Postcards from Japan: Traditional neighbourhoods and Kyoto experiences, with Jim and Fiona Banks from Kyoto Holiday Homes

Jim and Fiona at the World Heritage site of Shimogamo Shrine close to their Guesthouse Chayama Holiday Home

Jim and Fiona Banks are a British couple living with their two teenage daughters in the heart of Kyoto. They immediately fell in love with Japan and the Kansai area when they first came to live here from the UK over 20 years ago. Their passion for exploring Japan, and all it has to offer, influenced them to open their own private guesthouses, ‘Kyoto Holiday Homes’. They try to help their guests to really ‘experience’ Kyoto as if they were residents by providing insights into local life, introducing them to off-the beaten track locations and all the while paying close attention to the Japanese notion of ‘omotenashi’ (Japanese hospitality). Jim and Fiona shared their personal list of Kyoto's best sights and some great advice for Japan first-timers.

Hi, thanks for talking to us today. Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

Hajimemashite (How do you do?) We are a British family living in Kyoto and we own and operate ‘Kyoto Holiday Homes’. We also have holiday homes in Ōmihachiman in Shiga prefecture (Biwa Holiday Homes) which are run by our lifelong Japanese friend Mr Kinoshita. We first moved to Japan 20 years ago and instantly fell in love with the culture and its people. We have lived in other countries too but Japan has always been our home. Our two daughters have grown up here and we can’t ever imagine living anywhere else.

Jim at Kiyomizudera Temple 

How did you end up running your holiday home business in Kyoto and what is it like?

We started running our holiday home business by renovating our first property called ‘Guesthouse Chayama’ which is situated in a delightfully local neighbourhood not so far from the World Heritage site of, ‘Ginkaku-ji’ (Silver Pavilion) and then around a year later we renovated our second property in the historic area of, ‘Nishijin’. This area is slightly to the west of central Kyoto City and has been famous since the 16th century for kimono textile production. Just to the north of the house you can walk to ‘Kinkaku-ji’ (Golden Pavilion) which you have most probably seen in books and advertisements about Kyoto. We opened these two holiday homes with the idea that they would be perfect for families or small groups who want to stay together ‘living’ in a private setting and to experience daily Kyoto life in friendly authentic neighbourhoods. Finding ‘family-sized’ rooms in Japan can be somewhat challenging and a little expensive so we wanted to focus on providing cosy Japanese houses to those who are traveling together and are looking for mid-range, affordable traditional accommodation.

 Fiona at their Guesthouse Hanamiya close to the World Heritage site of, Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)

When we first opened the doors of our Holiday Homes, we really had no idea if anyone would want to stay in Kyoto ‘like a local’ and thought the larger luxury hotels would always be more appealing, so starting this venture was somewhat of a leap of faith. We are glad that we took it though as our homes have proven to be very popular and our guests are delighted to have this opportunity (we also assist with Japanese language support and help with planning personalized Kyoto itineraries). In a nutshell, we opened these holiday homes in order to offer visitors to Kyoto something different. We have formed good friendships with many of our guests and have stayed in touch even after they have returned to their home countries. This makes us really happy.

Any unexpected funny incidents or stories you’ve had while living in Kansai?

Every day throws up something new even after all this time of living here. The trains here are truly incredible and punctual, but when we first arrived that wouldn’t stop us hurrying onto the wrong ones when we saw the doors closing on the platforms. As there are so many kinds of trains in Japan which are all going in different directions and at different speeds - our advice would be to not get overconfident and leave your earphones in when boarding. That way, you will hear the announcer and not end up going the wrong way around Lake Biwa like we used to do. On many occasions it would take us an extra hour to get home using the scenic route. We are far better at navigating the train systems these days! If you are a first-time visitor to Japan and you don’t understand Japanese, don’t worry, the announcements are in a few different languages these days - which is a lot different from the old days!

Entrance to our Guesthouse Chayama Holiday Home

You offer holiday homes in Kyoto and in Ōmihachiman by Lake Biwa. What kinds of spots or experiences do you always recommend to your guests?

In Kyoto:

Every one of our guests come to Kyoto with different ideas for their visit, whether it be to experience the many temples and shrines, enjoy the incredible local kaiseki cuisine, shop for local crafts and textiles, experience meditation at a Zen temple, go hiking or dress in traditional Kimono to get those memorable photographs (to name a few ideas). Our job is to help make those ideas happen. In fact, we don’t even see this as a job, we take a great deal of satisfaction in helping our guests really enjoy Kyoto and do all those things that they had dreamed of doing when they first decided to visit this incredible country.

Jim at Hōkan-ji Temple (Yasaka-no-tō Pagoda)

Guesthouse Hanamiya
Close to our Hanamiya Holiday Home we recommend first-time visitors the famous sites such as the Golden Pavilion or ‘Kinkaku-ji’ and the world famous temple and Zen rock garden of Ryōan-ji as for most these are must-see sights. Although these World Heritage sites are close by, often our guests are quite unaware of the incredible places we have right on our doorstep. For example, take a short walk to the oldest ‘Hanamachi’ (geisha district) of Kyoto called ‘Kamishichiken’ where you can enjoy Maiko and Geisha theatre shows with dramatic costumes performed in a cozy traditional theater setting or even see them scuttling to and from their places of work along the old streets. In the same area, (at the end of the street in the photo below) you can visit the majestic Kitano Tenmangu Shrine which has the most wonderful Japanese ume (plum) trees probably in the whole of Japan that come into full bloom in late February to early March. On the same grounds there is a flea market held every month on the 25th which is fondly known as ‘Tenjin-san Market’. If your trip overlaps with this day, it’s fun to browse around this sprawling outdoor market and pick up some authentic antiques and all manner of bargain items to take home with you as souvenirs. Then, why not stop off in one of the many unique cafes for a coffee and a snack. Just walking around the streets of our neighbourhood at night to enjoy the traditional architecture and glowing red lanterns is fun.

Kyoto’s first ever ‘Hanamachi’ geisha (or ‘geiko’ in Kyoto dialect) district close to Guesthouse Hanamiya

Guesthouse Chayama
In terms of specific spots to visit around our Chayama Holiday home, there are the World Heritage sites of Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) and Shimogamo Shrine. Also you can hop on our free-to-use bicycles and visit Hōnen-in Temple, Eikandō and the pretty area around the Philosophers Path, finishing at the majestic Nanzen-ji Zen Temple.
Two of our personal favorites close to our Chayama Holiday Home are the small Zen temples of Enkō-ji and Shisen-dō. They are off of the beaten track and that adds to their charm as it is so peaceful to sit and enjoy the gardens change
throughout the seasons with relatively few other visitors around. A lot of our guests love to go hiking and there are some great trails nearby such as the walk between the mountain villages of Kurama and Kibune which are so picturesque. Our advice would be to do this hike in the opposite direction Kibune-Kurama and finish by having a well deserved soak in the delightful Kurama Onsen. After making your way back to Chayama on the quaint Eizan line train why not enjoy a hot bowl of delicious Ramen at the famous ‘Kyoto Ramen Street’.  There are so many places to discover around our Holiday Homes that can’t be found in the main guidebooks. We enjoy it when our guests feel as though we have helped them to experience something surprising and quintessentially Japanese. If our guest leave Kyoto happy, then we are delighted.

Fiona enjoying a morning walk at Enkōji Zen Temple Bamboo Forest, close to Guesthouse Chayama

Ōmihachiman and Lake Biwa:

In Ōmihachiman Mr Kinoshita has helped guests at the Guesthouse Mio and En Holiday Homes to arrange rowboat trips around the Suigo canals which are known for their stunning natural scenery.
There are also great opportunities for hiking enthusiasts such as trails around Hachiman-yama Mountain, or for the brave, up the many stone steps to the stunning Chōmeiji Temple. Our guests love to stroll around this old Edo period castle town and enjoy the views of the historic merchant houses. A fun place to visit is the Kawara Roof Tile Museum. Here you can walk around the quaint renovated buildings which showcase traditional craftsmanship. Then you can pop over to the workshop and have fun making your own souvenir out of tile clay to take home. Our kids love doing this, and we now have quite a collection. As the sun comes down wander around and discover the wonderful antique shops and homely cafes and bars that are dotted here and there. If you are a photography enthusiast and are looking for picture-postcard shots of Japan, then consider staying in Ōmihachiman as well as Kyoto.

‘Shinmachi’ close to Guesthouse Mio and En Holiday Homes in Ōmihachiman, Shiga prefecture

Do you have any travel advice for first time visitors to Japan?

Japan is such an amazing country and unlike any other in the world, to enjoy it fully, just be open to what it throws at you, go with the flow and embrace its uniqueness. What we would certainly suggest is that you plan your trip a little in advance. So often we hear that our guests have booked to tour Japan’s major cities but wish they had stayed in Kyoto a little bit longer. However long you stay in Kyoto there is always something new and breath-taking to discover around every corner. Planning ahead ensures to some degree that you will get to have all the experiences, visit the places that interest you, and enjoy the food as much as possible. Let us know in advance and we will make the enquiries for you, so that when you arrive, you are ready to relax and enjoy your time here to the fullest.  A comment we always hear is, "We'll be back soon for sure as there is so much more that we want to do”.

Jim at the World Heritage site of Shimogamo Shinto Shrine close to Guesthouse Chayama

The word of the month is ‘tsundoku’ (積ん読)meaning ‘letting books pile up at home in the hope of reading them later’. What book would you recommend people who are planning their first visit to Japan and  Kyoto?

That’s a great question as there are of course so many great books available these days. However, one book that springs to mind is ‘Old Kyoto’ by Dianne Durston. In the book, various old inns, shops and restaurants many of which are located close to our holiday homes are outlined. The local way of life is also discussed along with a few secrets and interesting legends. As we are Kyoto traditionalists by heart, we recommend you have a look at this book before you come and pick out a couple of places that interest you from the old districts, shops and temples and try to get under the surface of this incredible city. We are always here to help you in any way we can. We hope to meet you in Kyoto one day!

Don't forget to check their socials, you have a lot to choose from! They run an informative website, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter!



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