When visiting Japan, Tokyo and Kyoto are the most popular cities for sightseeing. Typically, there are three options for traveling between these cities: the Japanese bullet train (Shinkansen), highway buses, and airplanes.
Of these, the easiest and most common choice is the Shinkansen. That being said, the other two options may be worth considering, depending on your budget and schedule. In this article, we will provide a comprehensive guide to help you make a decision on which one is right for you, taking into consideration costs, travel times and other factors.
Option 1: Shinkansen
Japan’s Shinkansen lines are named after their destination region, with the line that goes to Kyoto called the Tokaido Sanyo Line. On this line, you can choose between Nozomi, Hikari and Kodama Shinkansen.
Nozomi is the fastest, with the journey from Tokyo to Kyoto taking around two hours and 10 minutes. Hikari is the second-fastest, taking around two hours and 40 minutes. Kodama stops at all stations and, as a result, the travel time is the longest at around three hours and 40 minutes.
Though the journeys differ in duration, their costs are quite similar, ranging from 13,320 yen to 19,040 yen, depending on your baggage and seat type. While it can be a little costly, we do recommend traveling on the Shinkansen due its efficiency and reliability.
The Shinkansen is famous, both in Japan and around the world, for its punctuality. Unless it is disrupted by adverse weather alerts, the system always runs on time. The journey is usually comfortable, with little to no shaking, and the seats offer generous legroom. As with the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, they run every three minutes or so, allowing you to easily plan your trip.
Every car is equipped with accessible washrooms that include diaper-changing tables and each seat comes with a phone charging outlet. Those traveling with big luggage (including suitcases with overall dimensions less than 160 cubic centimeters) can use the overhead storage. Snack carts are available on the Nozomi and Hikari trains, and you can buy regular snacks and local lunch boxes during the journey.
accessible lavatories, complete with baby changing facilities.
There are Ordinary and Green cars available on the Shinkansen, with the option for either reserved or non-reserved seats. The Green car is equivalent to business class on airplanes and comes with larger, more comfortable seats. While the Ordinary cars are arranged in rows of 3 + 2 seats, green cars feature a 2 + 2 seating pattern.
Reserved seats are generally a few hundred yen more expensive than non-reserved seats, and Japan Rail Pass holders can book a seat free of charge. Non-reserved seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Reserving your seat in advance will give you peace of mind and is especially recommended if you are traveling with a group. It’s also a good idea if you are traveling during busy seasons, such as Golden Week (roughly April 29 - May 5th), the Obon holiday (roughly August 13th-16th), and the New Year holidays (roughly December 29th - January 3rd).
The standard cars
The green cars
How to buy tickets
Generally speaking, you can purchase tickets at counters called “Midori no Madoguchi” and from ticket machines at major Japan Rail stations. Whether you’re going to the machine or the counter, you will be asked the following information: number of passengers, date of your travel and time, departure station, destination station, car type (Ordinary or Green), and seat type (reserved or non-reserved).
Using the official website for the Tokaido Sanyo Shinkansen SmartEX, you can secure your Shinkansen tickets prior to arriving in Japan. You will be asked to make an account and can make reservations up to a month in advance. Tickets can be collected at any Shinkansen ticket machine using the QR code that will be given to you when you complete your reservation. Please note that you will also be asked to type in your SmartEX account password.
Suica or Pasmo (rechargeable transport cards) are very useful during a visit to Japan and can technically be used to ride Shinkansen. However, to do this does require a complicated set-up process, so it’s better to stick with the paper Shinkansen tickets if you are only in the country for a short time.
Top tip for choosing your seats on the Tokaido Sanyo Shinkansen: If you select a seat on the right-hand side of the train (seats F or D on Green Cars), you will be able to see Mt. Fuji as it passes by. This Japanese icon is best viewed when the Shinkansen is passing Shin-fuji Station in Shizuoka.
Midori no Madoguchi
How to get to the Shinkansen platform
Tokyo Station is roughly divided into two sides - Marunouchi and Yaesu - and Shinkansen trains depart from the Yaesu side. On the ground floor, there are several Yaesu gates - Yaesu North, Yaesu Central, Yaesu South, and Nihonbashi - and any of these are fine for accessing the Shinkansen.
When you go through the Shinkansen ticket gate, make sure you have your paper tickets with you. Passengers usually receive two tickets: a passenger ticket and an express ticket. Depending on the train you are traveling on, you may only receive one ticket.
In either case, you will have to insert your tickets into the machine and make sure you collect them again when your tickets come out the other side. When you have two tickets, you can insert them together into the machine.
When you arrive at Kyoto Station, you will need your tickets to leave the Shinkansen area. Kyoto Station has two main exits: Central and Hachijo. If you are using city buses, taxis or trains for onward travel, it’s best to use the Central exit. If you are riding the subway, then use the Hachijo East exit.
Shinkansen ticket barriers
Shinkansen ticket barriers
For a smooth boarding experience on the Shinkansen, check your ticket to see the departure time, train name, car number, and seat number. Electronic sign boards can also be found throughout the station with information about upcoming trains. Once you arrive at the platform, look for the electronic display to find the location of your car and wait in the appropriate lane printed on the platform.
the electronic display
First and last trains
One of the many advantages of using the Shinkansen is the convenience of early and late trains. The earliest Shinkansen leaves Tokyo Station at 6:00 am, arriving at Kyoto Station at 8:08 am. The latest Shinkansen leaves Tokyo at 9:24 pm, arriving at Kyoto Station at 11:31 pm.
Option 2: Highway bus
A highway bus might be a good option if you are traveling on a budget. While it takes between seven and nine hours to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto, you can save money on accommodation by opting for a night bus. Night buses usually depart from Shinjuku or Tokyo Station between 9 pm and midnight, and arrive at Kyoto Station around 5 am or 6 am the next morning.
Prices vary depending on the season and the day of the week. But as of June 2023, you can find buses as cheap as 4,000 yen. Please note that prices can go up during peak periods, including weekends, so avoid these times if possible.
Prices will also increase if you are looking for privacy and room to spread out. Companies such Willer Express offer more legroom and shell-shaped individual seats, which are priced around 10,000 to 20,000 yen. Reservations can be made online and seats are assigned in advance. For the safety of female travelers, some companies offer women-only buses or women-only areas, with the latter meaning that a female passenger will only sit next to a male passenger if they are traveling together in a group.
Some buses are equipped with bathrooms and most services will make a few stops during the trip for bathroom breaks. If you are not used to traveling long distances, it’s wise to use these breaks to stretch your body, helping to avoid any stiffness later.
Option 3: Airplane
There’s no airport in Kyoto but you can fly from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Osaka International Airport with All Nippon Airways (ANA), Japan Airlines (JAL), or Star Flyer. Ticket prices start from around 10,000 yen and the flight takes between an hour and an hour and half. To reach Kyoto from Osaka International Airport, it’s around an hour by monorail and train or you can take a limousine bus.
Jetstar and Peach offer regular flights from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport to Kansai International Airport. Ticket prices start from around 4,000 yen and the flight takes about an hour and a half. To get to Kyoto from Kansai International Airport, it’s a two-hour journey by train or an hour and a half by bus.
Flying to Kyoto from Tokyo can be time-consuming, particularly when you consider the time it takes to travel to and from the airports, as well as complete check-in formalities. However, as both of Kyoto’s access airports are located in Osaka, this option may be suitable for someone who also wants to stop in Osaka.