I didn’t do everything right on my trip to Japan. I, for example, accidentally took myself and my friends on a 20-kilometer march around Shinjuku. But the rightest thing I did was book an authentic traditional Japanese villa on the Kamogawa River in Kyoto.
Last time I visited Kyoto, in 2016, I booked a hotel that I was not crazy about. My favorite parts of Kyoto were its old buildings and shrines, and I wondered if there was a way to get a more authentic experience while my friends and I were there. While searching online for old-fashioned lodgings, I landed on K’s Villa Kamogawa-an, a traditional Kyoto home available for vacation rental.
After looking at the photos online, I knew I had to stay here. Kamogawa-an is advertised as large enough for seven people, and I’ve always heard that you should double your lodgings in Japan because of how much space Americans are accustomed to. (For example, an Airbnb advertised for four people would probably be a better fit for two Americans.) So I figured it’d be the perfect size for me, John, and our two travel partners. In fact, we’d find out, it was just big enough for four!
We took the bullet train from Tokyo and arrived in Kyoto a little earlier than the villa was available, so we went to K’s House, a backpacker hostel owned by the renters, to store our luggage. The company runs a handful of hostels in different cities in Japan, but it originated with just one in Kyoto. As the company expanded, it began buying residential properties in Kyoto, too. I rented the largest of the three. It’s technically the larger partition of a single home that K’s Villa has turned into two rentals. It’s in a quiet residential area (so we needed to be quiet, too), but only a ten-minute walk from Kyoto’s main train station.
When it was check-in time, a friendly English-speaking guide led us to the house, showed us how to use the passcode out front, and showed how to open the tricky front door in the courtyard. She didn’t leave before adding her three favorite local restaurants to our map. While I signed some waivers, my friends were already exploring the villa’s two floors. On the ground floor, there’s a courtyard in front and a garden overlooking the Kamogawa River in back. A tatami room on each floor has an entire wall of glass for the best possible river views.
At this point, I should mention that this villa was cheaper per person than a hotel. It definitely depends on the yen-to-dollar exchange at the time, but when I booked, it was around ¥12000 per person per night—at the time, less than $100 a person, but at the time of this writing, a little more. This includes a yukata rental for me and each of my friends, because I wasn’t going to stay in a traditional villa with a cypress bathtub without putting on a yukata after my bath. It also included a complimentary cleaning halfway through our stay.
During our five nights in Kyoto, we did not actually spend all that much time in the villa. Instead, we used it as our home base while we took day trips to Nara, Osaka, and Himeji. The villa’s windows were perfect in the early morning for birdwatching (I saw herons, egrets, and more right outside), and the heated kotatsu was awesome for Kyoto’s still-chilly April evenings. Twice we grabbed take-out gyoza at Kyoto Station’s 551 Horai on the way back, to eat around the kotatsu while watching Japanese variety shows.
Now the downsides: the stairs to the upper floor were basically a ladder. Anyone with mobility problems would have trouble with them. They were not unlike the steep stairs in Himeji Castle, built in 1600. Also, while there were two toilets (heated and with all the bells and whistles you expect from toilets in Japan), there was one bath for four people. A really nice bath, yes, but it requires some coordination for everyone to get a turn. I also felt like our sleeping arrangements for four people, John and I sharing a room, took up the entire upstairs, so I have no idea how this villa would fit seven. Maybe they’d put futons in the kotatsu room on the first floor? Or maybe this imaginary group of seven includes several small children.
I’ve been to Kyoto before, but I stayed in a hotel in a very urban part of town. Waking up riverside to watch wading birds and listen to my neighbor practice the oboe was just as memorable as some of the tourist attractions I went to. If like me, you’re sort of wary of Airbnb after one too many negative encounters, this merged the professionalism of a hotel with a residential experience.
Finally, you should know that I got a small discount for writing about staying at the villa online. But let’s be honest, I was going to blog about it anyway.