Travelling Welshman
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Asia,  Blog,  Japan

Kyoto: Free Living as a Hostel Worker

The ancient capital of Japan is home to numerous amount of national treasures, and without doubt its a city with its own unique take on Japanese culture and everyday life. These are the things I knew about the city before, and it was one of the reasons I decided to spend so much time there. But how? How could I stay somewhere for an extended amount of time without having to spend ridiculous amounts on a daily basis for the privilege? Easy, work in a hostel. Technically, it isn’t necessarily work, which Mr. Immigration would be happy to hear. It’s volunteering; working for no money. What you do get in return though is a place to stay free of charge for the entire duration of your stay.  It was a perfect arrangement for me, and something I wanted to start taking advantage of during my travels.   The purpose of this article is to give people an idea on what volunteering in a hostel is like exactly from my specific experience in Kyoto. Note that this doesn’t necessarily represent what ALL hostels would be like, just my particular experience. I certainly didn’t know what to expect when I first started, and it can be quite a daunting prospect. Let me enlighten you.  

The Build-Up

All the way back in October when I first started getting in contact with places to volunteer, Kyoto seemed like a gold-mine. Just like any decent ancient capital, it was full of time-appropriate monuments and plethora of things to see. It seemed the perfect destination to set-up camp for a period of time. While searching for hosts there was a huge number of hostels who were willing to take on volunteers. Perfect! I sent out a few nicely written messages asking if I could provide my services and a handful responded. Now I just had to pick which particular hostel I wanted to stay. A pretty big decision, as each place had only written a little about their place on workaway. Finally I made my decision; Downtown Inn Kyoto.  

My Hostel of Choice

Hostels are the ideal place to volunteer your time during your travels. My goal has always been long-term travel, and the best way of ensuring that is ensuring the absolute minimum amount is spent. Therefore getting to live for absolutely free in a hostel for an entire month is an incredible deal. Additionally, the majourity of my time on the road is spent in hostels. The environment has become completely natural to me. Having to share a room and facilities with other travellers has become the norm. It would hardly be an uncomfortable situation.   The hostel which I’d be calling home for 5 weeks was pretty exceptional. It was a capsule style hotel, which is very common in Japan. A country which always aims to make the absolute most out of the little amount of space they have, the capsule style hotel is the best solution. They’re essentially 3 walled beds with a curtain at the foot of a bed, meaning you had to crawl into them. Almost like coffins, or where you’d keep bodies in a hospital morgue. Though they’re nowhere near as morbid. In-fact in my opinion that’s the ideal type of hostel you’d want. One complaint amongst some of the fussier travellers would be the lack of privacy that comes with typical hostel life. Here, you close the curtains, boom, total privacy. As ideal as the hostel’s bedding arrangement was, that wasn’t where I’d be sleeping.  

Worker’s Accommodation

My first surprise was that I wasn’t alone, far from it. All the workers in the hostel were in the same situation as me, simply volunteering for a place to stay. I hadn’t really known what to expect, but I thought I would have been the only volunteer. In hindsight this was much better. During my time there people come and went from all over the world: France, Germany, Poland, Argentina, Sweden Taiwan, Canada and so forth. A real multi-cultural living space   The hostel itself was incredibly lush and from the reviews of many of the customers was one of the nicest hostels they had stayed during their time in Japan. However the workers accommodation wasn’t quite as plush. Not that I’m complaining, a bed will always be a bed to me, I’ve never been fussy. They were simple bunk beds fitted with curtains in two separate rooms. Not quite the level of privacy you got from the capsules but it would do the job. We also had a small kitchen with all the basics, but would get crammed when 10 people felt hungry at the same time. Really it just reminded me of living in a university dorm; the same kind of simplicity and common living space with people you barely know. Another huge advantage for us was getting some free food. This is hugely important because while travelling on a daily basis you’ll have 2 main things to spend your money on; accommodation and food. By giving us some food it effectively brought our spending down to nearly 0. Though it wasn’t a vast selection of food, only being rice, spaghetti, soy sauce and mayo. Which would lead many of us to eat a simple mix of rice, soy and mayo. A new personal favourite.  

A Multi-Cultural Experience

One thing travellers will always throw out as a huge advantage to hostel life is being to meet like-minded people. There’s your answer to those who keep asking “don’t you feel lonely when you travel?”. Here I wouldn’t simply running into the same people in the common area on occasions, I’d be living with them! True, you could be unlucky. You could have to live alongside people you don’t get along with or ones that get on your last fucking nerve. Though these individuals can easily be avoided. For the most part, you’re spending time with people who have the same ambitions as you, same mind-set and attitude.
The happy hostel workers
With these people is who I’d spend my time outside of working hours. We’d spend nights sharing our stories and experiences, giving each other advice of where we’ve been and where we wanted to go. We would hear stories about their lives in their native countries, what it was like on a daily basis and what made them want to travel to the places they had. Undoubtedly the best way to get to know a new group of strangers however is to completely lose control of your inhibitions with the aid of potent alcohol. Something which we had done a number of times. Including occasions where as a group everyone would prepare their own dish so we could dine together with some home-cooked meals.
Family-style dining

The Work

So what exactly did I have to do? Before-hand the manager of the hostel had asked me which I would prefer; reception or cleaning. Without a second thought I chose to work on reception. I’ve worked as a cleaner for many years in the past, I know what it involves and I don’t particularly enjoy it. Reception on the other hand was a perfect opportunity to get to interact with some of the guests in the hostel, not be so demanding work and allow me some free time to be able to do some writing. Ideal! Being as that was my choice of work, reception workers would have to work 6 and a half hour shifts, either from 9am-2:30pm or 2:30pm-9pm. Indeed that does seem very long shifts that take up your entire day, leaving little time for sightseeing. BUT we only had to work for 3 days a week, the other 4 we could do as we please. That left an incredible amount of free time to see the rest of the city. Also whether you were working on reception or as a cleaner, occasionally we would be given the duty of changing bed sheets. Starting at a leisurely 10:30am (30 minutes before check-out time), you simply had to replace the bed sheets. The amount of work fluctuated depending on the number of guests that left that day. You could have a simple 10 all the way to a depressing 25, it depends. However the benefit of that job (as well as the cleaning) is the finishing time depends on you. You pick up the pace and you can finish in a couple of hours.   The manager was unique in the fact he was very sympathetic to our cause, he knew exactly why we were there, to travel. He didn’t want us to spend the duration of our time working, he wanted to ensure we had enough time to ourselves. A very nice man indeed.  

A New Years Tradition

For the last few years I have started a new tradition, one which I’m thrilled to maintain. Every New Years I happen to have found myself in a brand new fascinating location. Two years ago I was under the fireworks on a Bali beach and last year was spent in a hot-tub in the snowy mountains beside the Great Wall. This year would be spent in the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto. Though there would be much less chemical enhancements this year, though not completely void of it. The Japanese work culture is extreme, which leaves little time for relaxation. Thus their citizens need to find the best possible ways to let loose. Such tightly wound people need an extreme release, which has resulted in some extreme examples, such as the incredibly unusual fetish they cater for. No better (and socially acceptable way) to let loose than a drink or two. And cans full of 9% vodka infused drinks known as Strong Zeros will get you there quick. With a generous little buzz on, the entire hostel crew would be celebrating a traditional Japanese New Years. Where the rest of the world gets absolutely rat-arsed and assimilate a years worth of regret on the first night, the Japanese have a much more peaceful celebration. They see in the New Year by going to temple.


Armed with a bottle of vodka which would in my own drunken words would help me with my goal for the night: “I want to speak to God”. Thus the newly christened bottle of Jesus Juice assisted in getting us to the other side of Kyoto where we struggled to find a temple without they entirety of the city’s citizens surrounding it.  

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