uses please contact me. This post has been translated from my italian blog, Orizzonti. Some links to partner booking sites are affiliated, but they don’t impact on the prices and offers in any way.

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