Kyoto is incredibly easy to explore by public transport (trains, subways, buses and taxis) or under your own steam (by bicycle or walking). This is a guide to getting around Kyoto, with information on the best way to get to each part of the city. It covers things like our favorite railway lines in the city, using the Japan Rail Pass in Kyoto (or not), and other random tips for Kyoto transit.
The first thing you need to know is that you don’t need to know most of this. We live in the era of smartphones and Google Maps, so mastering Kyoto’s transportation network is no longer a strict necessary (unless you don’t have a smartphone). It’s definitely a good idea to skim this post to gain a working understanding of how the moving parts of Kyoto’s public transportation interface with one another.
You don’t want to be a dummy staring blankly at your phone and following it anywhere it leads you, pulling a Michael Scott and walking into a lake because the GPS tells you to do it. You also don’t need to study Kyoto transportation maps intensively prior to your trip as if you might have a pop quiz on the topic at any moment. Basically, I’m saying that while other planning resources treat transportation as very important, I view that perspective as antiquated. You can pretty much gloss over this topic…
I love a lot of things about Kyoto and am not shy about sharing them, but its train and subway network is not one of those things. As compared to many other large cities in Japan, Kyoto seems to have far fewer subway and train stations near major points of interest. Rather, it feels like Kyoto’s transportation network is more geared towards its commuters trying to get to and from work (which is totally fine, but as a tourist, you should know that going in).
I swear it seems like almost every major temple or attraction is at least a 15 minute walk from the nearest station, and in some cases, it’s so far that you have to take a bus. It also doesn’t help that there are several different companies that operate the railways and subways, which can complicate the transfer process.
With that said, if you’re coming from the United States or another country with subpar public transportation, Kyoto will blow you away as a beacon of simple, efficient, and clean public transportation. For the most part, this is absolutely true. It just feels inferior to other comparable cities in Japan, which is the paragon of public transportation.
It should also be noted that Kyoto Station notwithstanding, most stations in Kyoto have only a handful of tracks, and are easy to navigate. There is English signage in every station and on every train or subway car, making navigation simple. You still might get lost a time or two (it happens to everyone), but it shouldn’t be too intimidating. With that background set, let’s turn to some basic information and tips about Kyoto transportation…
Kyoto Transportation Info
Above is a map of all the subway and railway lines serving Kyoto so you can visualize how all of the various lines wind through Kyoto. Below are some of the lines you’re most likely to use:
- JR Nara Line: Connecting from Kyoto Station to Nara Station with stops in between at Tofukuji, Inari (Fushimi Inari Shrine), Uji (World Heritage Sites). This line is one reason we love staying near Fushimi Inari.
- JR Sagano Line: Connecting Kyoto Station to Arashiyama with a noteworthy stop in Central Kyoto at Nijo Castle. We think this is the best way to access Arashiyama, particularly if you’re on the Japan Rail Pass.
- JR Tokaido-Sanyo (Main) Line: Not to be confused with the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen, the Tokaido-Sanyo Main Line is a regular train connecting Kyoto to Osaka, Kobe, Himeji, and everywhere in between. We love it for day trips.
- Keihan Main Line: Our most-used train in Kyoto, this runs parallel to the Kamo River, with stops at Fushimi Inari, Kiyomizu-gojo, and Gion. Frustratingly, it does not connect to Kyoto Station, but it does offer access some of the attractions in Southern Kyoto (and connects to Osaka).
- Tozai Line: The subway line we use the most, running south-north on the outskirts of town before turning to run west-east at Higashiyama Station.
- Karasuma Line: Kyoto’s other subway line, which runs south-north along Karasuma-dori and stops at JR Kyoto Station.
- Keifuku Railway: Two tram lines in Northwestern Kyoto that are a fun experience and very useful for getting between Arashiyama and Ryoan-ji, Ninna-ji, and Golden Pavilion.
- Eizan Railway: Two “Sightseeing Trains” in Northern Kyoto that are incredibly popular during fall colors season, and are a joy to experience any time. The Kurama Line passes through the famed “Maple Tunnel” and the Main Line leads to Mount Hieizan.
Obviously, if you compare our list to the map above, you can see this list is not comprehensive. You’ll probably use other lines while getting around Kyoto, but we view these as the most “important” (or potentially worthy of making a special trip, in the last case). Several other lines that primarily service Central and Downtown Kyoto are used more heavily by local commuters.
Kyoto Transportation Tips
Before we dig into these tips for ‘hacking’ Kyoto’s transportation network, we should disclose our biases and personal preferences, all of which inform these tips. First and foremost, we love to walk. It’s a great way to explore and get to know any city you visit, and it’s something we highly recommend if you’re physically able. On an average day touring Kyoto, we log about 20,000 steps.
Second, we have an intense disdain for buses (perhaps irrationally so). Even Japan’s clean and timely buses tend to be an unpleasant experience as compared to the subway and trains, so we go out of our way to avoid them. We would rather walk 25 minutes than endure a 12 minute bus ride. Bus stops can also be confusing to the first-time visitor to Kyoto, making walking less stressful.
We are also biased towards the JR Lines. In part, this is probably because we’ve grown accustomed to using them in other cities throughout Japan, and are now familiar with the company. The other reason is because we’ve often activated our Japan Rail Pass (read our Japan Rail Pass Tips & Info post for more on that) in Tokyo before taking the Shinkansen to Kyoto, stayed in Kyoto, and then taken the Shinkansen back to Tokyo.
An alternative to this is flying into Osaka (Kansai – KIX), taking the shorter train ride to Kyoto for that leg of the trip, using the Shinkansen to Tokyo, and then flying out of Tokyo. This is an attractive option if you don’t want to purchase the Japan Rail Pass, are using miles to fly, or somehow find a good deal flying into Osaka.
If you fly into KIX, you’ll want to take the JR Haruka limited express train to Kyoto Station. The good news here is that foreign visitors can purchase an ICOCA card plus half-price Haruka ticket to Kyoto at the JR Ticket Office in the station at KIX. Getting the ICOCA card is convenient and makes getting around the rails in Kyoto more convenient, so it’s really a win-win.
It should be noted that this strategy is far from ideal. JR Lines operates a small portion of the trains in Kyoto, meaning it might make sense to use your Japan Rail Pass before or after Kyoto if you can. The Japan Rail Pass is not valid on Kyoto’s other railways, subways, or buses.
Unfortunately, most of you are probably in a similar situation–activating your Japan Rail Pass for the Tokyo->Kyoto Shinkansen with a 3-5 day stay in Kyoto followed by a return Shinkansen trip–so you’ll be “forced” to find ways to use the JR Lines in Kyoto as much as possible. As such, we skew towards those lines whenever possible.
Our recommendations are absolutely colored by these biases, so if you either disagree with those opinions or need to rely more on public transportation, these tips may not be the best for you. (Fortunately, there are countless other good resources for getting around Kyoto.)
With that said, here are our tips:
- Not so much a transportation tip as a things to do tip, but Kyoto Station is an attraction unto itself. Lots of good shopping, dining (including our favorite, Kyoto Ramen Street–options pictured above), and quirky things to see. Make some time to wander the station–don’t feel bad if you get lost inside it. There are also underground tunnels that run north and south of Kyoto Station for a decent distance, allowing you to stay dry if it’s raining and you’re heading one of those directions.
- Save yourself the headache and buy an IC Card. We have both PASMO and ICOCA, but a variety of others are available. These refillable cards allow you to tap in and out without calculating your fare, and are incredibly convenient. Between the IC cards and Google Maps, transportation in Japan can be a pretty mindless process.
- If you fly into Kansai International Airport, you’ll want to purchase a combo ICOCA card and JR Haruka limited express train ticket for half off the train ticket.
- Often, walking from temple to temple is as efficient than taking public transportation. We typically recommend using public transit to get to your first point of interest, and then walking along an efficient path for most of your day thereafter.
- A variety of 1-day and multi-day “unlimited” transportation passes are sold at the Kyoto Bus Information Center in front of Kyoto Station. These can save you a lot of money if you’d prefer to use the buses. However, unless you intend upon taking the bus between 3+ temples you visit these passes often don’t offer as much value as you might think.
- Buses are incredibly popular during morning and evening rush hours for commuters, so even if you like buses, consider avoiding them at those times.
- If you want to take a day trip to Osaka, Kobe, Himeji and do not have the Japan Rail Pass, use the Tokaido-Sanyo Main Line, which runs regular trains connecting Kyoto to those cities at a fraction of the cost in an efficient timeframe.
- The JR Nara Line offers convenient access to a host of UNESCO World Heritage Sites south of Kyoto, and a day trip to those, culminating with Nara, is an excellent idea if you have time to spare.
- Always look at the fare estimator on Google Maps (it’s almost always accurate), rather than just choosing the fastest option. Transferring between different railway company lines can be more efficient, but double the cost. Taking an extra 5 minutes for a half-price fare might be worth it.
- If you dislike bus transit, as we do, go into Google Maps “Route Options” and select every form of public transportation other than buses. This will prioritize train and subway routes, even if it means more walking.
- Create multi-stop walking itineraries for Google Maps on your computer, and send them to your phone so you have a complete overview of your day.
- We’ve never used bicycles in Kyoto, but it seems like a mixed bag. On side streets in Arashiyama and Higashiyama, they’d be a nice way to get around. Downtown and in Central Kyoto, it’d be terrifying.
- Japan’s taxis are very expensive by Asia standards, but only slightly expensive by U.S. standards. We tend to avoid them, but for a party of 3-4 trying to get to Golden Pavilion in a hurry, for example, they could be a very attractive option.
While we knocked Kyoto’s public transportation at the outset, it should be noted that Kyoto is a relatively compact city. It’s easier to do a walking tour of Kyoto that hits many popular/good points of interest than it is to do the same in Tokyo. While the train network is not as strong in Kyoto, you’re still rarely more than 20 minutes away from a railway/subway station by foot.
The whole transportation network is not particularly intimidating or overwhelming, and aside from Kyoto Station, the stations are pretty easy to use, smaller, and tough to get lost inside. This is a far cry from some of Tokyo’s sprawling stations that are veritable underground cities capable of confounding even the most seasoned travel. You should have a pretty easy time getting around Kyoto, so don’t stress out about it too much.
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Do you have any experience getting around Kyoto? Which mode of transportation do you prefer? Any “favorite” subway or railway lines? Is our dislike of Kyoto’s buses irrational? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!