Tokyo Vs Kyoto: Must Read Guide For First Time Visitors

If you are planning a trip to Japan, or you are indeed just curious as to what this wonder of the Far East offers, then let’s take a look at two cities that share so much history, but could not be any different.

tokyo vs kyoto

Let us pit Kyoto vs Tokyo and see what are the major differences and where our journey will take us.

By the way, if you’re considering Osaka too, read this Kyoto vs Osaka article.

What Is Kyoto Like?

Kyoto is a city that is located on the island of Honshu, just northeast of Osaka. Once Japan’s Imperial capital, for over a thousand years, Kyoto has enormous historical significance and played a central role in the development of the country from 794 to as recently as 1868.

Kyoto cultural capital of Japan

As you would expect from a city that is still considered the cultural capital of Japan, there is an array of well-preserved ancient temples, spectacular gardens that stretch as far as the eye can see and everywhere you look, you will see a scattering of Machiya houses (traditional Japanese wooden townhouses).

Kyoto blends natural beauty with cultural charm and richness for those who want to experience a more traditional side of Japan.

What Is Tokyo Like?

Tokyo is the capital city of Japan and one of the most populous metropolises in the world. It is known for its cutting technology, vibrant atmosphere and a harmonious blend of tradition and moderninity.

Tokyo features towering skyscrapers alongside historic temples and shrines, bustling shopping districts like Harajuku and Shibuya and places of relaxatioon, such as Uneo Park.

Tokyo is a hub for entertainment, fashion, culinary diversity, fashion and unique cultural experiences, making it an exciting and dynamic destination.

Kyoto Vs Tokyo: Historical Attractions

Kyoto’s Historical Attractions

If Tokyo is the modern technology capital city of the world, then Kyoto is where we can delve deep into the past.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

There are a plethora of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines located around Kyoto and some areas and buildings are of notable interest.

In Kyoto, the Kinkaku-ji means Golden Pavillion in English and is a Zen Buddhist temple, wrapped in gold leaf that creates a stunning reflection on the pond that surrounds the temple.

The Kyoto Imperial Palace was the residence of the former ruling Emperor of Japan, the surrounding Imperial Park is accessible to the public, however, the inner palace requires a reservation in advance.

Kinkaku-ji Temple with Historical Building in Kyoto Japan

Other historical areas that are worth your time are Ryoan-ji Zen rock garden, known for its abstract beauty and Fushimi Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine famous for its thousands of Vermilion Torii gates.

Tokyo’s Historical Attractions

Modern Tokyo serves proudly as the country’s capital but is still rich in traditional Japanese culture with a fascinating history of traditional architecture that pre-dates any of the modern skyscrapers stretching high above central Tokyo.

In the Asakusa district, the impressive Thunder Gate (Kaminarimon) alongside the Nakamise-dori shopping center will lead you to the main hall and 5-story pagoda of Senso-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo.

Akasuka’s traditional streets and old-style markets retain the atmosphere of old Tokyo.

Kaminarimon Gate and Pagoda Tokyo

The primary residence of the Emperor of Japan is the Tokyo Imperial Palace, located in the heart of the city. While the palace is a private residence, the East gardens are open for public viewing.

Ueno Park is home to an array of museums and monuments while the Edo-Tokyo Museum traces the history, evolution and development of Tokyo (Edo) from the Tokuawa shoganate to the present day.

The Meiji Shrine, located between Harajuku and Shibuya offers a peaceful forest escape.

Kyoto Vs Tokyo: History

Kyoto’s History

Kyoto is surrounded by a scenic mountainous countryside that offers stunning seasonal landscapes, especially during the spring cherry blossom season and the vivid fall foliage.

kyoto scenic

Kyoto has huge historical significance and cultural heritage as the ancient capital city of Japan. The name Kyoto translates to ‘capital city’.

A compact city that contains a high concentration of spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Sites, most of them found in Fushimi Inari Taisha, Gion District and the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji).

Tokyo’s History

Tokyo is everything that embodies modern Japan. It is the political and economic capital, a sprawling global financial powerhouse with bright neon lights and towering skyscrapers that stretch right to the city limits.

tokyo modern japan

Renamed Tokyo (previously Edo) during the Meiji period of 1912-1989, it became Japan’s capital and sustained huge growth, especially in the post-war period where the city played a central role in Japan’s recovery.

Hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics enabled Tokyo to showcase its cultural richness and modern infrastructure to the world.

Tokyo infrastructure

Kyoto Vs Tokyo: Tourist Attractions

Kyoto’s Tourist Attractions

Like most things in life, determining if one thing is better than another largely depends on personal preferences and interests.

Both Tokyo and Kyoto are big cities that offer contrasting insight and intrigue into Japan’s past and present, each with unique charm and a diverse range of attractions.

You will be privy to a much more authentic Japanese experience in Kyoto, with its traditional cuisine, unrivaled scenic beauty and historic significance.

Most tourist attractions in Kyoto tend to reflect more towards the ancient art of relaxation, with a Zen ambiance and surroundings.

Kyoto zen ambiance

What Exactly Is There To Do In Kyoto?

Kyoto has many well-preserved historical sights, shrines, temples and customary Japanese green tea houses. It is a treasure trove of traditional arts and culture, offering opportunities to experience traditional Japanese theatre, tea ceremonies and the art of Ikebana (flower arranging).

On the western outskirts of Kyoto, the Bamboo Forest of Arashiyama is well worth a day trip. Well-maintained walking paths cut through towering bamboo grove stalks, creating a surreal experience.

The Nonomiya shrine hidden within the forest adds a cultural dimension to your visit.

Arashiyama bamboo forest near kyoto

By now we have established that Kyoto is a city where one can relax and take time to absorb the cultural history.

The epitome of Kyoto’s status as a laid-back city is the Philosopher’s Walk. A cherry tree-lined scenic canal path that will take you past some spectacular shrines and temples. At a leisurely pace, it will take you around 30 minutes.

One thing is for sure, when you visit Kyoto, you will not feel stressed. If anything Kyoto is the perfect city to destress and soak up the ancient atmosphere and surroundings.

Tokyo’s Tourist Attractions

Global fashionistas and celebrities alike descend on Tokyo in their thousands for its plethora of shopping malls and department stores.

There are numerous opportunities to venture up many an observation deck for unrivaled views as you gaze across the cluttered skyline and the metropolis of superstructures. Let us see if we can narrow it down.

tokyo 24 hour lifestyle

What Exactly Is There To Do In Tokyo?

Tokyo, Japan’s current capital city is a bustling metropolis where traditional Japanese Cuisine meets Michelin starred restaurants, where mad-cap cutting-edge youth culture and the hottest trends in fashion seamlessly blend with the frantic pace of a financial institute.

If it is the beating heart, the pounding nightlife, or the creative young vibes of a bustling modern metropolis you desire, then you will love Tokyo!

Ginza shopping district Tokyo

Modern Tokyo is a haven of shopping opportunities, fashion, nightlife and entertainment, it is also a paradise for food lovers.

Visit the high-end boutiques of Ginza or the trendy street fashion hub of Harajuku. Tokyo is a melting pot of diverse global cuisine and has the most Michelin starred restaurants of any Japanese city.

Shibuya is a magnet for an upbeat, vibrant after-dark scene and if you’re in the district by day, particularly during rush hour, then one trip you must take is the iconic Shibuya crossing, the busiest and most perplexing pedestrian road crossing on the planet; a must-see attraction when you visit Tokyo.

Kyoto Vs Tokyo: Transportation And Getting Around

Getting Around Kyoto

Arriving at Kansai airport, the easiest way to reach the city is by train, from the airport to Kyoto station. There are many other forms of transportation and travel tips, but choosing the right one for you will depend on your budget and the time you have.

Once you have arrived at Kyoto station, or wherever your journey has led you to, you’ll find that the Kyoto public transportation system is well connected between buses, trains and subways. Walking the city is also an option it’s a great way of seeing the sights at your leisure.

Kyoto station

The Kyoto one-day bus pass gives you unlimited rides and is a cost-effective way of traveling. The JR train lines and subways provide comfort and transport efficiency and taxis are also a convenient way of reaching your destination.

Getting Around Tokyo

If you have flown in Tokyo via the Narita International Airport, a train will take you the short distance from the Chiba Prefecture, along one of the many JR lines to your destination.

As you leave Tokyo station it will not be long until you are asking yourself how everything Tokyo has to offer can squeeze into just one city.

Walking around the city is the best way to make sure you don’t miss out on anything, but much like the whole of Japan, the Tokyo Metro Systems and subway lines also offer an efficient and relaxing alternative way to see the city.

There are some tips you should follow when using public transport in Tokyo. Trains and buses are renowned for their punctuality so make sure you check schedules and arrive on time.

Local public transportation apps are handy and provide real-time information. Also, be mindful of rush hour, roads are filled with cars and trains become packed with commuters.

Kyoto Vs Tokyo: People And Attitude Towards Visitors

Kyoto’s People And Attitude

Japan is renowned worldwide for its warm and inviting hospitality. In general, this applies to both Tokyo and Kyoto, but there are some key differences between the cultural atmosphere in each city.

Japanese people are known for their adherence to traditional etiquette and manners. As a visitor to Kyoto, you will be expected to afford the same respect, especially when frequenting places of cultural importance.

Kyoto is proud to continue preserving its historical identity and its people are proud to reach out with a traditional Kyoto welcome.

Kyoto locals

Tokyo People And Attitude

Tokyo is Japan’s capital and as you would expect, its residents play host to people from all different walks of life. Tokyo embraces the diversity of modern life and its citizens are more accustomed to interacting with differing cultures.

The atmosphere and general day-to-day hustle and bustle of Tokyo make for a much faster pace than Kyoto. The people of Tokyo have a reputation for tolerance and politeness, but its emphasis is on efficiency and productivity.

Remember when you visit Japan, politeness is key. Be sensitive and mindful of the preservation of local and national traditions and it’s best to familiarize yourself with local customs like maintaining a quiet demeanor on public transport and removing your shoes in certain public places.

Tokyo Vs Kyoto: Overview

I hope this journey of comparison has served to enlighten and inform you of what traditional Kyoto and Japan’s political and economic capital Tokyo both have to offer to visitors.

Tokyo and Kyoto comparison

There are key differences in size and geography, the dynamic fast paced vibe of Tokyo is a stark contrast to the more relaxed and chilled-out vibe that Kyoto offers. Both Tokyo and Kyoto are cities of major historical significance.

When you visit Tokyo, you will discover it is the epitome of the modern age with its neon-lit streets and trendsetting fashion districts, Kyoto holds a balance between modern life and tradition which enables it to preserve its ancient identity.

Tokyo vibrant urban life

Modern Tokyo dazzles with its sense of innovation and urgency. It is an electrifying place to visit with a 24-hour vibrant urban life. Kyoto quietly captivates with its cultural charm and historical richness.

These are just some of the reasons that visitors to Japan decide that a visit to both cities is the best way to enjoy the contrast between the traditional and modern facets of Japan.

Final Thoughts

If you prefer big cities, then it has to be Tokyo for you, but if it’s ancient history and traditional crafts, then Kyoto must be your destination of choice.

Both cities offer a well-rounded exploration of everything that symbolizes the contrasting cultures of ancient Japan and its modern-day persona

My advice would be to make time for a visit to both cities and make your trip to Japan about Tokyo and Kyoto rather than Kyoto or Tokyo.

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