The Tokyo-Kyoto journey

Separated by about 500 kilometers, Tokyo and Kyoto are generally the first visited cities in Japan. The question of the ride between these two destinations is therefore unavoidable.

The Tokaido road

It is one of the most taken road of the archipelago, since the 17th century, during the era of feudal Japan. Called 東海道 Tokaido, the "road of the East sea" remains the most famous of the Gokaido, the five big transportation roads created for the development of the new capital: Edo (the former name of Tokyo). Originally, the route starts from Nihonbashi bridge in the heart of the capital, to end at Kamo river's Sanjo bridge, in the center of Kyoto.

In the 1830s, Japanese artist Hiroshige highlighted, within his magnificent ukiyo-e style prints, the fifty-three middle stations composing the road.

Today, JR (Japan Railway) group uses the Tokaido name for its two local and high-speed train lines linking Tokyo to the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and also Kobe, among others. In parallel of the railways, there is an important highway or also a smaller car road following the Pacific coast.

Shinkansen

The high-speed train guarantees the fastest and most comfortable Tokyo-Koto journey, with an average duration of less than three hours. Taking the train happens to be one of the most convenient way of travelling as the liaison happens between the two main stations, strategically located in the heart of the two cities.

The trains circulate everyday, for about one to two departures per hour, starting at 6-6:30 am and this until 8-8:30 pm. The journey is direct and serves the main train stations of Tokyo, Shin-Yokohama, Odawara (useful to reach Hakone), Nagoya, Kyoto and Shin-Osaka, and some Shinkansen continue directly on the Sanyo line, up to Okayama. The bonus of this travel is the view on Mt Fuji, which appears when the weather is clear, on the right side while departing from Tokyo (E and D seats), and after less than one hour when you get close to Odawara

Several non-reserved cars are in the train; it is therefore not necessary to reserve a seat in advance, or only during the Japanese holiday periods, when the trains are crowded.

The very effective and punctual service explains the high cost of using railway transportation. Count ~US$ 136.00 for a single trip from the capital to the former imperial city.

Thereby, the Japan Rail Pass happens to be more cost saving for non-Japanese tourists. For a duration of 7, 14 or 21 days, this Pass allows you to travel without limitation on the country's JR lines. In comparison, the 7 days ordinary class Pass that we can find on Internet for about [tarif-jrp-7] is thus almost completely profitable with one Tokyo-Kyoto round trip (and all the other lines you will use during these 7 days are free). 

N.B: the national JR Pass is the only one covering the Tokyo-Kyoto trip, none of the regional pass do it (as you will travel from the Kanto to the Kansai regions).

Local train

The passengers (a lot) less in a hurry can choose the JR Tokaido Line going down to Kobe.

Its advantages are the reasonable price and the beauty of regional landscapes that you will cross. The rails follow the marine coast of the Pacific ocean and offer a pleasant travel in time. Discovering the small Japanese villages with quiet atmospheres becomes another good occasion to choose this option. 

However, the path is a lot more slow and there is no choice but to change several times, with an average of 4 to 6 more in between stops, notably at Atami, Hamamatsu and Maibara stations, for a complete duration of the trip of two to three times the Shinkansen. We almost lose a full day of travel.

The Seishun 18 Kippu (S18K) ticket happens to be an interesting alternative from the JR Pass, for the regional train. With a flat rate of 11.850¥ (~US$ 118.50) for 5 days, one day of unlimited travels ends up at 2.370¥ (~US$ 23.70). However, it is a seasonal ticket, only available during few weeks in spring, summer and winter, and also not compatible with the Shinkansen. It is therefore important to get all the information in advance about the strict conditions of purchase and use. 

Night bus

The trophy of the cheapest travel is given to night buses, during which you will also save onto one night of accomodation.

The economy you make does not mean less security. Two drivers, frequent stopovers in highway rest areas, respected speed limit, cleanliness of the seats. No risk to find yourself in an embarrassing situation. Moreover, in case of difficult climate conditions like a typhoon, the personnel will inform you in real time. 

Comfort options can be chosen, increasing the final price such as: isolated seat, Wifi access, toilets on board, blanket, width and tilt of the seat…

At its fastest, the bus leaves around 10pm from the capital (Tokyo or Shinjuku stationà and arrives around 5:30am in Kyoto.

Several coaches companies share the market. The most famous one for foreign travelers is Willer Express which offers online reservation quite easy and in English. The Japan Bus Pass, valid from 3 to 7 days, allows the travelers to use their expended road network across the archipelago.

Flight

Flying induces a plane trip between Tokyo and Osaka airports, then a shuttle (JR train or bus) to reach Kyoto. The journey in the sky is quite fast: count 1h to 1h30 depending on the airports (Narita or Haneda / Osaka-Kansai or Itami). However, the total duration of the trip (door to door) doubles, to finally reach 3 hours, without counting the waiting time at the airport, and the whole journey ends up being slower than the Shinkansen.

The prices vary accordingly with flying companies: the national JAL and ANA happen to be the the most expensive (around 120US$) while low-cost companies (like Peach or Jetstar) offer a starting price as low as 50US$ (add fees for luggage). The first pass proposed by JAL and ANA start from around ~US$ 108.00 and are interesting for domestic short flights, but sometimes with very complicated and restrictive conditions.

It can also be smart to choose flying for travelers already in transit, and so inside an airport, and for those not having planned another mode of transportation than this simple trip.

Car rental

An ultimate solution for the most adventurous travelers, knowing how to drive on the left side. Just like the regional train, the most rapid itinerary goes through Tomei highway, a beautiful coastal scenic road. In addition, the car offers a complete freedom on the hours, times and places for resting.

Driving in Japan sets several rules to follow, including the obligation for strangers to have their driving licence translated in English, and respecting the speed limits (100km/h or ~62mph on the highway).

The Tokyo-Kyoto journey by car ends up being the most expensive mean of transportation for a single person. It is hard to fully calculate it, several criteria being specific to each driver. However to give you an estimate, here are the reservation fees and prices of Japanese highways:

  • ~US$ 400.00 for a full day of renting a compact vehicle (5 seats), ideal for a couple with luggages (taken in Tokyo and returned in Kyoto);
  • ~US$ 100.00 per ride for the highways’ tolls;
  • ~US$ 1.30 per litre of gasoline in average (January 2017).

Adding to this, you have to think about parking you car once arrived. Especially in big cities, the parking question must be thought in advance: parking included in the hotel or reserved in advance on a private parking lot, with sometimes a high fee.

With this in mind, the costs and necessary processes, moving by car should rather be integrated in your whole travel (mostly if you are targeting deep countryside) and should not be chosen as a simple, punctual mean of transportation. By renting through the English-speaking renting website Tabirai, one day of rent ends up being at around ~US$ 77.00 for a compact car, returning it in the same city. 

Wrapping up

Mean of transportation Compagny Duration Average price / ride / person Eligible Pass
Nozomi Shinkansen JR ~2h15 ~US$ 139.10 None
Hikari Shinkansen JR ~2h45 ~US$ 136.00 JR Pass
Kodama Shinkansen JR ~3h45 ~US$ 136.00 JR Pass
Tokaido regional train JR ~8h30 ~US$ 82.10 S18K
Night bus Willer Express ~7h30 ~US$ 58.00 Japan Bus Pass
Flight Jetstar ~1h30 + ~1h30
(not including
waiting time
)
~US$ 50.00
(not including
transfers to/from
airports
)
JR Pass for transfers
to/from airports
Flight JAL ou ANA ~1h + ~1h30
(not including
waiting time)
~US$ 133.00 
(not including
transfers to/from
airports)
oneworld Yokoso/Visit
Japan Fare for JAL or
ANA Experience
JAPAN Fare
Car rental Nissan Rent a Car ~6h
(not including
resting time
)
~US$ 500.00
(not including
gasoline)
None

 

The given information in this table is obviously valid for the return trip (Kyoto to Tokyo)

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Posted by Gael
Editor in chief
Gael is founder and responsible for Kanpai's publication. In love with Japanese culture, he travels to Japan regularly since 2003 and shares his information and tips.
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