The Tokyo-Kyoto journey

Separated by about 500 kilometers, Tokyo and Kyoto are generally among tourists’ first destinations. The question of how to travel between these them is therefore unavoidable.

The Tokaido Road

The Tokaido Road ( 東海道 for the "Road of the East Sea") is one of the most traveled roads of the archipelago and has been in use since the 17th century, during the feudal era. It remains the most famous of the Gokaido, the five great transportation roads created for the development of the new capital Edo (now Tokyo). Originally, the route began at Nihonbashi Bridge in the heart of the capital, and ended at the Kamo River's Sanjo Bridge, in the center of Kyoto.

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

Today, the 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 addition to the railways, an important highway and a smaller road follow 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 is one of the most convenient means of travel as the journey takes place between the two cities’ major train stations.

The trains circulate every day, with about one to two departures per hour, starting at 6-6:30 am and continuing 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. Some Shinkansen continue directly on the Sanyo line, up to Okayama. An added bonus of this travel method is the view of Mt Fuji, which is visible in clear weather, on the right side while departing from Tokyo (E and D seats) and after less than one hour when nearing Odawara.

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

The effective and punctual service explains the high cost of using railway transportation. Count on spending about ~US$ 124.50 for a single trip from the capital to the former imperial city.

That said, the Japan Rail Pass is more cost effective 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. By comparison, the 7-day 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 use during these 7 days are free). 

Note: Only the national JR Pass covers the Tokyo-Kyoto trip. None of the regional pass do so, as you will travel between the Kanto and Kansai regions.

Local train

Passengers (a lot) less in a hurry can take the JR Tokaido Line going down to Kobe.

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

However, this route is a lot slower and there is no choice but to change trains several times, with an average of 4 to 6 more stops in between, notably at Atami, Hamamatsu and Maibara stations, for a complete travel duration of two to three times that of the Shinkansen- almost a full day of travel.

The Seishun 18 Kippu (S18K) ticket is an interesting alternative to the JR Pass, for the regional train. With a flat rate of ¥11,850 (~US$ 108.40) for 5 days, one day of unlimited travels costs ¥2,370 (~US$ 21.70). However, it is a seasonal ticket, only available during a 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 concerning the strict conditions governing the purchase and use of these passes. 

Night bus

The award for cheapest travel options goes to night buses, with which you will also save one night of accomodation.

Economy does not mean less security, however. Two drivers, frequent stopovers at highway rest areas, respect for speed limits and cleanliness of the seats mean that you run no risk of finding yourself in an embarrassing situation. Moreover, in case of difficult climate conditions like a typhoon, personnel will inform you in real time. 

Comfort options, such as isolated seats, Wi-Fi access, on-board toilets, blankets, and width and tilt of the seat are available, increasing the final price.

At its fastest, the bus leaves around 10:00 pm from the capital (Tokyo or Shinjuku Station) and arrives around 5:30 am in Kyoto.

Several coach companies share the market. The most famous option for foreign travelers is Willer Express which offers easy online reservations in English. The Japan Bus Pass, valid for 3 to 7 days, allows the travelers to use Willer Express’s expended road network across the archipelago.

Flight

Flying includes 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: 1 hour to 1 hour and a half depending on the airports (Narita or Haneda / Osaka-Kansai or Itami). However, the total duration of the trip (door to door) can be up to 3 hours— without counting the waiting time at the airport— so the whole journey ends up being slower than the Shinkansen.

Prices vary between airlines: JAL and ANA are the most expensive (around US$ 120), while low-cost companies, such as Peach or Jetstar, offer starting price as low as US$ 50 (additional fees apply for luggage). The first passes proposed by JAL and ANA start from around ~US$ 98.80 and are interesting for domestic short flights, but sometimes have very complicated and restrictive conditions.

Flying can also be a smart choice for travelers already in transit, and for those not having planned another mode of transportation than this simple trip.

Car rental

Renting a car is the ultimate solution for adventurous travelers, who know how to drive on the left side of the road. Just like the regional train, the most rapid route goes through the Tomei highway, a beautiful coastal scenic road. In addition, driving a car offers a complete freedom in therm of hours, times and rest stops.

Drivers in Japan must follow several rules, including the obligation for strangers to have their driver licenses translated into English, and respecting the speed limits (100km/h or about 62mph on the highway).

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

  • ~US$ 366.00 for a full-day rental of a compact vehicle (5 seats), ideal for a couple with luggage (taken in Tokyo and returned in Kyoto);
  • ~US$ 91.50 per trip for the highway tolls;
  • ~US$ 1.20 per liter of gasoline on average (January 2017).

Additionally, you have to think about parking the car once you arrive. Especially in big cities, the parking problem must be solved  in advance: parking included with a hotel or reserved in advance with a private parking lot, sometimes incurs a high fee.

Considering the costs and necessary processes, traveling by car should rather be integrated into your whole trip (mostly if you are visiting the countryside) and should not be chosen as a simple, punctual means of transportation. Using the English-speaking rental website Tabirai, renting a compact car for one day and returning it in the same city costs around ~US$ 70.50. 

Wrapping up

Means of transportation Compagny Duration Average price / ride / person Eligible Pass
Nozomi Shinkansen JR ~2h15 ~US$ 127.30 None
Hikari Shinkansen JR ~2h45 ~US$ 124.50 JR Pass
Kodama Shinkansen JR ~3h45 ~US$ 124.50 JR Pass
Tokaido regional train JR ~8h30 ~US$ 75.10 S18K
Night bus Willer Express ~7h30 ~US$ 53.10 Japan Bus Pass
Flight Jetstar ~1h30 + ~1h30
(not including
waiting time
)
~US$ 45.80
(not including
transfers to/from
airports
)
JR Pass for transfers
to/from airports
Flight JAL ou ANA ~1h + ~1h30
(not including
waiting time)
~US$ 121.70 
(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$ 457.50
(not including
gasoline)
None

 

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

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