For more up-to-date information, please read the September 2014 post Tokyo to Kyoto for $21… and other cheap ways to transit Japan
Without question, Tokyo and Kyoto are THE two destinations that should be included if you are intent on visiting Japan for the very first time. Of course, Tokyo and Kyoto are separated by some 231 miles (372 km) if you were to draw a straight line.
Between Tokyo and Kyoto, the two major methods of public transportation are the train and the highway bus. (You might also add air, if continuing to Osaka, but this article will focus on the first two methods of transit.)
So how much will you pay for a ride between Tokyo and Kyoto? This article breaks down the various bus and train options by price.
Obviously if you have a JAPAN RAIL PASS (see my earlier post on this), then this question is moot; simply use your rail pass (Hikari or Kodama only) to make the journey.
But if you do not have a Japan Rail Pass, then you’ll want to examine the prices carefully to see what fits your budget. Note that the prices listed here are rounded to the nearest 100 yen, and are subject to change, including a variance of a few hundred yen either way depending on the time of the year. Let’s begin:
18,200 yen: For this price you will get a reserved first-class seat (called the “Green Car”) in the premium Nozomi service. You may expect to be personally greeted by a Green Car attendant as you enter the train, and the attendant will check your ticket. Hot towel service is provided and you can order food and drinks on board. The seats are wide and comfortable, as I have mentioned in a previous article, and the lighting is noticeably softer than in the other seats.
13,300 yen: For this price you will get a reserved standard-class seat in the premium Nozomi service. You sit in the standard bullet train seats, and food and drinks are sold on board. In these first two instances the travel time from Tokyo to Kyoto is 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Running about 500 or 600 yen cheaper than the above prices are the respective surcharges for travel on the Hikari and Kodama services, which are slower than the premium Nozomi because they make more stops. In the Hikari service, hot towel service is provided in the Green Car, but you are not “greeted” as you board. There is no “greeting” or hot towel service in Kodama trains. Hikari trains make the run to Kyoto in 2 hours, 45 minutes; Kodamas, which stop at EVERY station, take 3 hours, 45 minutes.
My recommendation if you’re purchasing tickets “a la carte” is to spend the extra 500-600 yen and take the Nozomi. There are more Nozomi trains than the others and it is the fastest way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto. Fall back only to the Hikari (and worst case, Kodama) if the Nozomi sells out.
9,800 yen: You can make a cheap trip aboard the bullet train at this price, but it is strange why it’s only marketed to Japanese travelers. I haven’t tried this, but I have read reports of other foreign travelers that have used this method successfully. For 9,800 yen you can purchase a “Puratto Kodama Ticket”, which is a discounted one-way ticket on the Kodama (the slowest bullet train service). You must make a reservation at least one day in advance at a JR Tours office located at a station served by the Shinkansen, i.e. Tokyo or Shinagawa in Tokyo, or at Kyoto station. The JR Tours office is operated by JR Central, and is recognizable by their orange colors. As a bonus, you are entitled to one free drink while on board the train. The “Puratto Kodama Ticket” is also available in the Green Car for 11,300 yen. The prices go up during times of high demand. If you get stumped, you can visit the website for the Puratto Kodama Ticket (http://www.jrtours.co.jp/kodama/), print the page and show it when you want to purchase your ticket.
8,000 yen: At this price you can make a journey on local JR trains from Tokyo to Kyoto, via the Tokaido Main Line. You will be sitting in regular commuter trains and will have to change trains frequently along the way. On the other hand you’ll be passing through the rural and urban Japanese landscape, getting a better and closer look at areas that the bullet train will just whiz through. Connection times can range anywhere from 2 to 20 minutes for each train that you take. The travel time is approximately nine hours – but that doesn’t figure in the time that you might need for pit stops or a meal.
7,000 yen: For this price you can travel overnight between Tokyo and Kyoto by bus. There are many bus operators between Tokyo and Kyoto, and JR is one of them – bus tickets can be reserved at several channels, including green ticket windows at major JR train stations. On their “Dream” service, which is their standard overnight bus service, you are entitled to a comfortable reclining seat with head and foot rests on a double-decker bus that is configured in a 1 x 1 x 1 configuration; in other words you will have no other passengers directly next to you – you’ll either have an aisle or window. There are also blankets and slippers at your seat, and a toilet is on the first floor of the bus. The price is valid for weekday travel; add about 1,000 yen or so for weekend or holiday travel. An advance purchase of 5 days lobs 1,000 yen OFF of the price. Travel time is 7 1/2 hours from Tokyo Station; buses also run from Shinjuku Station on a different route, taking eight hours. A bus also operates from Tokyo Station restricted to female travelers.
6,000 yen: At this price you can use the same buses described above for a DAYTIME journey between Tokyo and Kyoto. The trip takes eight hours and the bus makes several stops along the way, including a few stops at service areas. There is a discount of 1,000 yen for a 5-day advance purchase. The price does not change depending on the day of the week or whether or not it’s a holiday.
5,000 yen: This is the price for a bus trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on the “Seishun Dream”, translated as “Youth Dream”. It is discounted because it offers less amenities than the regular bus service. Seats are configured 2×2, just like you’d find on a North American Greyhound bus. Seats offer recline, and there is a toilet on board. Regardless of time of day or holiday, the price is 5,000 yen with a 500 yen discount for a 5-day advance purchase. Travel times are similar to the other bus services.
2,300 yen: At last, the price tag of 2,300 yen. Is it possible to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto at such a low price?? Indeed, it IS possible, but as the old saying goes, “Certain restrictions apply.”
The rules are as follows: First, you must travel to and within Japan during one of the country’s three designated school holiday periods: March 1 – April 10, July 20 – September 10, and December 10 – January 20.
Secondly, you must travel with four other people… either four of your friends who want to go to Japan, or four Japanese friends, etc… finding the four people to go with you is your choice, and of course, your responsibility.
Finally, one person must purchase a ticket sold DURING the school holiday periods, called the “Seishun 18 Ticket”. This ticket sells for 11,500 yen and allows for unlimited travel on JR’s LOCAL TRAINS only: NO SHINKANSEN or LIMITED EXPRESS trains.
There are several ways it can be used. One person can use it for any five days within the given time period… or multiple people can use the single ticket. Essentially there are five spaces on the ticket, and each space allows one person to ride for one day. So if two people used the ticket, there would be three spaces left over, etc.
If FIVE people use the ticket on a single day, then you’re looking at one darn cheap method of traveling long distance! Simply purchase the ticket, and make sure everyone stays together. As you go into the system, your ticket is stamped five times. So all five of you are set for the journey. As mentioned above, you will travel on local trains only – no bullet trains. The travel time is about 9 hours, not accounting for pit stops or meal stops. But here’s a good thing: with the Seishun 18 ticket, if you all stay together, you can exit the system at any station and return to the system on the same day – just show your stamped ticket. With this in mind, perhaps you can exit the system at a major train station – say for example, Odawara, Shizuoka, Hamamatsu, Toyohashi or Nagoya – and head into a restaurant within the station, or enjoy some treats within the floors of a Japanese department store.
This 2,300 yen plan also works for other long-haul trips such as Tokyo to Nagoya or Tokyo to Osaka. The ticket price of 11,500 yen, divided by five, equals 2,300 yen. Even if four or three were to take the trip, the trip breaks down to 2,875 yen or 3,830 yen per person respectively – which can very well be a TREMENDOUS savings compared to standard train prices, or even bus prices.
My motto when it comes to Japan travel: always research as much as possible about your trip. This way it will make your trip much more enjoyable when it happens – not to mention it MAY just be a little lighter on the wallet!