Japan, Land of the Rising Sun. One of the most popular destinations in Asia, Japan is the perfect mix of old and new for any traveller. If you have a limited amount of time there, planning your holiday can be tricky – especially if deciding between Tokyo and Kyoto!
Both cities have capital roots. Kyoto was previously the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years. It is steeped in history with a very traditional atmosphere. Many traditional sites that are integral to Japan’s history are found here, with the city home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Tokyo then became the capital city in 1868, sharply contrasted against Kyoto with its metropolitan vibes. This modern city is at the forefront of many worldwide trends such as technology, music and food. Read on to figure out how to pick between Tokyo and Kyoto when travelling to Japan.
Tokyo is made up of many definitive neighbourhoods so naturally, the city limits are spread over a greater area. Kyoto is approximately a third of the size of Tokyo, making it a compact city and much easier to explore if you are short on time.
Given its popularity, you should expect crowds when exploring Japan. Tokyo and Kyoto have vastly different-sized populations (9 million and 1.47 million respectively) so don’t be surprised by the sheer number of people – both locals and travellers alike.
Since Tokyo is the capital city, it is only natural that the average cost of living and wage is higher. Therefore, Tokyo is roughly 30% more expensive than Kyoto in terms of accommodation, transport, meals, and so on.
Traditional vs modern
There’s no doubt about it – Kyoto holds the upper hand when it comes to traditional Japanese culture. It developed into a culturally rich area during its capital city reign with well over 1,600 temples and shrines. During WWII, Kyoto remained relatively unscathed whereas Tokyo was heavily destroyed along with much of its traditional structures. Kyoto has a slower-paced vibe that stems from its traditional culture. You’ll be able to visit peaceful gardens and teahouses and may be lucky enough to spot geisha in the Gion district. The traditional architecture in Kyoto is second to none, with an official rule restricting buildings to be no taller than a 5-story pagoda.
On the flipside, Tokyo is abuzz with a real modern feel similar to the big-city giants of London and New York. From the bright lights of Akihabara, quirky neighbourhoods like Harajuku and the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, Shibuya, the energy is almost palpable.
Things to do
It really depends on what kind of traveller you are as to if Tokyo or Kyoto is better for you. If you love to jam pack activities into your itinerary, Tokyo may just be the ticket. The city is chock full of diverse restaurants, shops, bars, as well as a pumping night life (try the Roppongi area for high-end bars and clubs, or Shinjuku for a more laidback vibe). Museums are a-plenty in Tokyo, too. Book in for the iconic Ghibli Museum, choose one of the art galleries found in the Roppongi Art Triangle, or head to one of the museums found in Ueno Park. If you prefer to travel in a more relaxed fashion, we recommend Kyoto. While there are still all of the above activities in Tokyo found here, it is on a much smaller scale with fewer people.
We think Kyoto has the prime location for epic day trips. Take your pick from the nearby hot spots of Nara and its famous deer park, or the bamboo forest and quaint village of Arashiyama. If you want to travel further, there is also Himeji with its iconic castle; as well as Hiroshima and Osaka (however, these are better suited for longer stays). Never fear though if you choose Tokyo – Mount Fuji is a popular day trip that is a must-do!
Overall, Japan has an extremely high quality of food options – from its affordable konbini (convenience store) meals and snacks, to immaculately presented dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Either way, you can’t go wrong when choosing between Tokyo and Kyoto!
Tokyo is larger and more multicultural therefore it naturally has more food options. You can even find some good French and Italian restaurants here if that takes your fancy! If you’re on a budget, Tokyo is well-regarded for its izakaya (bar) culture. Similar to a Spanish tapas bar, izakayas are typically cosy in size, serving a variety of small dishes accompanied by a refreshing beverage. On the other end of the spectrum, Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world! As of November 2022, it had 263 Michelin stars.
Leaning on Kyoto’s traditional culture, you will mainly find a ‘simple food, done well’ ethos. Since it is landlocked, there is less fresh seafood on offer. Kyoto has a stronger café culture if you’re missing your daily flat white, and many restaurants feature a teishoku (set meal) concept where you will have a main dish with rice, miso soup, side dishes and pickled vegetables.
Japan is world-famous for its exceptional transport system. Both cities are extremely easy to get around with trains, bullet trains and buses (mainly in Kyoto) on regular timetables.
It all depends on the time of year that you are travelling to Japan. If visiting in winter, Kyoto is found in between mountains at a higher altitude than Tokyo, so is colder. However, if visiting in summer, Tokyo is much more humid with less greenery around for shade.
For the shopaholics, Japan is phenomenal. You can find practically anything and everything there if you know where to go. If you’re after the upscale and big-name brands, and electronics, Tokyo is the city for you; while Kyoto offers a wider variety of traditional items like pottery, kimonos and lacquerware.
We hope that this guide has helped you to pick between Tokyo and Kyoto. Japan has an abundance of wonderful cities to immerse yourself in so no matter what you pick, you can’t go wrong. Visit Japan on a Globus or Cosmos tour, or with an Independence by Globus city stay.