Two images spring to mind when thinking about Japan. In one, a Geisha performs a dance along to a plucked koto as a kimono-clad audience sits on their knees while solemnly drinking green tea. In another, schoolgirls in sailor-uniforms giggle nervously as they pass drunken businessmen who belt out their weekly stress by singing J-pop into a karaoke machine.
Completely different images, yet both completely Japanese. You can find a mix of tradition and modern in almost every city in Japan, but Tokyo and Kyoto represent the poles of Japanese culture.
When thinking about making a trip to Japan, many people, especially first-time travelers, wonder, “Should I go to Tokyo or Kyoto?” Of course, every Japanese person, travel agent, blogger, or anyone who has ever set foot here will cry, “BOTH!” However, both might not be an option for all travelers.
If you choose to go to both cities other questions might be, “Should I spend more time in Tokyo or in Kyoto?” “Which city is more interesting?” “Is Kyoto better than Tokyo?” “IS TOKYO BETTER THAN KYOTO?” Depending on your personal interests, one might seem more enticing than the other. So, let’s compare which is better to visit: Tokyo or Kyoto.
Let’s revisit the two images I presented above—which feels more “Japanese” to you? That is to say, which part of Japanese culture interests you the most? Do you see yourself spending most of your time shopping, trying every food available, and hitting the nightlife? Or would you dive into the more artistic, cultural activities and try exploring the local history? If you can easily answer that question, you might already know whether Tokyo or Kyoto is better for you.
In Tokyo, the Mecca of Asian pop-culture, a blend of Western and Eastern brands, companies, and modern artists all vie to stake their worth into the soil—or, more fittingly, the concrete. As the Japanese center of commerce, skyscrapers stretch to the clouds, the swankiest cafés line the streets, and the hottest trends fill the stores. You can find several storied karaoke establishments and manga shops on every corner, and the smell of Japanese brews and ramen permeate the air at night.
Every intersection of Tokyo drips with neon while Kyoto’s Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines stand proud and tall, some almost the same as they did when they were built hundreds of years ago.
Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto was spared from air raids during World War II and has retained much of its cultural heritage from when the Imperial family first laid roots there. Walking through the streets of Kyoto feels like walking through the pages of a history book. The sky, undivided by tall buildings, is fresh and open and families in residential neighborhoods still live in machiya, traditional Japanese wooden townhouses.
It’s not uncommon to see Japanese people walking the streets in kimono and Showa Era gas lamps lighting shops and restaurants. Whether you wish to be swept along in the fast pace of modern Tokyo or long to immerse yourself in the history of traditional Kyoto might have a great impact on your decision, but let’s look at these other factors.
In general, most medium and big cities in Japan are easy to get around. Japan boasts one of the greatest public transit systems in the world. Bus stops are plentiful and easy to walk to, trains and subways usually run on time down to the minute (save for maintenance) and underground passages and exits open to the most popular destinations above. There’s a bit of a difference between getting around Tokyo and Kyoto, however.
Tokyo is comprised of 23 wards and 26 cities. The sprawl of Tokyo makes it impossible to see its entirety in just a short amount of time. Spatially, Tokyo stretches across 2,188km² (or about 845mi²)! That’s a lot of ground to cover, especially if it’s your first time in Tokyo. Despite the convenience of the JR lines and Tokyo Metro systems, transferring lines to get from one side of the city to the other takes time. But with some clever planning, you could book a hotel almost anywhere in Tokyo and still be able to access the city with little to no problems.
The JR Yamanote line circles the biggest, most popular stations, and most, if not all of these stations connect to or are near other lines. Buying a pass (such as the JR Pass) will eliminate the need to buy a ticket for each ride and will save you time and money.
Kyoto is often touted as a “small or medium-sized city,” but don’t let that fool you into thinking Kyoto is just a rural area with a small population. As one of the most popular destinations for domestic and international travelers, and as home to nearly 2 million residents, Kyoto can seem just as crowded as Tokyo during peak seasons. However, technically speaking, you could go from one side of Kyoto to the other in about an hour and a half.
Unlike Tokyo, it’s easier to get around Kyoto by city bus—you can buy a day pass at Kyoto’s central station for 600 JPY (about US $6.00). There’s little change in atmosphere between most of the districts in Kyoto, so it doesn’t feel as chaotic as Tokyo. However, this doesn’t mean that there is less to do and see.
With millions of citizens from all over the world, a selection of restaurants that range from Michelin-tier to lower than a greasy spoon, and as the premier place of fashion in Japan, there’s never a dull moment in Tokyo. Nearly every station has a unique flavor and reputation waiting to be explored.
Head to Shinjuku to see the bustling city center, or Shibuya for Tokyo’s famous nightlife and sightseeing spots. Akihabara has everything your heart desires in anime and manga goods, Ikebukuro is a less crowded and more condensed version of Shinjuku, or you can go to Ginza to shop for the latest fashions of all the big-name brands. Or, you can take a deep dive into finding the secret shops—mom-and-pop or seedy holes in the wall—that only the locals know.
In addition to thousand-year-old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, travelers to Kyoto can find many opportunities to learn about traditional arts like tea ceremony, kimono making, Kabuki, and more. Ancient cultural pieces fill the museums, daily markets fill the streets as they have for hundreds of years, and the sounds of monks and priests chanting and hitting a taiko drum fill the air.
Many of the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were built in different periods, so they have distinct architectural styles and collected treasures. You can see monkeys in Arashiyama, Geisha and Kabuki in Gion, and explore the local (albeit smaller) nightlife in Pontocho.
Tokyo usually averages as more expensive than Kyoto, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find great deals in Tokyo, and that you can’t break the bank in Kyoto. In Tokyo, hotel prices tend to be much more expensive than anywhere else in the country, and restaurants and bars sometimes sell food and drinks for higher prices, which often include a “seating fee.”
However, Tokyo has a great variety of business and budget hotels and hostels, so it’s not impossible to find a place to stay for as low as 2,000 JPY (about US $20.00) a night. Also, if you want to avoid high prices or “seating fees,” many restaurants and bars advertise their prices outside, and you can always ask the servers what the system of billing is before you order.
Kyoto averages as cheaper when taking food, lodging, and transportation into account. Keep in mind, however, many temples and shrines have entrance fees—usually no more than 500-600 JPY (about US $5.00-6.00)—so if you visit several of these places in one day you might spend more money faster than you anticipated.
Also, some of the more popular traditional activities such as wearing a kimono, seeing a Kabuki show, or watching a Geisha performance can get a little expensive depending on where and when you go. Restaurants and tea shops in Kyoto can also be pricey if you go for some of the traditional restaurants to eat delicacies like the desirable Kaiseki, a multi-course meal that’s part of Japanese haute cuisine. And speaking of food….
Japan has some of the best food on earth, and each region has its specialties. Tokyo wins the title for the best food in Japan, but only because so many chefs and restaurants from all over the world set up shop here. In Tokyo you can find delicacies originating from Hokkaido all the way to Okinawa—not to mention a large variety of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Western food and more.
For people on specialized diets due to allergies or lifestyle choices, it might prove easier to find a variety of restaurants in Tokyo. That’s not to say Kyoto doesn’t have delicious food, but if you’re looking for variety in your cuisine, or if you’re just sick of eating Japanese every day, Tokyo is the best place to find exactly what you want.
Kyoto’s food, like the city itself, is largely comprised of traditional Japanese foods. If you’re excited about eating Japanese food every day, then you’ll have no problem finding a great place to eat in Kyoto. While Kyoto doesn’t have as much variety in international foods as Tokyo, Kyoto’s food, and Kansai food, in general, is famously delicious among Japanese people.
Before leaving the Kansai region, don’t forget to try the street food such as Okonomiyaki and Monjayaki, savory pancakes, or Takoyaki, fried dough balls with octopus inside. In Kyoto you can get the best green tea, Yatsuhashi (a sweet made from pounded rice and a fruit or tea filling), and Yudoufu (tofu invented by Zen Buddhist monks and made from locally cultivated soybeans). Also, don’t pass up on trying Shojin Ryori, a Japanese Buddhist vegetarian meal.
You can mostly make this decision based on your flight schedule or itinerary. Most people fly into Narita International Airport near Tokyo when entering Japan, but don’t forget Japan has many international airports to choose from!
If you do have a choice, however, I would suggest Kyoto as a great start if you’re coming from far away and will have to deal with jet lag. Tokyo can overwhelm you with seemingly endless options when you’re dealing with exhaustion. Kyoto, on the other hand, feels a bit calmer and has plenty of interesting sightseeing areas within walking distance of each other. Even if you don’t need to worry about jet lag, it might be interesting to go through a time machine and see traditional Japan first before moving into modern Japan.
Flights from Tokyo to Kyoto and vice-versa run all day, every day. You can get fares as low as 5,000 JPY (about US $50.00) on one of Japan’s Low-Cost Carrier (LCC) companies for a one-way trip. However, going to the airport is never that convenient.
Travel time between Narita International Airport and Tokyo station takes about an hour or more whether you travel by the Narita Skyliner train, the Keisei Line, or the Narita Express Bus. Haneda Airport to Tokyo station only takes 30 minutes, but there aren’t as many flights that go through Haneda, so you might have a little trouble finding a flight that fits your schedule. Kansai International Airport is about an hour and a half from Kyoto station via the Haruka Line.
The most convenient way to get from Tokyo station to Kyoto station is by Shinkansen (bullet train). It takes around 2 hours and 15 minutes if you take the Nozomi Line. The Nozomi Line costs 13,080 JPY (about US $130.80) for a one-way trip in a non-reserved seat but you can’t use the Japan Rail Pass. You can, however, use the Japan Rail pass for the Hikari Line, which takes 2 hours and 30 minutes.
The first train from Tokyo to Kyoto station departs at 6:00 am, and the last train departs at 7:50 pm. Most trains are scheduled about twice an hour. The first train From Kyoto to Tokyo station departs at 6:14 am, and the last train departs at 9:30 pm. By taking the Shinkansen, you could potentially make your Kyoto or Tokyo tour a simple day trip! One word of caution: don’t take the Kodama Line if you’re in a hurry. It makes more frequent stops and runs slower.
If you’re a budget traveler, but you want to arrive in and depart from convenient locations like the Shinkansen does, consider taking an overnight bus like the JR Night Bus or the Willer Express Bus between Tokyo and Kyoto. The Willer Express buses take about 8 hours and cost 7,000 JPY (about US $70.00). You can catch them in Tokyo at the Willer Bus Terminal in West Shinjuku, and in Kyoto at the Gion Shijo Station. The JR Night Bus costs around 9,400 JPY (about US $94.00) and takes 7 hours and 30 minutes.
At Tokyo Station, they depart from the bus terminal outside of the Yaesu South Exit. At Kyoto Station, you can find them departing from the JR bus terminal in front of Kyoto station. Keep in mind, your big bags can be stored under the bus, but keep your carry bags light as there usually isn’t much room for storage on the bus.
Well, what do you think? Are you more confused, or ready to decide about whether Kyoto or Tokyo is better? It depends on what you want out of your Japan vacation, but if you have the chance, check out both of these major cities!