I want to preface by saying: if you’re debating between Tokyo or Kyoto, stop right there. You need to visit both cities. If you’re running into scheduling conflicts, then shift some dates around because I truly don’t believe you can visit one and not the other if you’re looking for a full Japan experience. Unless you have less than 5 days in Japan, visiting both cities is a no-brainer. If you do have a short time in Japan, read on as I do have a favorite.
The debate between Tokyo vs. Kyoto comes down to the differences between modern and traditional. Both cities are safe and enjoyable for any type of traveller. The people are incredibly friendly and hospitality is top-notch. Tokyo is loud and in-your-face; Kyoto is serene. It mainly comes down to personal preference and what you’re looking for from your short stay in Japan.
With its modern buildings and bustling streets, Tokyo is a sensory overload. From the insane Shibuya crossing to trendy Harajuku, each eclectic district has its own personality that I doubt you’ll ever be bored. For those who love good nightlife and up-and-coming hotspots, Tokyo has plenty of that. There are also other places a little outside of Tokyo you can visit and they’re just a quick train ride away.
If you are a budget traveller, you may need to splurge a little in Tokyo as it’s more expensive than Kyoto. Being from Los Angeles, I didn’t notice a huge surge in prices compared to what I pay back home. For those who don’t live in a big city, I can see why some may think Tokyo is expensive. However, there are plenty of hostels, small bars and izakayas that are budget-friendly amidst the contemporary parts of Japan.
Kyoto is old Japan, with traditional tea houses, gorgeous shrines, and sublime gardens. It reigns as Japan’s cultural capital. If you enjoy learning about history, you’ll find Kyoto worth your while. One word that I always come back to when describing Kyoto is “peaceful”. Everything from Arashiyama bamboo forest to the breathtaking Fushimi Inari-taisha makes it feel like times slows in Kyoto. I am not a scenic person — you can hardly get me to sit by the beach and watch waves. In Kyoto, I found myself stopping periodically to take in the scenery because I was so compelled to do so.
If you’re a foodie like me, Kyoto offers low-key Michelin-deserving restaurants that specialize in Kaiseiki. And don’t be fooled by the city’s serenity; Kyoto’s nightlife is almost up to par with Tokyo. You can find cozy bars in the alleyways of Gion district (my favorite), or catch a rare geisha sighting in Pontocho Alley.
Tokyo vs. Kyoto: Which is my Favorite?
Hands down, Kyoto. This is not to say that you should skip Tokyo — absolutely not. But if you have been traveling around and only have a few days to spend in Japan, choose Kyoto as you’ll find the traditional aspects of what Kyoto has to offer outweighs the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
If you’ve been to Tokyo and Kyoto, which city was your favorite?