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Kyoto vs Tokyo: What is the Difference?

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What is the difference between Kyoto and Tokyo? If you plan to visit one of the cities but can’t make the ultimate choice, here is everything you need to know about the two cities.

Kyoto and Tokyo are among Japan’s incredible cities with rich historical backgrounds. Considering that their names tend to possess some similarities has always made many think that one of the cities borrowed a name from the other.

Let’s look at Kyoto vs. Tokyo and learn more about the two cities. The reason why these cities share names that are somehow similar is that the two have served as the country’s capital at one time.

Before Tokyo became the capital city of Japan, Kyoto was the country’s capital. Does it mean that Tokyo was, therefore, named after Kyoto? That’s not entirely true, but Kyoto and Tokyo share history in their names.

In Japanese, Kyoto means the imperial capital, while Tokyo means the east imperial capital. Hence, even though the two may be in different parts of Japan, the two cities have always been rivals in greatness.

About Tokyo

Tokyo Skytree landmark architecture in Japan
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Tokyo, Japan’s capital city, emerged from the small fishing village of Edo around the 16th century. It swiftly ascended to its status as one of the world’s most populous metropolises. The Meiji Restoration significantly influenced it in 1868, transferring the national capital from Kyoto to Tokyo.

Tokyo is teeming with diverse districts, each with its niche, such as Harajuku, with its incredible fashion scene or Akihabara, known for its video games and cyberculture. Other popular districts include the swanky and fashion-forward Shibuya, the business district of Marunouchi, and historic Asakusa. As you wander through the districts, you’ll find that each provides a distinctive experience of the vast city.

Tokyo is an eclectic mix of tradition and modernity. Tourists often flock to the iconic Tokyo Skytree for a panoramic view of the city, enjoy the fresh seafood at the Tsukiji Fish Market, traverse the buzzing streets of Shibuya Crossing, and explore the serene environs of the Meiji Shrine or the Imperial Palace.

Tokyo boasts two world-class airports: Narita International Airport and Haneda Airport. Narita International Airport, located in Chiba Prefecture, is the primary gateway for international travelers to Tokyo and Japan.

Situated approximately 60 kilometers east of central Tokyo, Narita handles a significant volume of international flights, serving as a central hub for Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA).

Haneda Airport is closer to the city center, about 14 kilometers south of Tokyo Station, and is renowned for its efficiency and convenience. While Haneda used to focus primarily on domestic flights, it has significantly expanded its international operations in recent years.

Both airports are linked to Tokyo and the surrounding region through a public transportation network, including trains, buses, and taxis, providing easy access to the city’s heart and beyond.

About Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Gates - Kyoto, Japan
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Kyoto, once the capital of Japan for over a millennium, is still widely known as Japan’s cultural capital. Revered for its preserved historical landmarks and ancient temples, Kyoto is where one steps back in time to the classical era of Japan, especially during the Heian period (794 to 1185).

In Kyoto, visitors can explore the famous geisha district of Gion, filled with traditional Japanese wooden townhouses. The Arashiyama district is known for its bamboo grove and beautiful scenic views, and Higashiyama hosts some of the most iconic temples in Japan.

Kyoto boasts some of the most stunning heritage sites in Japan. Highlights include Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion reflecting on its surrounding pond; Fushimi Inari Taisha, famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates; and the Philosopher’s Walk, a picturesque path alongside the canal, especially popular during cherry blossom season. The historic and tranquil ambiance of Kyoto provides a stark contrast to Tokyo’s futuristic zeal.

While a major tourist destination, Kyoto doesn’t have a commercial airport. Instead, travelers heading to the city typically fly into one of two nearby airports: Kansai International Airport or Osaka Itami Airport.

Kansai International Airport, situated on an artificial island in the middle of Osaka Bay, is the most commonly used gateway to Kyoto. It is located around 80 kilometers from the city center and provides a broad range of international flights.

Osaka Itami Airport, on the other hand, is closer to Kyoto, about 50 kilometers away. Itami predominantly serves domestic flights, so international travelers usually arrive here only if they’re connecting from elsewhere in Japan.

From both airports, you can reach Kyoto through an extensive network of public transportation. The Limited Express Haruka train from Kansai Airport is the most popular option, offering a direct, comfortable journey to Kyoto Station.

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Major Differences Between Kyoto and Tokyo

Even with almost similar names, these cities differ in many aspects. Here are some of the most common differences.

Kyoto vs. Tokyo: History

Kyoto Japan Architecture
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Kyoto existed long before Tokyo came into existence. As reported by some archeologists, Kyoto might have existed before the sixth century. The Shimogamo Shrine, which you can visit in Kyoto, dates back to around the same time. Despite the city’s age, the name Kyoto is not that old. Initially, it was known as Heian-Kyo, which meant “tranquility and peace capital”.

1864 the city suffered from war and fires, which destroyed over 28,000 homes during the Hamaguri rebellion. During this restless period, Emperor Meiji moved from Heian-Kyo to Tokyo, thus making Tokyo the new capital.

Spring at Higashiyama District, Kyoto, Japan
Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

To rebuild the destroyed city back to its glory, the Emperor renamed Heian-Kyo Kyoto in 1899. Just like Kyoto, Tokyo wasn’t the original name of the town. Initially, Tokyo was known as Edo, named after an estuary. Early in the 17th century, Edo was doing well enough as it significantly grew in infrastructure and economy.

Unfortunately, Edo’s grand vision and prosperity were marred by fires, earthquakes, and floods. The setbacks, however, did not squash the promising city as Emperor Meiji settled in Edo in 1869 and gave it a new name, Tokyo. Later in 1889, the Emperor named Tokyo as the capital instead of Kyoto.

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Kyoto and Tokyo Size and Sprawl

Ginza District in Tokyo, Japan
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Tokyo is Japan’s largest city, covering an estimated 2,188 square kilometers. Alternatively, Kyoto City is way smaller than Tokyo City, with a coverage of 827.83 square kilometers.

Kyoto vs. Tokyo: Transportation and Getting Around

Inside the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

On a global scale, Tokyo and the entire country of Japan are famous for their train network. The Tokyo metro systems are the conventional means of transportation in Tokyo.

Also, thanks to the state-of-the-art bullet train network system, you can easily visit many other cities around the country. Within the city, most people depend on trains daily as the primary means of transport.

In Kyoto, it is quite the opposite. There’s no need to hop on a train unless you are going beyond the city. Since Kyoto is a relatively small and compact city, it would be easier to use buses or bicycles to move from one point to another. It is common to find students riding bikes to get around the city to save on transport costs.

During our trip to Japan, we could easily visit Tokyo and Kyoto thanks to the Japan Rail Pass, which made it easy to take a couple-hour train from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station. If you plan to visit Japan, book the cheaper flight from your origin destination, as once you arrive, it’s easy to visit either of these cities.

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Kyoto vs. Tokyo: Culture

Culture in Kyoto vs Tokyo

Tokyo is a great city to visit, and enjoy your stay if you can stand the hustle and bustle. It’s a city that offers the Asian pop culture experience, blending the Eastern and Western ways of life. Since it is a significant center of commerce in Japan, the city has skyscrapers stretching to the clouds and swanky cafés.

Additionally, Tokyo is a great shopping hub as it is full of stores with the latest and hottest trends. The city is also full of neon lights and booming nightlife. If you want to experience the typical things people in the West say about Japan, Tokyo would be a better option.

On the other hand, if you feel attracted to and inspired by the traditional Japanese culture, then Kyoto would be a perfect choice. Kyoto offers an authentic Japanese culture full of Shinto shrines, temples, antique houses, and museums.

Two girls wearing traditional japanese kimono along the Sensoji Temple
Phattana Stock / Shutterstock

The city’s heritage is easily accessible and tangible, unlike Tokyo’s, which has been hidden and eroded by rigorous modern development. Kyoto is famous for the old Machiya (traditional houses) and has a rule restricting buildings to the height of a 5-story pagoda. This rule helps preserve Kyoto’s cultural scene.

One reason Kyoto has been able to preserve the ancient structures and landscapes is that it wasn’t affected by the Second World War.

The Great Kano Earthquake that occurred in 1923, as well as the massive aerial bombing during World War II, hugely destroyed Tokyo together with the ancient structures.

The main difference between Kyoto and Tokyo is rooted in the cultural aspect. While Kyoto offers an authentic traditional Japanese culture, Tokyo offers modernity.

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Kyoto vs. Tokyo: Population and Density

Shibuya Crossing at Rush Hour
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Japan is a densely populated country, with the most significant percentage of the population residing in the cities. Tokyo happens to be the most populated city globally.

The city has a population of around 14 million residents, and the metro area is home to more than 39 million people. Tokyo’s high population has dramatically influenced the skyrocketing accommodation costs, rents, and small living spaces.

Locals and Tourists walk on a street leading to Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto City
Avigator Fortuner / Shutterstock

On the other hand, Kyoto is a city with just about 1.4 million people. The population density of Kyoto is 1776 people/km2, while Tokyo’s population density is 6,000 people/km2. Kyoto is less crowded than Tokyo, thus making it great for those who love some quiet area to cool off and re-energize.

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Kyoto vs Tokyo: People and Attitude Towards Visitors

Tokyo Japan
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Whenever you visit Kyoto, people are generally warm and welcoming. However, due to their tight preservation of traditional Japanese culture, they might get offended if one fails to appreciate their culture.

They firmly hold these cultural practices as their source of identity. In our experience, people in Kyoto are approachable and happy to chat about history and culture. With 10% of the population being students in local universities, it is easy to hold open conversations and share perspectives on various aspects of life.

Modern Tokyo is a melting pot and is always full of life and diversity. The population is a mixture of locals, people from other parts of Japan, as well as different nationalities.

People walking in Gion Shijo Kyoto, the Old Town part of Kyoto.
Michael Gordon /

Most people tend to have an individualistic lifestyle. Given the diverse population and history, there are plenty of unique things to do in Tokyo. Due to the diversity in Tokyo, people are more open-minded and not restrained to culture. Yet, those who regard themselves as Edokko, native Tokyo people, tend to be a little bit proud with a sense of ownership.

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Kyoto vs Tokyo: Climate and Weather 

Kiyomizu-dera Temple and cherry blossom in Kyoto
f11photo / Shutterstock

During winter, Kyoto is relatively colder than Tokyo. Kyoto is wedged in between mountains, thus making it a little bit colder. Another factor that causes Kyoto to experience colder winters than Tokyo is its altitude. Kyoto sits 50-60 meters above sea level, while Tokyo sits 40 meters above sea level.

During the summer, Kyoto happens to outdo Tokyo, too. Temperatures are usually high in Tokyo with exhausting humidity. However, even though temperatures are higher in Kyoto during this period, the trees and greenery offer excellent recovery, unlike the crowded city of Tokyo.

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Kyoto vs Tokyo: Lifestyle and Living


Concerning living expenses, Tokyo is more expensive than Kyoto. The high cost of living is expected in every country’s capital, more so in developed nations. When comparing transport costs, accommodation, and food, Tokyo is around 30% more expensive than its rival.

For instance, for a three-course meal in Tokyo, you would spend 5,230 yen in a mid-range restaurant for two people. In comparison, one would spend around 4,000 yen in Kyoto in a mid-range restaurant for a three-course lunch of two.

Regarding accommodation rates, Kyoto is relatively cheap as you can rent a single-room apartment outside the city center for around 48,000 yen/week.

Capsule Hotel Beds in Kyoto, Japan
Mr. James Kelley / Shutterstock

In Tokyo, to rent a single-room apartment outside the city center for a week, you’ll need around 77,853 yen. But not everything is cheaper in Kyoto than in Tokyo.

You may find that some foods are less expensive in Tokyo than in Kyoto. In some aspects, transport costs are also more costly in Kyoto than in Tokyo.

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Food Comparison Between Kyoto and Tokyo

Grilled unagi or fresh water eel on sticks as street food  in Kyoto
Nataliya Hora /

Food hardly misses out on the comparison chart when comparing two great cities. It would be unfair if I failed to mention the quality of cuisine in Kyoto and Tokyo.

Japan is known for having some of the best dishes in the world – after all Iron Chef got its start here for a reason. Each region has its specific recipes and traditional dishes. Traditional Japanese dishes mainly dominate Kyoto’s cuisine. You’ll likely come across street food such as Monjayaki, Okonomiyaki, and Takoyaki.

Japanese street food in Tokyo
Savvapanf Photo / Shutterstock

Due to the diversity and modernization in Tokyo, there is a vast range of delicacies from Japan and around the globe. Tokyo has attracted across the globe restaurants and chefs from various parts of the world, thus giving it an upper hand.

Depending on your preference, it is easier to find your taste in Tokyo than in Kyoto. That does not mean that Kyoto lacks excellent food. If you like traditional Japanese cuisine, Kyoto will serve you well. But if you are looking for a wide variety or want to try new food, Tokyo will best fulfill your desires. These are the popular foods to eat in Japan, regardless of location.

Kyoto vs Tokyo: The Great Outdoors

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Kyoto
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Kyoto’s outdoor experiences are calm and serene. Kyoto will be memorable if you love nature and beautiful landscapes. You can take your time and enjoy the fresh air as you walk between the swaying bamboo trees.

Besides, you can also relax and take a breath in a quiet central park. Kyoto can also be an excellent destination for those who love adventure and exploring. It offers multiple spots to visit and experience authentic Japanese culture as you interact with the locals.

Tokyo, too, has quite a few parks. But unlike Kyoto’s gardens, these parks are not as quiet. The locals typically flock to these parks for beer-fueled picnics as they lighten up in laughter. Occasionally, live music and bands would grace these green spaces.

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Best Time to Visit to Visit Japan

Tokyo is most enchanting during spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November). These seasons showcase Tokyo’s iconic cherry blossoms and lively fall foliage, offering aesthetically pleasing scenery. In addition, these periods provide the most comfortable temperatures and weather conditions for outdoor exploration and sightseeing.

Kyoto is spectacular in spring (March to May) and autumn (October to November). These seasons are celebrated for their exquisite cherry blossom and stunning autumn colors, creating remarkable scenes in Kyoto’s numerous historic Buddhist temples and gardens. The weather during these times is also mild and pleasant, ideal for outdoor activities and traditional events.

Final Thoughts: Should You Visit Tokyo or Kyoto?

Japanese Temple in Kyoto, Japan
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

It’s pretty hard to pick one city over the other. While Tokyo reveals Japan’s fast-paced life and modern culture, the other reveals calmer life in modern Japan. Kyoto and Tokyo uniquely contrast each other to offer great insights into traditional Japanese culture.

If you are trying to figure out how many days to spend in Tokyo vs Kyoto, start by listing your preferences for the trip. A minimum of two days would be perfect for Kyoto, while a minimum of three days would suit Tokyo.


Is Tokyo or Kyoto better?

Whether Tokyo or Kyoto is better largely depends on individual travel preferences. Tokyo, Japan’s bustling capital, is a hub of modernity, technology, and global cuisine, offering endless nightlife and shopping opportunities. On the other hand, once the imperial capital, traditional Kyoto is revered for its Buddhist temples, serene gardens, and historic geisha district, providing a more tranquil and cultural experience.

Is Kyoto or Tokyo better for food?

Both Kyoto and Tokyo offer exceptional food experiences, each with unique strengths. Tokyo, boasting the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, is a paradise for food enthusiasts offering a wide range of cuisines, from sushi to ramen. Kyoto is famous for its traditional kaiseki (multi-course) dining, matcha (green tea) sweets, and local specialties like yuba (tofu skin) and yudofu (tofu hot pot).

Are Kyoto and Tokyo the same place?

No, Kyoto and Tokyo are not the same place. They are two distinct cities in Japan with their unique characteristics. Tokyo is the country’s modern and bustling capital, while Kyoto is known for its historical and cultural richness, home to numerous temples, shrines, and traditional teahouses.

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