Tokyo to Kyoto: do you have to take the Shinkansen train or the bus?

Tokyo to Kyoto: do you have to take the Shinkansen train or the bus?

Tokyo to Kyoto: do you have to take the Shinkansen train or the bus? 1024 768 Michaël da Silva Paternoster

Tokyo and Kyoto are the two most popular tourist destinations in Japan. For this reason, overseas tourists often link these two cities in their itineraries. But which transportation method should be used to make this trip? That’s the question I’m answering in this article!

Tokyo to Kyoto in a nutshell

I’ve tried to be as exhaustive as possible with this article. So you will find all the methods I know to go from Tokyo to Kyoto and vice versa. To ease your trip planning, I’ve made a summary that only outlines the fastest and cheapest ways to connect these cities.

What is the fastest and most convenient way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto?

The most convenient transportation means to connect Tokyo to Kyoto is the Shinkansen. The journey between Tokyo and Kyoto Stations takes less than 2.5 hours in the Japanese bullet train. Besides, these trains are easy to access for foreign tourists.

The JR Pass covers this train ride. You should definitely buy it if you plan to take the Shinkansen several times during your trip. Otherwise, the trip between Tokyo and Kyoto costs around 13,000 yen.

What is the cheapest way to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto?

Night buses are the cheapest and least stressful way to connect Tokyo to Kyoto, and vice versa. Besides saving you one night in a hotel, they’re much cheaper than bullet trains. But, I cannot recommend this type of transport to light sleepers.

The bus company I recommend is Willer Express. This company operates several trips between the two imperial capital cities every evening.

Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train

Shinkansen is the easiest and fastest way to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto. The Tokaido Shinkansen connects the two cities by passing along the Pacific coast. You will be able to see the Mt Fuji from your seat.

This is what a Shinkansen train looks like.

Several types of high-speed trains travel along this line. Their names determine the number of stops they will make between Tokyo and Osaka. The three main types of Shinkansen that pass through the Tokaido line are:

  • Nozomi, for people in a hurry: these are direct trains. They only need 2 hours and 15 minutes to connect Tokyo to Kyoto. The price of a ticket without a reserved seat is about 13,000 yen for a one-way ticket. Unfortunately, you cannot board if you have a JR Pass. But you can fall back on the second fastest type of train.
  • Hikari, for JR Pass holders: These are express Shinkansen, which only make a few more stops. The journey lasts about 2.5 hours with the Hikari, which is only a few minutes longer than with the Nozomi. This is the type of train I recommend to JR Pass owners.
  • Kodama, to avoid: These are the omnibus trains. I advise you not to take them, as the trip seems endless compared to the other train types.

All trains passing the Tokaido Shinkansen line stop at Kyoto and Tokyo. So all you have to do is make sure that your train goes in the right direction. Although, if you make a mistake, you can still discover Hiroshima, Fukuoka or Himeji. 🙂

You can buy the JR Pass or your train tickets in advance on GoVoyagin. This is the site I recommend to travelers, as they can deliver tickets abroad or to your hotel in Tokyo or Kyoto.

Map of the Tokaido Shinkansen line made by Hisagi. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Train schedules between Tokyo and Kyoto

From Tokyo, trains operate from 6 a.m. to 9.20 p.m. If you leave Kyoto, the first train is at 6:14 am and the last one is at 9:30 pm.

If you want to know when you can pick up a Shinkansen, the website lists the trains from Tokyo and Kyoto stations. Otherwise, you can see all train schedules for free on Hyperdia or use Google Maps to find out when the next train will leave.

Take the Shinkansen to Tokyo to go to Kyoto

Tokyo Station is one of the final stops of the line. But, all Shinkansen trains also stop at Shinagawa Station, another station in Tokyo. They also make a stop at Shin-Yokohama Station, in the outlying city of Yokohama. It’s sometimes more convenient to pick up your train at this station if your hotel is in the south of Tokyo.

Usually, I advise people who have tickets or a JR Pass without a reserved seat to take the Shinkansen at Tokyo Station. This will ensure that you’ll have a seat during your trip. Otherwise, there may already be no more seats available when the train passes through Shinagawa or Shin-Yokohama.

Take the Shinkansen to Kyoto to go to Tokyo

Bullet trains stop at the platforms dedicated to Shinkansen. They are located to the south of the station and are fairly well signposted. But be careful, because most buses passing through Kyoto station drop off passengers north of the train station. Thus, you will have to cross the whole railway station to be able to pick up your train.

I advise you to get off at Shinagawa Station if you have to go to one of Tokyo’s airports. Shinagawa is located South of the Japanese capital city, its station is only a few minutes from Haneda airport. As for Narita, you’ll also save time by getting off at Shinagawa Station, where you can pick up the Narita Express.

Is it risky not to book a seat in a Shinkansen?

Most of the time, you won’t have to book a seat to make sure you have a place to sit during your trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. In most cases, there are enough seats for everyone, except during specific seasons.

A man looking at Mount Fuji from the Tokaido Shinkansen.

It will be more difficult for you to find a free seat during peak hours. They are from Monday to Friday, from 7 am to 9 am and then from 4 pm to 7 pm. Indeed, many workers make business day trips between the two cities. They leave in the morning, travel several hundred kilometers by train to work. Then they return in the evening.

Besides, some people visit their families during the weekend. That’s why the Shinkansen of Friday evening and Monday morning are always crowded.


If you do not have a ticket with a reserved seat, wait on the platform until the Shinkansen arrives. You can easily see if you have a chance to get a sitting position or not. If you think it will be difficult, wait for the next train. Normally, you will find yourself at the head of the queue to get into the car. This will ensure you a seat.

As a general rule, you won’t have to wait long, at most about fifteen minutes, since there are frequent trains on the Shinkansen Tokaido line.

Apart from these daily and weekly rushes, there are several periods of the year when the Japanese travel more than usual. These include a few days around the New Year (until January 3 or 4), Golden Week (the first week of May), and the Obon (in mid-August).

During these specific periods, it is safer to reserve your seat. You can buy this type of ticket on Voyagin.

Night buses connecting Tokyo and Kyoto

A night bus in Kyoto.

If you think that Shinkansen are way too expensive, night buses are good alternatives. Several companies provide connections from Tokyo to Kyoto, and Kyoto to Tokyo. The one I recommend is Willer Express. Their prices are competitive and their site is in English.

Bus trips take about 8 hours. This is longer than traveling by car, as night buses make many stops at rest areas. This allows the journey to be completed in one full night. So you will not arrive in the middle of the evening, at a time when there is no public transport available yet.


If you have a light sleep, take earplugs and a night mask. Otherwise, you may be woken up at each stop. Because the driver turns on the light and passengers can be noisy when they get in and out.

You can also bring a travel cushion if you tend to fall sideways when you sleep in transport.

The price of night buses between Tokyo and Kyoto varies depending on when you take your tickets. In general, you will find them between 3000 and 7000 yen. In any case, you save one night in a hotel, which makes this transport method a lot cheaper than Shinkansen.

The Willer Express buses stop west of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, and at Kyoto’s Gion Shijo Station. In both cases, the terminals are very well served by public transport.

Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo sleeper trains

Night buses are not the only means of transport that can help you save a night in a hotel. Indeed, the Japan Rail company offers sleeper trains departing from Tokyo.

A Sunrise Express train on the Sanyo main line.

Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo are night trains that connect Tokyo to Takamatsu and Izumo. These sleeper trains make several stops between these destinations.

Tips for JR Pass owners:

You can take the Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo sleeper trains at no extra cost. To do this, you must reserve places called “Nobi Nobi”.

Night train from Tokyo to Kyoto

If you are leaving Tokyo and want to go to Kyoto, you will have to take the train to Tokyo Station at 10 pm. Then, get off at Himeji Station at 5:24 am.

It’s up to you to decide if you want to wait until 9 am for Himeji Castle to open. Since you are in the area, so much to enjoy to visit the most beautiful medieval castle in Japan. At this time you will have the monument just for you.

If you prefer to go directly to Kyoto, you will arrive around 7:20 by taking the express train to Yasu. The entire trip will cost you at least 15,000 yen without a JR Pass.

Sleeper train from Kyoto to Tokyo

The optimal route is slightly different if you leave Kyoto. The best option is to go to Osaka Station; trains leave at about half-past midnight. They arrive in Tokyo around 7 am, after passing through Shizuoka, Mount Fuji, Atami, and Yokohama.

Wondering how to get to Osaka? There are many ways to connect Kyoto to Osaka by public transit.

How to book a bed in a Sunrise Seto or Sunrise Izumo

It’s really hard to get a bed in one of these night trains when you are a foreign tourist. The only way is to book your tickets at one of the “Midori no Madoguchi” (Green counters) ticket offices. You can find them in most of the JR major stations.

As there is only one train per night and it is not possible to book your tickets online, there is a good chance that all beds are already taken when you arrive at the ticket office. If so, you can fall back on one of the other options on this page.

Taking the plane? A bad idea unless you are on a tight budget

Although Tokyo can count on these two international airports, Kyoto is not that lucky. The former imperial city doesn’t have its own airport. The easiest way to get to Kyoto by air is thus to land at one of the two Osaka airports.

You will see Mount Fuji from the plane.

Fortunately, there are daily air connections between Tokyo and Osaka. So you’ll have no trouble finding a flight.

Flight prices between Tokyo and Osaka

Besides the national airlines ANA and Japan Airlines, several low-cost companies, such as Peach or Jetstar, offer tickets for less than 5000 yen. It’s almost half as cheap as taking the Shinkansen. But, you will have to add transportation costs between Tokyo and its airport. And then, the trip between Osaka and Kyoto to get the real cost of this trip.

These additional costs double the cost of travel from Tokyo to Kyoto by air. This immediately becomes less attractive financially compared to high-speed trains.

Duration of a flight

As for time, the plane is once again less advantageous than the Shinkansen, which is much faster. You will need at least 4.5 hours to fly between Tokyo and Kyoto.

Regarding the journey between the airport in Osaka and Kyoto, there are many ways to connect Kyoto to Osaka by public transport. You will have a lot of options to choose from!

Airplanes are by far the least eco-friendly of all the solutions on this page. Please use it only if you have a very tight budget and do not want to visit cities other than Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara. Otherwise, a JR Pass will allow you to see more things for less money and with shorter travel times.

Take the car and take the highways

As a foreign tourist, it is possible to travel the 450 kilometers between Kyoto and Tokyo by car. Japanese highways are a bit winding and speed limits are set at 100 km/h. This is why the journey takes about 5 hours 40 when the traffic is fluid.

Before renting your vehicle, don’t forget to have your driver’s license translated into Japanese. Because the Japanese authorities don’t accept international driving licenses.

Where to rent a car in Japan?

I recommend that you use Tabirai if you want to rent a car in Japan. Besides having very competitive rates on a wide range of vehicles, they have a website and customer service in English. Their offices are located all over Japan, which means you can pick up your car anywhere you want.

The advantages of the car on other transport modes

Renting a car in Japan can allow you to visit places that are difficult to reach by public transport. This is the case of many remote areas that are rarely on the tourists’ itineraries but have many things to show. By writing this, I immediately think of the San’in coast or some points of interest in Tohoku.

For Tokyo and Kyoto, these two destinations are very well served by public transport, including trains and buses. The car isn’t needed to make the most of Japan’s two most touristy cities. But you can rent one if you plan to go to unknown places, far from these urban areas.

The car also has other advantages. This can save you money on transportation costs if you travel with several people because you will share the different costs. The car can also be more convenient if you are traveling with someone who has difficulty walking.

The disadvantages of the car on other transport modes

Let’s start with the price of the trip. Motorway costs between Tokyo and Kyoto are around 10,000 yen. You will have to add to this the fuel and vehicle rental prices, which fluctuate according to the period and type of car you have selected.

You may find yourself stuck in traffic jams if you leave or arrive in Tokyo during rush hours. This can greatly increase the length of your trip. Once in the city, the car becomes more of a nuisance than a real transport mode. It might take you longer to find a parking space than to visit interesting places.

Moreover, the drive between Tokyo and Kyoto is quite boring. Don’t expect to see beautiful landscapes while staying on the highway. That’s why I advise you to use the train or bus if you only plan to do this trip without making any other stops during your trip to Japan.

Hitchhiking between Tokyo and Kyoto

Theoretically, the cheapest way to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto is to hitchhike. This method is quite popular in Europe and North America, but it is much rarer in Japan. You hardly ever see Japanese hitchhikers. Most of the people who try to use this technique are foreign tourists who do not know the customs and habits of the archipelago.

Start hitchhiking on small roads

How to do?

It is just not possible to be hitchhiked in Japan’s major cities. To make this work, you will have to get out of large urban areas and stay at places where drivers stop. Gas stations and motorway car parks are prime locations for this practice.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to reach these areas in a legal way. Indeed, most of the rest areas can only be reached by car, as they aren’t served by public transport and it’s forbidden to walk along the expressways. So you will have to start hitchhiking on smaller roads.

Who can do it?

To put it simply, hitchhiking is not a method I recommend for people who have a tight travel schedule. Avoid it also if you do not like to go out of your comfort zone.

You can consider it if you are a long-time tourist and have decided to wander around the country. It can also save you some money if you are in WHV in Japan. But do not do it if you only stay a few days or weeks in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Numerous regional train lines

If you are not in a hurry, but you don’t like hazardous hitchhiking, you can opt for local train lines!

In addition to the Shinkansen, several more conventional trains can connect Kyoto and Tokyo. I recommend you do not use them unless you want to make stops in cities located between the two imperial capitals of Japan.

JR Tokaido Line

Local trains take the same route as the Tokaido Shinkansen. By using them you can visit cities like Shizuoka, Hamamatsu or Nagoya.

To be honest, this is not an interesting route if you have the JR Pass. Since you can stop at many places of interest by taking the Kodama Shinkansen.

JR Chuo Line, then JR Tokaido Line

The JR Chuo Line runs through the heart of Honshu Island in the Japanese Alps. This makes it a better alternative to Shinkansen for those wishing to stop in this region between Tokyo and Kyoto. There, the most interesting places to visit are the Kiso Valley and Kofu.

You can transfer from JR Chuo to JR Tokaido lines at Nagoya Station to complete the journey between Tokyo and Kyoto. The two main Tokyo stations through which the Chuo line passes are Shinjuku and Akihabara.

Do you know the Seishun 18 Kippu?

This pass can allow you to travel at a lower cost by using only local trains. Be careful! It is only available for sale during three short periods of the year.

I hope I have answered all your questions about Tokyo to Kyoto journeys in this article. Now, I encourage you to read my guides that tell you what you absolutely need to visit in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Michaël da Silva Paternoster

I’m a French guy living in Tokyo, where I work as a digital marketing manager and consultant for several years now. I’ve decided to share my travel recommendations and various tips to help people settle in Japan.

All stories by : Michaël da Silva Paternoster