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Tokyo vs Kyoto

Tokyo vs Kyoto

By Albee NingUpdated Oct. 25, 2022

Kyoto was Japan's capital and the residence of emperors from 794 until 1868 and Tokyo is Japan's current capital and the world's most populous metropolis. When traveling to Japan, it is recommended to visit both of them but if you only have a short time, you may be wondering which one to visit.

Here, we've compiled some of the major differences between Tokyo and Kyoto that should be helpful for you to make a decision.

Tokyo and Kyoto Comparison Overview

  Tokyo Kyoto
History and Culture Political and economic capital, modern with neon lights and skyscrapers Traditional Japanese cultural center with temples and shrines.
Things to Do and See Tokyo Skytree, Sensoji, Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo Disney Resort, manga and anime, Ginza, Tsukiji Outer Market, and making sushi Kiyomizudera, the Golden Pavilion, Nijo Castle, Gion, Fushimi Inari, Arashiyama, and geisha
Excursions Yokohama, Kamakura, Mount Fuji, the Fuji Five Lakes, and Nikko Osaka, Nara, Hiroshima, Himeji, Kobe, and Uji
Food A variety of international foods, Michelin-starred food, and typical Japanese food including nigiri-zushi, tempura, soba, ramen, chankonabe, and monjayaki Typical traditional Japanese foods and tea, such as kaiseki-ryori, shojin ryori, and obanzai-ryori
Shopping Anime goods, traditional crafts, trendy fashion, and branded goods in Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, and Ginza Kyoto is a great place to buy traditional and modern Japanese goods
Accommodation Widest range of clean and comfortable hotels Traditional Japanese inns.
Travel Convenience It has the best public transportation systems It is easy to get around using public transportation and under your own steam.

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1. History and Culture: Modern Tokyo vs Traditional Kyoto

Tokyo

Tokyo, Japan skyline Tokyo skyline

After WWII, Tokyo was almost destroyed, especially its traditional buildings, so now it has become a new, modern, and bustling city. After the Second World War bombings, it became the political and economic capital of Japan.

Now, Tokyo is a shining example of prosperity and it has a mixed culture combining pop, geek, high-tech, and history, which is the best choice for those who love kawaii, anime, and robots.

Kyoto

Kyoto streetsKyoto streets

Established as the imperial capital by Emperor Kammu in 794, Kyoto served as Japan's capital for over 1,000 years and has remained unaffected by modernity, having retained its traditions and cultures. It is known as Japan's culture king with over 2,000 temples and shrines.

It feels like a time capsule when traveling in Kyoto, especially when walking along the cobbled streets of Gion with its tempting tea shops and beguiling geisha.

2. Things to Do and See: Pop and High-Tech vs Geisha

Tokyo

Tokyo is a fantastic city with ultratraditional to hypermodern features.

We recommend a 3-day stay for a Tokyo city highlights tour.

On day 1, you can experience modern Tokyo on the west side by visiting Meiji Shrine and Omotesando, which is famous for its cool shops. Then visit Shibuya and Ginza to explore the big department stores and boutiques, and head for Roppongi district for the nightlife.

Meiji ShrineMeiji Shrine

On day 2, you can explore traditional Tokyo by starting your trip at Tsukiji Outer Market to try fresh seafood sushi, and then you can head to Sensoji and the nearby Asakusa Shrine. Then go to Tokyo National Museum and Edo-Tokyo Museum to learn more about Tokyo’s history. Visit Tokyo Skytree in the late afternoon for a panoramic view of the city.

On day 3, you can explore the Imperial Palace by walking around the grounds and enjoying views of the lovely moats, bridges, and walls. Then enjoy shopping and dining in Shinjuku. If you are interested in high-tech entertainment, you can try having dinner at Robot Restaurant, which is also located in Shinjuku.

If you have more time in Japan, spend a day at Tokyo Disneyland or Tokyo DisneySea, which is especially recommended when you’re traveling with children. Alternatively, you can consider a side trip to Yokohama, Kamakura, and Nikko or a relaxing trip to Mount Fuji and the Fuji Five Lakes to enjoy an onsen.

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Kyoto

Kyoto is famous for its temples, shrines, and Japanese culture. Two days are enough for you to experience the traditional Kyoto.

You can start your Kyoto tour in Kiyomizudera, which is the most celebrated temple in Japan, and then explore Nishiki Market, which is known as "Kyoto's Kitchen". Then, visit Fushimi Inari, which is famous for having thousands of vermilion torii gates. You can immerse yourself in the Japanese arts by wearing a traditional kimono while touring around Kyoto or taking part in a Japanese tea ceremony.

KiyomizuderaKiyomizudera

On day 2, you can head for Arashiyama and visit Tenryuji, enjoy a relaxing walk in Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, drink green tea, and enjoy a sweet at Okochi Sanso Villa. You can also experience geisha entertainment, such as watching geisha dances or enjoying tea and sweets with the maiko or geiko.

Kyoto is a great hub for traveling around the area so if you've got a few days in Kyoto, you can do a day trip to Osaka, Nara, Hiroshima, Himeji, and Kobe.

3. Food: Variety of Food vs Traditional Japanese Foods

Tokyo

Tokyo wins the title for having the best and widest variety of food in Japan and it has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world.

You can find delicacies originating throughout Japan from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Many chefs and restaurants from all over the world have set up shop there so you can have the chance to taste a large variety of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, and Western food, among others.

International cuisine is mainly found in the Azabu, Hiroo, and Roppongi districts, such as Shin Okubo (Tokyo’s Koreatown), Kagurazaka (the French Quarter), and Ikebukuro (Chinatown).

Of course, Tokyo also has famous local and regional Japanese specialty dishes from the Edo period, such as nigiri-zushi, tempura, soba, ramen, chankonabe, and monjayaki.

Kyoto

Kyoto's food, like the city itself, is mainly about traditional Japanese cuisine. Kyoto is famous for its tofu, its sublime kaiseki cuisine, and its Buddhist vegetarian fare.

Traditional Japanese cuisineTraditional Japanese cuisine

The most popular specialties and popular dishes include kaiseki-ryori, shojin ryori, obanzai-ryori, tofu, and yudofu. Kyoto is also a great place to try Japanese gastronomy with dishes that include sushi, tempura, soba, udon, ramen, unagi, and okonomiyaki.

The Pontocho nightlife district, Gion district, and Kyoto Station area offer a wide range of interesting dining opportunities. Gion Karyo is a nice kaiseki restaurant in the heart of Gion and the prices vary from 45–200 USD per person. Please note that this restaurant is closed on Wednesdays.

4. Shopping: Trendy and Branded Goods vs Traditional and Modern Japanese Goods

Tokyo

ShibuyaShibuya

As one of the world's best shopping cities, the shops are much bigger and the selection is wider in Tokyo. Electronics, colorful anime goods, traditional crafts, trendy fashion, and branded goods are the most popular things you can buy in Tokyo.

The most famous shopping places include Ginza, Shibuya, Harajuku, Akihabara, and Shinjuku and each of them has its own character and specialties. For example, Shibuya is the center of youth fashion, Ginza is famous for upmarket shopping, and Akihabara is famous for its many electronics shops.

Kyoto

bunraku puppet dollon a white back ground.Traditional Japanese goods

As a traditional Japanese cultural center, Kyoto is a great place to buy traditional and modern Japanese goods, such as kimonos, green tea, woodblock prints, Japanese paper, and ceramics.

It’s smaller than Tokyo, making it easier for shopping, and the shopping areas are within walking distance of the main subway stations. The most popular shopping areas are Shijo-dori and Nishiki Market.

You can find plenty of modern fashions, electronics, and camera goods at the department stores, such as Daimaru Department Store and Takashimaya Department Store.

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5. Accommodation: Clean and Comfortable Hotel vs Traditional Japanese Inn

Tokyo

Tokyo has a great variety of business and budget hotels as well as hostels. You can find a range of lodging choices in Shinjuku, Roppongi, Ginza, Asakusa, and near Tokyo Station. On average, 3-star hotels in Tokyo cost 100–180 USD per night and 4-star hotels cost 150–250 USD per night. If you're looking for something really special, a 5-star hotel in Tokyo costs over 300 USD per night.

Shinjuku is the most popular district for accommodation in Tokyo because of its convenient location and abundance of shopping, entertainment, and sightseeing opportunities. Some examples of accommodation include Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo, Park Hyatt Tokyo, and Shinjuku Washington Hotel.

Kyoto

traditional Japanese style roomTraditional Japanese style room

Kyoto has a huge range of hotels to suit all budgets and tastes and it is the best place to try a ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn where you can sleep on a futon on a tatami mat floor in the Japanese-style building.

The ryokans in Kyoto are divided into three categories:

  • Budget: less than 100 USD per person per night
  • Mid-budget: between 100 and 200 USD per person per night
  • Luxury: over 200 USD per person per night

Tawaraya and Hiiragiya are the best ryokans in Kyoto, offering a perfect service, lovely gardens, beautiful rooms, superb food, and a convenient downtown location. If you are on a budget, opt for one of the best mid-priced ryokans, such as Ryokan Hirashin, or one of the best budget ryokans, such as Ryokan Shimizu or Ryokan Uemura.

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6. Travel Convenience: Both Have Efficient Public Transportation Systems

Tokyo

Tokyo has the world's best public transportation systems, which include trains, subway trains, buses, and taxis. The well-developed and efficient train and subway networks are the best way to get around Tokyo, especially for tourists.

The most useful train line is the JR Yamanote Line, which connects Tokyo's major city centers. It passes important stops that lead to Meiji Shrine, Shibuya, Tokyo Tower, Ginza, and the Imperial Palace.

Although Tokyo has frequent public transportation services, please avoid using the subway and trains during the rush hours (07:30–09:30 and 17:00–20:00) as they are overcrowded during these times.

Kyoto

Kyoto is smaller than Tokyo so it is especially easy to get around on public transportation or under your own steam, such as on foot or by bike.

There are two subway lines and six train lines in Kyoto. You can reach Arashiyama, Uji, Tofukuji, and Nara by train from Kyoto Station. With the subway lines, you can visit downtown Kyoto easily, such as Kyoto Gosho, Daitokuji temple complex, Nijo Castle, and Pontocho.

When you are in the downtown areas of Arashiyama and Higashiyama, walking is the best way to get around as they have the highest concentration of dining, shopping, and entertainment opportunities.

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Conclusions

You may enjoy Tokyo more if:

  • You prefer big cities, modern technology, nightlife, and a huge selection of restaurants
  • You are traveling with young people or kids

You may enjoy Kyoto more if:

  • You like temples, shrines, gardens, and geisha
  • You are looking for a more relaxing trip
  • You want to try typical traditional Japanese foods
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