Japan Quickly but Where and for How Long?
February 29, 2016 6:20 PM   Subscribe

How many days should we spend in Tokyo vs Kyoto and where could we take a day trip to from either?

Due to an awesome airfare deal, the boyfriend and I will be heading to Japan for a week at the end of April/beginning of May. We have 6 full days (plus two half days when we fly in/out) and were initially planning on visiting Tokyo and Kyoto. We’ll be using hotel points to cover all of our hotel rooms (yay business travel pays off!).

We’re starting to plan and feeling pressure to book hotels now, and I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by deciding what days we will spend where. I usually wing it when I travel so this is new for me. We will spend the evening and the morning of travel days in Tokyo. Right now we’re thinking 4 in Tokyo and 2 in Kyoto. Boyfriend thinks 1 day is enough for Kyoto (he will be happy with just seeing the golden temple) but I think the two cities should be more even. I’ve suggested we take a day trip from Tokyo or Kyoto but I’m stumped as to where.

Details:I traveled around Japan 12 years ago alone on a backpacker budget, in fact I always travel alone. Going back I’m excited to spend a bit more on things I was too cheap to do in the past (nicer meals and shopping), go out at night (didn’t feel safe before), possibly attend some new events (baseball, sumo) and introduce the boyfriend to Asia—something a bit outside his comfort zone as he hasn’t traveled as extensively as me. I usually don’t go back to places I’ve visited so even going back to Japan feels like a repeat. He thought we'd just go to Tokyo and is fine not seeing much, whereas I always want to see more, do more, and show him as broad of a slice of Japan as I can. Now that we're planning I'm kicking myself for not convincing boyfriend to go for a few more days but we forgot to take into account losing a day in flight.

He loves train rides and is intrigued by the coast/seaside, castles, and mountains. We both like biking on flat land. We’re not really into Onsen or renting a car. If we had enough time we’d head over to one of the remote costal areas and take a special sightseeing train like the Resort Shirakami that goes to Aomori. I am leaning toward someplace more rural or small townish since we're already going to two big cities. My previous visit took me to Tokyo, Kyoto, Nikko, Nara, Hemiji, and Takayama. Places that have come up as day trip options: Miyajima, Kamakura, Kanazawa, and Ise.

Where would you go for a day trip or train ride, or would you stick to just Tokyo and Kyoto?

Are there sights/experiences that are definitely worth repeating (it has been 12 years and 30+ countries since I was in Japan so I have to imagine it won't be so bad to repeat)?

We plan to get 7 day rail passes (we know to order while in the US), because it appears that a round trip train between Tokyo and Kyoto alone would cost more than the pass. Is this correct, or are there better options?

We plan to reserve seats when we pick up the rail passes at Narita but are concerned about the tail end of our trip running into Golden Week April 29 - May 3. Are we going to be too late to get seats? I’m used to traveling without booking anything in advance, but the short duration of the trip, traveling with someone else, and the holiday make me uneasy about being so loose.
posted by Bunglegirl to Travel & Transportation around Japan (17 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Unless you really, really like temples, there's far more to see in Tokyo than in Kyoto. Frankly I would skip Kyoto altogether if you're only in Japan for six days - you can take a day trip to Kamakura to satisfy your "traditional Japan" needs. (You'll also save a lot of money, which you can use for nicer hotel rooms or nicer meals.)

If you do decide to go to Kyoto, I would skip the JR Rail Pass - you might save a tiny bit of money with the pass, but you lose a lot of flexibility. The pass is only good on slower, less frequently running shinkansen trains, whereas if you simply pay cash there are a lot more shinkansen options.

There are shinkansen trains running every ten minutes or so, so I can't imagine that they'll all be full even during Golden Week. Do try to book your hotels ASAP though - there are a lot more tourists than even a year ago, and the hotels haven't caught up.
posted by Umami Dearest at 7:00 PM on February 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

On the contrary, I liked Kyoto a lot more than Tokyo when I was being touristy on my first trip to Japan. It just felt, well, more Japanese. However, I was there for almost two weeks and had more time in both cities plus some side trips. Tokyo is certainly huge and diverse enough to fill a week, (some say years won't do), and there are plenty of Kyoto-esque historical sites and beautiful respites dotted around without paying for a long train ticket. And as for appreciating trains, Tokyo is big enough that you can get plenty of train adventures while still going back to the same hotel each night.

So I guess I'm not being that contrary and agree with Umami Dearest! I think you should consult with your boyfriend, ask him to do a little more research and decide how important Kyoto is to him. Personally I loved it, thought the food was better and the sights were less overwrought and the whole pace of the place felt more like a proper vacation, but if money and time had been less, I think I could have had similar experiences without the additional travel.
posted by Mizu at 7:15 PM on February 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Only the Nozomi and Mizuho are exempt from the rail pass. You can ride a Hikari on the rail pass and it's a fast enough train. Tokyo to Kyoto on the Nozomi is only 20 minutes faster than on a Hikari according to Hyperdia. I make the Kyoto-Tokyo trip every year on the rail pass and that is enough to pay for the pass. I also recommend the green car upgrade. So, get the pass if you think you will go from Tokyo to Kyoto. If you will stay in the Tokyo area, I think the pass would be a waste.

I used to live about 30 minutes from Ise and go back there every annual trip to Japan. I think that Ise Shrine is a great place to visit, as is the Okageyoko-cho right next to it. We usually show up in the morning, visit the shrine, and then have lunch at a tekonezushi shop in Okageyoko-cho. Ise is a bit over two hours from Kyoto by train. You will be riding the Kintetsu lines, which are not included in the rail pass, but it's about 2,000 yen one way so a pretty cheap trip.

Hiroshima can also be a day trip from Kyoto - about 2-2.5 hours from Kyoto by shinkansen.

A night in Osaka would also be great. I love that city.

I am biased toward western Japan (I stay in Kyoto when I am there) but I am not very impressed with Tokyo. I only go there to visit friends. That's not to dump on Tokyo but I think that Kyoto is definitely worth a visit. I do think seven days is a bit cramped for a trip to Japan but what's done is done. If you make a list of a few "must-sees" in both cities, I think you can enjoy three days in each city and their surrounding areas.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:19 PM on February 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you want a good temple complex without going all the way to Kyoto, Nikko is a good day trip from Tokyo and very worth it.
posted by tau_ceti at 7:26 PM on February 29, 2016

Do not miss Kyoto, esp on a Friday evening when the geisha come down from the temple...that being said there's definitely more to do in Tokyo (Tokyo national gallery is packed with treasures). It's definitely worth spending the night at a ryokan near mount fuji (on the way from Tokyo to Kyoto) the views are spectacular.
posted by sexyrobot at 7:42 PM on February 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Kyoto is amazing, the levels of restoration work to the temples makes them look pretty much brand new. I really enjoyed spending days just wandering around. There's really nothing else like seeing and admiring the aesthetics of the temples and royal gardens. Sanjusengendo is incredible!

We spent 6 days in Tokyo and Kyoto. We did one day at Mount Fuji at a ryokan with hot springs, two days at Tokyo, and 3 days at Kyoto. I found Tokyo to be much harder to enjoy, unless you are into urban traveling and navigating the subways, and finding off the grid stuff. Do go to their 7/11s and buy green tea and strawberry kitkats, and go to really nice grocery stores that have half-off bentos. I still really want to eat them...

If I were to do Tokyo again, I would choose to go see some live music and concerts and nightlife, since there are tons of bands that tour Tokyo all the time. During the day, go to some really nice parks and see what the locals are up to, and eat some delicious food.
posted by yueliang at 7:49 PM on February 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

My friend who lived in Tokyo for a while, recommended taking trains to nearby parks. She says that the miracle of their public transportation system, was how close nature hikes were to basically any stop :) It might even be interesting to just try to have a starting location and seeing how far you can go without missing your return flight!

Hiking in Japan
posted by yueliang at 7:58 PM on February 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would say spend most of your time in Kyoto. I am biased because I lived there for a few years but I find there is more in Kyoto that isn't in Tokyo than the other way around. Plus it is a short and easy trip to Osaka which ought to be able to fill in any gaps that Kyoto may have. My last three trips to Japan I was there for much longer (3-4 weeks each time) but even then only managed to visit Tokyo once, and that was for a weekend trip to see the Sumo. I had actually budgeted more time for Tokyo but cut it short while I was there.

One thing I find about the bigger Japanese cities is that they are almost fractally dense. You budget spending a day in one area of the city and then find that you haven't left one smaller area within that area, or maybe even one place in that area. So after a certain point it doesn't matter that Tokyo is larger than Kyoto or Osaka because you won't have anywhere near enough time to hit all these places anyway. Like if you were into shopping and restaurants you could easily spend a day around Kyoto station, 1-2 days around Shijo and another in Kitayama. If you wanted to see historical sites, well with your itinerary you don't have enough time to properly visit all the "must-see" temples, shrines and palaces in the area anyway.

As far as scenic train trips are concerned. There is a tourist steam train that goes from Arashiyama in Kyoto to Kameoka. You can take the same train back, a regular train or a river boat. Arashiyama itself is a nice area to visit. You could also take the Eizan railway to Kurama or Kibune in north Kyoto. Its a nice place to hike.

Kyoto is framed by mountains on 3 sides and there are many hiking trails on them. Many of them will take you to temples or other historical sites, allowing you to do multiple things on one hike.

I would say get the JR pass but don't force yourself to use it if it means using a longer route. The Shinkansen trip from Tokyo to Kyoto won't be a big deal with the pass, but in both Tokyo and Kyoto you'll likely find it is more convenient to take subways/trains not covered by the pass. Time is money so use whatever route gives you the most time.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 8:20 PM on February 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

Kyoto is much smaller than Tokyo, you will leave feeling you've had a more "complete" experience, I think. Because of the size it is a lot easier to get around and see sites all over the city. Tokyo is huge and things you want to see may be quite far apart. Kyoto is also just a thirty minute ride from Osaka, a great Japanese city which will scratch any city itch you have. It's a great area, lots to see very close together, having done both, Kyoto /Osaka is definitely what is recommend for a week.

Kansai for life, yo. Also check Japan guide for stuff to do. It's a great resource for tourists.
posted by smoke at 8:52 PM on February 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would try really hard to choose one or the other, but I think your 2-4 split is fine if you must. One thing about Tokyo is that Tsukiji fish market is being mostly closed permanently and moved in the fall, and at any rate is easier to do the morning thing when you have jet lag in that direction on your side.
posted by rhizome at 8:53 PM on February 29, 2016

Spend most of your time in Kyoto. If you want to go biking on flat terrain, the east side of Lake Biwa (nearby) is perfect. Stay a night in the castle town of Hikone (not Hakone). It's close to the shinkansen stop in Maibara.

Beautiful castle town on the lake, lots of places to explore by bicycle nearby.
posted by My Dad at 8:55 PM on February 29, 2016

I'd definitely favor Kyoto over Tokyo, hands down. Bracket your trip with Tokyo days to cover the airport traveling and head to Kyoto for the majority of your vacation, it's beautiful. Don't forget to hike up to Fushimi Inari Taisha!

For a day trip, I'd go to Nara or Miyajima or both.
posted by lydhre at 10:57 PM on February 29, 2016

Best answer: Overall, I think you should chat about your personal level of patience with crowding and other tourists, and how off the beaten path you're willing to go while still making things fun and accessible for you both. Keep in mind that because May 1 is a Monday, and because it's also a holiday in neighbouring countries, people across northeast Asia as well as Japanese people might do a city break to Tokyo or Kyoto over the long weekend.

If this ends up being the case, you can expect a lot of weekend traffic at major must-see Kyoto sites like Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Temple) and Fushimi-Inari (the mountainside shrine covered in red torii gates), or the more popular bits of Tokyo, like the national museums in Ueno.

I'd recommend...

- picking one neighbourhood/district and staying there for most/all of the day so you can get around on foot and not feel rushed. In particular, we found Kyoto's bus system was swamped by tourists and generally a hassle when we were short of time, but otherwise fine if we weren't in a rush.

- ordering a pocket wifi device, even if you normally wouldn't bother on a non-peak-time trip to Japan, so you have the ability to search for alternatives nearby if a place you had planned to see is closed/has a queue of 200 people waiting for one of six seats. I used these people and was very happy. This is also very useful for finding restaurants - we found that many lovely and traditional places to eat in Kyoto were hidden behind wooden shutters/blinds/other architectural features that made it hard to identify that we were, in fact, surrounded by restaurants, especially as non-Japanese readers.

- checking out sites that are more expensive, isolated, seemingly less-postcard/selfie-able, smaller, or with limited parking - in Kyoto, Tofuku-ji, Gio-ji, Shoren-in and Okochi-Sanso Villa were great and empty, while the Arashiyama bamboo grove was full of hundreds of people and a real disappointment.

- visiting things very early, very late, or at lunchtime, and shopping/eating mid-morning/mid-afternoon when group tourists are visiting things; many temples at night were also very charmingly lit and silent

- checking out sides of modern Japan that are still Japanese but perhaps not sterotypically so for the casual/group tourist: contemporary and folk craft museums, brilliant cafes and great whisky, animal cafes...

- building in time for shopping, even if you're not a shopper, for non-touristy but amazing things I knew I'd use every day when I got home (incredible paper! fantastic cookware!) at places like MUJI, Loft and Tokyu Hands

Have a great trip!
posted by mdonley at 11:45 PM on February 29, 2016 [11 favorites]

You've gotten heaps of advice so I'll try not to double up. I think how or if to split time up between Kyoto and Tokyo is (clearly) entirely individual.

If you do travel between the two, one possible day trip is to walk the old postal trail between Tsumago and Magome. It's easy, beautiful, and you can spend the night in a ryokan at one end if you want. I did it as a 9-5 type trip out of Nagoya when I lived there. (I went with friends through the hiking club, took the bus out and back in.)

Will also recommend the experience of a night on the night bus and one in a manga cafe (esp if you're in a pinch).
posted by jrobin276 at 12:37 AM on March 1, 2016

Best answer: Count me on team Kyoto. Tokyo is amazing but - I don't what to say, I just would have had a completely wrong impression of Japan if I'd only been in Tokyo. I was there much longer like you, but if I had to make priorities, Kyoto would be really high on the list.
Among several things, I went to Naoshima, and if I were going to Japan tomorrow with someone who hadn't been there, I think I'd go for Tokyo, Kyoto and Naoshima. Tokyo for the amazing intensity and modernity, Kyoto for beauty (rent bikes!), and Naoshima both for the art and for getting out into the provinces. Other provincial areas are more interesting from a historical point of view, and beautiful landscapes. But the trip to Naoshima is great, and the atmosphere is wonderful.
posted by mumimor at 6:59 AM on March 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Team Kyoto, personally. Visiting Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, Sanjusangendo, and Fushimi Inari are such distinct experiences that you can't just lump them together as "oh, temples." And more than a couple days in Tokyo wears me out. But if you only stay in Tokyo, Kamakura certainly is worth the trip. Not sure if Hiroshima and Miyajima (which I love) make sense in the time that you have.

In terms of things that might have changed, Himeji Castle -- one of the best castles in Japan, and an easy trip from Kyoto -- just reopened after a major restoration.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 4:07 PM on March 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses. You all helped us decide to stick to Tokyo and Kyoto for sleeping with such a short amount of time. However, the cheap flight prices came back so we decided to extend our trip to 2 weeks so now we'll have time to take in more side trips and possibly stay a few nights in another town.

We've had the bad luck of looking into (and falling in love with) the hotel on Naoshima and finding out that it's sold out except for the day when everything is closed. If we could find a unique hotel like that to splurge for 2 nights of relaxation we'd be set.
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:55 AM on March 8, 2016

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