Battle of the Japanese Gems: Tokyo vs Kyoto

Battle of the Japanese Gems: Tokyo vs Kyoto

When planning a holiday to Japan, two cities will be jostling for a spot on your itinerary: Tokyo and Kyoto. And thanks to Japan’s unbeatable public transport, it’s easy to enjoy both in one visit. However, we know that the Tokyo vs Kyoto question poses a dilemma if you have limited time or you’re dropping into the country as part of a bigger trip. Read on to discover how this Japanese duo match up and make your pick. As for us, we love them both (spoiler alert: you will too).


Getting There & Around

Many Japanese journeys begin at one of Tokyo’s two international airports; Haneda or Narita. If arriving from elsewhere in Japan, most shinkansen (bullet train) lines lead to Tokyo. Once you’re in the city, a dense network of train and subway lines will take you wherever you want to go – and always precisely on time. Kyoto doesn’t have an airport and the closest one is in Osaka, a one-hour bus journey away. If you arrive in Japan via Tokyo, then bullet train is the best way to reach Kyoto; the super-fast shinkansen connects the two cities in just three hours. Once in the city, public transport consists of two subway lines – north to south and east to west – and lots of buses. The relatively small subway system isn’t a problem though, as Kyoto is compact enough to explore by bike or on foot.

Tokyo wins this round thanks to its two international airports and vast public transport system. Tokyo 1, Kyoto 0.


Culture Clash

Tokyo conjures thoughts of neon nightscapes, towering skyscrapers and pedestrians pouring across the Shibuya Crossing. But it’s so much more than a megacity. There’s magic in this metropolis; timeless temples, kabuki (theatrical dance) performances, yokocho (alleyways) crammed with characterful bars – the list goes on. Vast, complex, and at times surprisingly tranquil for the world’s most populated city, it’s tricky not to fall for Tokyo’s charms. While Japan’s capital can feel like a futuristic fever dream, a trip to Kyoto is like slipping back through time. The city was Japan’s capital until 1868, so shrines, palaces and castles are dotted throughout the compact city – but the temples are the real talk of the town. There are more than 1,600 to discover, including Kinkaku-ji, the iconic Golden Pavilion overlooking a peaceful pond. Meanwhile, the Gion quarter – known for geisha (professional entertainers trained in traditional Japanese arts) and antique teahouses – is a picturesque place to wander, especially after dark when the lanterns are lit. Japan’s current capital might feel lightyears ahead in the Tokyo vs Kyoto debate, but the old capital has its own modern moments. Stepping from the shinkansen, Kyoto Station greets you like a contemporary cathedral of steel and glass. It’s something of a destination in itself, complete with a shopping mall and movie theatre, but the best part is the rooftop Sky Garden on the 15th floor, which offers (free) views of this beguiling city.

It's almost too close to call, but Kyoto just edges Tokyo here – a temple-tastic beauty that harks back to simpler times. 1-1.


Eating & Sleeping

Japan is heaven for the hungry (or thirsty). Sushi, sashimi, sake – listing all our favourites may take a while. Tokyo holds a Guinness World Record for most Michelin-starred restaurants in one city (208), so you couldn’t be in a better place to sample the best of Japan’s world-famous cuisine. Although we’d argue that picking your perfect noodle soup from a ticket machine outside a busy ramen-ya (ramen shop) can’t be beaten. Once your belly is full and it’s time to retire, Tokyo has everything from budget hostels and international chains to cosy (or do we mean claustrophobic?) capsule hotels. Visitors to Kyoto can also pick from luxury hotels or more low-key lodgings, but we recommend a ryokan (traditional inn), where you can soak in an onsen (hot spring bath) and sleep on a fold-away futon in a tatami-matted room. When it comes to food in Kyoto, you’ll find all the Japanese delights that made you book your trip, as well as kaiseki ryori, a multi-course meal where diners sample subtle flavours and seasonal ingredients. This elaborate eating experience is offered by local restaurants, however if you’re staying at a ryokan then a kaiseki dinner will typically be included.

Tokyo offers almost-endless options for eating and sleeping, whatever your budget or the desires of your belly, so it takes another point. 2-1 to Tokyo.


Don’t Go Home Without

It might seem like a cliché to join the tourists, shoppers and salarymen scrambling across Shibuya Crossing, but gliding over the world’s busiest intersection alongside hundreds of your fellow humans is a strangely serene and soothing experience. Go at dusk, when the neon signs glow against a soft sky and the crossing is at its busiest. This might be one of the only places you’ll ever visit where busier equals better. And in Kyoto? We were going to award top spot to Fushimi Inari-taisha, the shrine where thousands of red torii (traditional gates) lead up a wooded mountainside, but instead we’re keeping it simple. Before you leave Kyoto, hire a bike. It’s the best way to explore, with flat, safe, and well-maintained roads; courteous drivers; and quiet routes that even less confident cyclists can happily navigate. Travelling by bike is also brilliant for ticking off a few of those 1,600 temples.

Both cities make a strong claim for the final point, however pedalling between the pagodas and shrines of Kyoto’s temples is an experience that stirs the soul. That makes Tokyo vs Kyoto a draw at 2-2; perhaps the fairest result in this friendly contest between two dream destinations.


Header Image © Zoe Fidji