Tokyo to Kyoto: The Most Detailed Shinkansen Guide

Tokyo to Kyoto: The Most Detailed Shinkansen Guide

Kyoto is the greatest city in Japan, at least for those who love seeing and feeling the real, historical side of Japan. However, for international guests, it is a good idea to visit other places as well, especially Tokyo.

Shinkansen N700
Shinkansen N700

Why? Because Tokyo will provide the opposite aspect of Japan, that is to say, the modern and “NOW” Japan. Tokyo Sky Tree, Tokyo Disneyland (technically located in Chiba), Roppongi Hills, dozens of skyscrapers in Shinjuku, and high class shops & restaurants in Aoyama (Shibuya) are some perfect examples. And in Ueno, people can enjoy “active” shopping.

In other words, to get the full view of Japan it is wise to visit at least these two cities. So, how can you get to Kyoto after experiencing stylish, modernized Tokyo?

IMPORTANT: Be sure to purchase the Japan Rail Pass if you plan to visit several cities in Japan by train. For details, read “Shinkansen Map & Japan Rail Pass“.

Basically, there are four ways to get to Kyoto from Tokyo; Shinkansen, normal trains, long distance buses and airplanes. Sorry, but this time walking and cycling are excluded. This post will focus on the Shinkansen, simply because large percentage of the tourists should employ this option.

What is the Shinkansen?

The Shinkansen is certainly easiest and fastest way to go to Kyoto. So, what’s Shinkansen? Shinkansen is defined as a train which can run at speeds faster than 200 km or 124 miles per hour. It might sound scary, but compared to high speed trains in other countries, it is much safer. And so far, there have been no fatal accidents (inside the trains) since they started operation in 1964.

Three Different Shinkansen Connecting Tokyo and Kyoto

The Shinkansen which connects Tokyo and Kyoto is run by JR Tokai. They have three different types of Shinkansen called Nozomi, Hikari and Kodama. Nozomi is the fastest and Kodama is the slowest, with Hikari in the middle. The actual speed might not be so different, but the number of stations they stop at varies significantly. It makes sense that the reason why these special “bullet” trains are fast is that they don’t have to stop as often so that they can keep their high speed. For example, the fastest Tokaido Shinkansen, Nozomi only stops Shinagawa, Shin Yokohama, Nagoya before arriving at Kyoto station. Hikari stops at 3 to 5 stations more, and Kodama stops at even more. Now let’s compare the traveling time of each Shinkansen.

Traveling Time of Shinkansen

As seen above, there are 3 different Shinkansens; Nozomi, Hikari and Kodama, which can be used to visit Kyoto from the Tokyo area. It should be noted that the traveling time might be different. As explained before, the number of stations Hikari stops at can vary.

Nozomi: About 2 Hours 15 Minutes
Hikari: About 2 Hours 45 Minutes
Kodama: About 3 Hours 50 Minutes

Obviously taking Nozomi or Kodama will make a huge different in terms of the time. However, what about Nozomi and Hikari? Not so much. However, the number of Hikari that run is much smaller than that of Nozomi. But why would you want to take the Kodama or Hikari where you can get to Kyoto in a shorter time with Nozomi? The main reasons will be explained in a little while, but now let’s check out the price.

Price of Shinkansen Ticket: Tokyo to Kyoto

First of all, it is important to note that you need to purchase two types of ticket; an ordinary ticket and an express ticket. If you purchase Shinkansen tickets from a JR ticket window, they will be certain to sell you these tickets as a set, so don’t be too worried. The price of the ordinary ticket is the same, 8210 yen, regardless of whether you choose Nozomi, Hikari, or Kodama. The price of the express ticket is also the same, 4730 yen, as long as you do not reserve a seat. All three options have unreserved cars, but Kodama and Hikari tend to have more unreserved cars than Nozomi. This is because Nozomi is one of the busiest express trains in Japan, so most seats get reserved before hand. As for reserved seats, the price varies depending of the type of Shinkansen. Nozomi charges 5700 yen while Hikari and Kodama charge 5240 yen. This is really a reasonable difference, considering the amount of traveling time saved. The price for a reserved seat on all three Shinkansen varies depending on the seasons. During busy periods the price goes up by 200 yen. During less busy times the price drops by 200 yen. The busy season is defined as March 21 – April 5, April 28 – May 6, July 21 – August 31 and December 25- January 10. The less busy season is defined as Monday – Thursday during January 16 – February, June, September, and November 1 – December 20. If you thought that was difficult, things get more confusing for those using the Japan Rail Pass.

For Japan Rail Pass Holders

As mentioned before, for those coming FROM OUTSIDE Japan to see several cities, do everything you can to purchase a wonderful special pass called the Japan Rail Pass. As illustrated above, the Shinkansen fare is not cheap. For example, if you plan to visit Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukuoka during one trip using Shinkansen, the transportation fee in total will exceed 50,000 yen per person. Luckily, as explained in “Shinkansen Map & Japan Rail Pass“, the Japan Rail Pass will save money. The week pass for a normal seat (not a green seat, which will be described below) is 29,110 yen per person (14,550 yen/child). As you can see, there is a huge difference. Additionally this pass can be used for other JR-run trains and buses including local trains and express trains. JR used to be a state-run company, and it boasts a wide network throughout Japan. So, this pass can be used not only for a long distance travel but also for short trips such as visiting a neighboring town for eating out.

When using the Shinkansen, however, you need to be careful, since there are certain limitations. The most important thing for the Japan Rail Pass holders visiting Kyoto from Tokyo is that Nozomi can NOT be used. This means you need to get on a Hikari or Kodama Shinkansen instead. Also, please note that purchasing this pass doesn’t necessarily mean that you have secured a seat. The best advice here is that when you get on a train with reserved seats, make a reservation beforehand. This method has two benefits; 1. you can secure a seat, and 2. there is no extra fee! You can make a reservation by visiting the ticket office called “Midori no Madoguchi”, showing your Japan Rail Pass and asking the ticket staff to issue a reservation ticket. At this stage, you can specify the actual Shinkansen (again, it must be Hikari or Kodama) you will get on. For those who would rather not make a reservation, just go to the entrance and show your pass. And everyone using this pass must use the staffed entrance, whether or not a reservation was made.

For those who are currently living in Japan, the Japan Rail Pass can’t be purchased. Therefore, it is a good idea to stick to Nozomi and reserve a seat. However, if you don’t mind spending more time traveling and would rather save some money, there is one deal you can use. It’s called “Platto Kodama”, and as you could probably guess, it uses Kodama Shinkansens. There are certain limitations such as that you need to purchase the ticket at least one day before use. But it is possible to go to Kyoto from Tokyo on 10,100 yen, which is 3,500 yen cheaper than the normal price. For more information, please visit the official site.

Feeling Fancy? Get a Green Seat

For those who want to enjoy luxury travel as much as possible, there is a choice to upgrade your seat to a green seat. The green seat is the equivalent of business class with more space and a more comfortable seat. Honestly speaking, the normal seats for the Shinkansens are still pretty cozy, but if you would like to maximize the comfort of riding a Shinkansen, why not pay a little extra money? You might wonder how much more you need to spend to get the green seat. It is 5150 yen for every type of Shinkansen. So in total, it will be 18160 yen. Note that a child needs to pay the same amount of money to secure the green seat. And fortunately the Japan Rail Pass holders can also use this special seat. For those who have already decided to use the green seat, it is wise to purchase the Green type Japan Rail Pass. It is 38,880 yen for an adult and 19,440 yen, and again this Green pass is not applicable for Nozomi Shinkansens.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, people who currently live in Japan and aren’t eligible to purchase the Japan Rail Pass should reserve a seat on Nozomi. For those who visit Japan from abroad, it is wise to buy this pass beforehand, and make a reservation one day before you get on the Shinkansen (it must be Kodama or Hikari) if you have time to do so. You can reserve the seat at the ticket office in most JR stations, it doesn’t have to be Tokyo or Shinagawa station where the Shinkansens stop. Last but not least, it is a good idea to get an Ekiben (a lunch box) at a kiosk in Tokyo station before the Shinkansen leaves. Many Japanese people, including business people, consider this an integral part of the trip. And remember that Kyoto is NOT the terminal station. The approaching station chimes serve many travelers on the Shinkansen as an alarm clock, but if you sleep too deeply, you will end up finding yourself at a platform in Shin Osaka, Hiroshima or, in the worst case, Hakata. Be sure to keep your arrival time in mind, and set the alarm if you think you might fall asleep.

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