Visitors to Japan regularly find themselves amazed, enthralled and astonished. Yet, they are also often left confused. First-timers will be confused by many things, not least by the vending machines, the automated car parks, the toilets and especially, the transportation. Traveling in Japan entails deciding amongst a bewildering number of choices. Follow this simple guide to understand how to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, Japan’s most famous cities.
Train from Tokyo to Kyoto (Shinkansen)
Alongside Mount Fuji and Hello Kitty, there are few more iconic sights in Japan than that of the bullet train, and few more iconic journeys than along the Tokaido line; the oldest ‘Shinkansen’ route in Japan. Departing from either Tokyo Station itself in the east of the city, or from Shinagawa to the south, there are a number of different options.
The Nozomi style train takes 2 hours and 20 minutes, costing 13,710 Yen (ca. 137 USD) and the Hikari takes 2 hours and 40 minutes but costs 13,400 Yen (ca. 134 USD). Getting onboard is rather simple as any ticket can be bought from any JR (Japan Rail) counter in the country or you can use an automated vending machine (available only in English or Japanese). Use www.hyperdia.com to check departure times but don’t worry too much about availability; six Nozomis and two Hikaris depart for Kyoto every hour, on average.
If you wish to save money but still get the full Shinkansen experience, then the Kodama service is perfect. Available only during certain times of the year, it takes 4 hours but costs only 10,100 Yen (ca. 100 USD) for a regular or 11,600 (ca. 110 USD) for a ‘Green’ (first-class) ticket. More information on the Kodama is available at http://www.jrtours.co.jp/kodama/en/ and tickets are sold at JR Tokai Tours offices in Tokyo, Shinagawa or Shinjuku.
Bus from Tokyo to Kyoto
A much cheaper method of travel than the high-speed train is to do what many Japanese students and backpackers do and take the bus. With Willer Express, the good news is that the cheapest one-way ticket to Kyoto will cost between 3,520 Yen (ca. 35 USD) and 5,490 Yen (ca. 54 USD) depending on your date of travel and type of bus. The bad news is that all buses take about 10 hours to reach Kyoto Station. Though the vehicles are very modern and stop regularly for toilet-breaks, it can feel a little cramped, particularly when travelling overnight.
Flying from Tokyo to Kyoto
Flying may be a luxury option in many countries but not in Japan where a host of budget airlines, such as Jetstar, offer regular flights. A journey from Narita Airport to Osaka Kansai International Airport can be as little as 2,690 Yen (ca. 26 USD), with a flight-time of 1 hour and 30 minutes. Getting to Narita airport shouldn’t cost any more than 1000 Yen (ca. 10 USD), while travelling from Osaka airport to Kyoto itself is very simple. Take a direct bus (1,310 Yen, ca. 13 USD – 50 minutes) or get the train and change a few times (880 Yen, ca. 8 USD – 1 hour 15 minutes) to reach Kyoto.
The total cost, therefore, for a flight (including airport transfers) from Tokyo to Kyoto could be as cheap as 4,690 Yen (ca. 46 USD). Flights can, and usually are, much more expensive than this but use comparison websites such as Skyscanner or Kayak to find the best deal.
Driving by car from Tokyo to Kyoto
Renting a car may not be a tourist’s first thought and is probably not recommended for trips within the mega-cities of Tokyo or Osaka. However, it is still a valid option for any long journeys in Japan because road quality is among the best in the world and road safety is on-a-par with Europe. Websites such as Nippon Rent-a-car charge rates of approximately 6,000 Yen (ca. 60 USD) per day and simply require an International Driving Permit.
The journey from Tokyo to Kyoto should take around 5 hours but will cost almost 10,000 Yen (ca. 100 USD) in Express-way tolls. Nevertheless, a cross-country road trip is a good option for those travelling in groups or carrying a lot of luggage.
Walking from Tokyo to Kyoto
During the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868), travelling between Tokyo and Kyoto involved choosing either the ‘Nakasendo’ (Central Mountain Route) or the ‘Tokaido’ (East Sea Road). Those with a propensity for adventure (and a lot of time on their hands) can choose the most traditional method there is, and walk. The 490/530km trails should only be considered by seasoned hikers but are among some of the most famous hiking routes in the world.
Discount Passes for getting from Tokyo to Kyoto
For those who are travelling not just to Kyoto, but further onwards, there are plenty of discount passes available.
The most popular discount ticket is the JR Pass. A 7 day consecutive pass that covers all trains (excluding the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen) will cost 29,110 Yen (ca. 290 USD), a 14-day pass 46,390 Yen (ca. 463 USD) and a three-week pass 59,350 Yen (593 USD). As a one-way ticket to Kyoto will set you back at least 10,100 Yen (ca. 100 USD), the JR Pass is worth considering for anyone on a longer trip.
Order online and have it delivered to your home address, hotel in Tokyo, boutique hotel in Kyoto or any other city. Simply exchange this letter for your official tickets at any JR ticket couter and climb aboard. This allows for some spectacular savings, particularly for those with children; kids 6-11 years old are viable for a 50% discount.
JR Central Pass: Osaka-Tokyo Hokuriku Arch Pass
The JR Central Pass is similar to the JR Pass (29,110 Yen, ca. 290 USD) but covers a more limited area. This seven-day ticket allows unlimited access on JR trains (including the Shinkansen) between Tokyo and Osaka, via the Hokuriku region to the north. You can reach Kyoto as well as popular locations such as Nagano, Kanazawa and Osaka for just 24,000 (ca. 240 USD).
Another option is to use the Japanican website to get a special discount return ticket back to Tokyo. The two journeys must be completed within seven days and will cost 21,600 Yen (216 USD) but this also includes an additional one-day sightseeing pass around Kyoto.
Shinkansen trains are obviously an incredible way of travelling but are by no means the only trains possible in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. Within Tokyo and Kyoto are a staggering number of local train lines which extend far beyond the city. Use www.hyperdia.com and de-select everything but ‘local trains’ to find a possible route between the two. However, it is a tough journey; taking around 8 hours one-way, involving a lot of changes and it won’t cost much less than the Shinkansen.
The cheapest way of travelling via local trains is to obtain a ‘Seishun 18 Kippu’ which is sold by JR and available periodically throughout the year (March 1st – April 10th, July 20th – September 10th and December 10th – January 10th). This 11,850 Yen (ca. 118 USD) ticket allows for 5 non-consecutive days of travel along any JR lines.
Willer Express Bus Pass
For anyone travelling around Japan for an extended period of time and looking to save money, the best choice is to use the extensive bus network available through Willer Express. They offer various packages but the best-value options are a three day pass for 10,000 Yen (ca. 100 USD) or a seven day for 15,000 (ca. 150 USD).
Best way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto
Clearly, there are a myriad of options available, all of which depend on one’s overall travel itinerary and preferences. Ultimately, the fastest and most convenient way to get to Kyoto is via a Nozomi Shinkansen, taking a mere 2 hours and 20 minutes. The cheapest way to complete the journey (apart from walking) is almost always with Willer Express buses. Flying is a good option for those arriving in Narita and wanting to get to Kyoto as soon as possible, while renting a car is sure to be a memorable trip (and a cheap one) for a small group. Choose between saving money or saving time but be rest assured, there are no bad choices.