If you’re planning a Japan itinerary, you’re most likely going to be visiting Kyoto for a few days as Kyoto is home to many famous landmarks in Japan.
If you ever fantasised about experiencing Japanese life like a local, there is an alternative to staying in a hotel, both in Kyoto and Tokyo now.
A company that until now had mainly catered to a French clientele since 1981, is extending an offer that will turn you into a local in no time.
Renting a flat or a house for as short a period as four days, or for as long as you like, is now being made possible by the Japan-Experience.
Here’s where to stay in Kyoto like a local.
Founder of Vivre le Japon (Japan-Experience) Claude Sauliere says that to discover a country, especially Japan, which is similar but different means you should learn how they live today.
“To do this, you need to be able to stroll around, observe things, meet people, lose yourself…”
Where to stay in Kyoto
I myself always dreamt of spending time in Japan not as a passing tourist but as a local.
This time, from my rented flat in Kyoto, overlooking the iconic pagoda of Kiyomizu-dera, I lived like a local.
I had a taste of shopping for local food, interacting with neighbours, getting to know my local attractions and getting to places the way locals do.
If this appeals but sounds daunting, relax. Japan Experience provides foreign flat and house dwellers with a ‘Travel Angel’ who looks after them as much or as little as required.
The service works especially well if you’re on a solo travel adventure in Japan.
My Angel Saki was discreet enough to let me feel that I survived entirely on my own but I know she was always looking after me.
Travel Angels introduce flat and house dwellers to the local shops, point out the ‘must-sees’ and show you around your new flat.
They answer any questions you may have (extensive manuals covering the usage of all machinery and internet are provided in each house or flat).
Japan-Experience can also take care of your Japan Rail Passes (mine was Fed-Ex’d and got to me in Sydney in two days), provide a guide, organise a cultural or epicurean adventure and offer you a list of specialised tours.
Is Gion the best place to stay in Kyoto?
My flat in the middle of Gion, Kyoto, is equipped with everything I could dream of, from state-of-the-art washing/dryer machine to detergent; electric kettle to free wifi; fridge to linen and cutlery.
Even the kitchen essentials are there: salt, sugar, tea, coffee and coffee maker.
Besides, I have a convenience shop right next door. Of course, I didn’t cook at all!
The best place to stay in Kyoto for the food is Gion.
There are many little eateries around to be bothered with cooking. And the food in Kyoto is delicious.
Breakfast is amply covered by going down to the convenience shop which, this being Japan, offers quality fruit, bakery products and instant meals such as bento boxes and anything in between.
Where to stay in Kyoto for access to attractions
I have a local guide for a day and that proves to be a dream.
Mie is superbly knowledgeable, flexible and kind.
We spend a whole day going around the intricate maze of old, winding streets leading to the temples of Kiyomizu-dera populated by quaint establishments.
There’s a pepper shop with an extraordinary variety of mixes that have been there for centuries and the oldest (and most famous) incense shop in Japan now with branches in the USA.
I am lucky the weather is perfect. Cold, crisp and blue skies after some snowfalls that clad everything in brilliant white.
On the grounds of Kiyomizu-dera, we cleanse our misdeeds by splashing a bit of water from sacred springs.
We pour water over a Bodhisattva who seems to smile as we do so and take photographs of the triple spring where at times, devotees re-enact the deeds of a saint and stand under the freezing waters.
Water, water, all around: Kiyomizu means clear water or pure water.
The ample platform built in front of the main temple in the Edo period to accommodate pilgrims is related to the equivalent of the English expression: ‘to take the plunge’ as it was said then that those who threw themselves into the abyss would have their wishes granted.
Many did and a surprisingly 84% survived but this practice is prohibited now.
A memorable sushi lunch at Iyomata (Kawaramachi / SushiNishiki-koji-dori Fuyamachi-nishi-iru, Higashi-Uoyacho 197 -3rd block from the eastern end of Nishiki Market street, on the south side.
Open 9am-6:30pm. Closed Wednesdays) in the heart of Kyoto’s Nishiki Markets and in the same family hands for 20 generations, is followed by a visit to the Thousand Tori Gates of the Fushimi Inari Taisha seemingly guarded by as many stone foxes holding keys to success.
Memoirs of a Geisha
Since the movie Memoirs of a Geisha screening, two prime sites were imprinted in my mind and recorded in my ‘to do’ list while in Kyoto: The Vermilion Gates of Fushimi and the Bamboo Forest. So we are off to tick the first destination.
Fushimi Inari does not disappoint, especially when a few soft snowflakes gently falling like cherry blossoms started to sift through the tori gates (Yes, winter in Japan is a lovely time of year).
Some new, some old and discoloured, the gates form a tunnel under which you walk.
A photographer’s dream, indeed.
My last night in Kyoto was marked by the best degustation dinner at a place I would have never found on my own (Japanese establishments tend to be discreet to the point of obscurity).
But of course, my Travel Angel took me there going the extra mile since it was a Sunday evening.
Giro Giro (420-7 Nambacho Nishikiyamachidori Matsubara Sagaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8027) is a unique restaurant, which due to its reputation in Kyoto has now opened branches in Paris, Hawaii and Tokyo.
This is what could be called a Punk version of a traditional kaiseki dinner, served with flair by chefs that prepare the 10-course degustation menu downstairs.
While in Japan I visited several other places, including the ski slopes of Hakuba, World Heritage Shirakawago, Takayama and Tokyo.
I loved them all but I can’t wait to return and spend more time as a local in Kyoto…