Travel Tips

Tips for Using Public Transportation in Kyoto Japan

Japan’s system of public transportation is glorious and complicated.  Prior to our trip to Kyoto Japan, I spent hours studying how to get around, and continued learning while there. I personally love using local public transportation when I travel. I will always choose a subway or a train if available.  To me, it’s one of the great ways to truly experience a place. By using public transportation, you can really observe regular people getting along in their regular lives.  Plus, it’s always less expensive than taxis.   Let me share some tips from what I learned about using public transportation in Kyoto. I’ll also tell you about the money-saving Japan Rail Pass.

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Public Airport Transportation in Kyoto 

Most international visitors who travel to Kyoto by air will arrive at the Kansai International Airport (KIX) outside of Osaka.  It sits on reclaimed land in the middle of Osaka Bay, south of the city.  Kyoto is about 100 km away from KIX and is conveniently connected to KIX by several trains. 

The Haruka Limited Express

I recommend using the Haruka Limited Express train to get from Kansai Airport to the main Kyoto train station (Kyoto Station). It’s the most direct train service with the fewest number of stops.  The journey takes 75 minutes on a single train with 3 stops.

Entering the Haruka Limited Express all decorated with Hello Kitty
The Haruka Train is sponsored by Hello Kitty…

The ICOCA & Haruka Ticket

Presuming you don’t have the Japan Rail Pass (more to come on that below), you’ll want to purchase the ICOCA & Haruka ticket.  This discounted ticket for the Haruka Limited Express service is available for purchase at the airport’s JR Ticket station, and is only available to foreign visitors.

The JR ticket station is clearly marked and easy to reach from the arrival area of the airport.  Not only will you receive a discounted ticket for a non-reserved seat on the Haruka Limited Express, you’ll also receive an ICOCA card to use during your stay (more on this extremely useful card below). Your ICOCA card comes preloaded with 2000 yen, including a 500 yen refundable deposit. (You will blow through that 2000 yen in the first couple days using public transportation in Kyoto.) With this discount combo, you are getting the train ticket for almost half of its normal price. More detailed information including current total pricing on this ticket can be found here

The JR ticket office did not accept credit cards for the ICOCA & Haruka ticket – only cash, so look for an ATM in the airport as soon as you arrive and collect some Yen.    The ticket agent spoke excellent English. I bought round trip tickets back and forth from Kyoto, and with the accompanying preloaded ICOCA card, the cost was 5260 yen or approximately $50 each.

Riding the Haruka Limited Express

As I mentioned, this discount ticket is for a non-reserved seat. Many Japanese express trains offer three types of train cars – a First Class car, a reserved regular car, and a non-reserved regular car.  On the Haruka Limited Express, the car type is clearly marked in English both on the outside and on the inside. Be sure that you get on the non-reserved car. Ticket agents will come through the train after it leaves the station and check your tickets.  If you are in the wrong car, you will be charged the fare difference. 

The train leaves the airport station every 30 minutes.  At busy times, you may not be able to find a seat on the non-reserved car and will need to stand.  We stood for the first 30 minutes (seats became available for us at the first stop). There were luggage racks between cars.  If ensuring a seat for the full trip is important to you, you may want to wait and board the next train as soon as it arrives at the station.

Getting Around Kyoto by Train

The Local Trains 

I have never before witnessed a train system like Japan’s.  The major train stations alone (like Kyoto Station or Namba Station in Osaka) are almost like full cities unto themselves with lodging, floors and floors and floors of shopping, and a multitude of dining options.  Kyoto’s train system can be confusing and does require some research and planning. There are several different train companies with train lines in Kyoto. We used the JR and Keihan lines the most, but also used three additional lines for various destinations.  Each company has a different section in Kyoto Station and different stations out in the city.   Sometimes those stations are literally within a block of each other (Fushimi Inari for example).  But despite the potential confusion, it’s a great way to get around.  

Kyoto Station - a major hub for public transportation in Kyoto
The massive Kyoto Station – so large it doesn’t even fit into the whole photo

Tools to Simplify Kyoto Train Travel

Here are several  tools to help make train travel through this labyrinth of train track easier:

The ICOCA card  

This is really the only transportation ticket that you need for all your public transportation needs in Kyoto.  We were also able to use it in Osaka, Nara, and Hiroshima.  Rather than purchasing individual tickets for each journey, you can use your ICOCA card as a universal ticket, on all forms of public transportation and all train lines. As I outlined above, we obtained ours at the airport with the Haruka Limited Express ticket (remember you are required to get a preloaded ICOCA card in order to get the discounted train ticket).  You basically rent the card for your time in Japan. Your 500 yen deposit is refundable at the Kansai airport JR ticket office on your departure day.

With card in hand, you can load it as needed with money at various ATM-like machines located at every train and subway station. (Note that these machines only accept cash. There is a button on the machine that switches the language to English and walks you through the process). This card then automatically deducts the cost of travel for each train, subway, or bus journey on all the various trains, subways, and buses in Kyoto.  Any unused funds on the card will be refunded if you return it to the airport JR office when you leave Japan.

Hyperdia 

Hyperdia is a route planner for the train and subway systems throughout Japan. There is a web-based version, or an App for either Iphone or Android.  Hyperdia was invaluable in helping me know how to get where. Forget trying to read the train maps – they are extremely complicated given the number of stops on each train line and the different number of train companies in the city. 

With Hyperdia you simply enter your starting train station or subway station and your ending station, along with your desired time of departure. It will then show you which series of trains to take (all train companies are included), which platforms to board your train, the next departure time, how long each segment will take, anticipated time of arrival, and cost.  I found Hyperdia to be extremely accurate and I couldn’t have managed our daily travel without it.  

Google Maps 

By entering your location and your destination in Google Maps, you are given similar routing information as Hyperdia.  For train/subway travel, I found Hyperdia more useful. But, I absolutely depended on Google Maps once I left the train station. It showed me where I was and how to get to where I wanted to go.  I also used Google Maps to identify which train or subway stations were closest to my desired destination (for loading into Hyperdia).

Having GPS in your pocket is a must if you are going to navigate Kyoto on your own. I would highly recommend paying for either portable pocket wifi (which seemed quite popular in Japan) or for your cell carrier’s international travel plan. My carrier is Verizon and they charge me a reasonable $10/day for high speed data in Japan. 

The Bullet Trains (Shinkansen) 

I don’t think any trip to Japan is complete without experiencing the Shinkansen. Japan has an extensive network of bullet trains that will quickly move you from one major city to another.  In fact, it’s much easier and ultimately faster to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto by bullet train, rather than by plane.  While not cheap, the Shinkansen system is very quick and very convenient – trains leave on time, there are several departures each hour, there are no security checks or long airport lines. They are indeed very fast, topping out at around 199 mph.  We used the Shinkansen to travel between Kyoto and Hiroshima. 

Waiting to board the Shinkansen in Hiroshima.  The bullet train is the fastest form of public transportation in Kyoto

Seating Options on the Shinkansen

Like the Haruka Limited Express, the Shinkansen trains have a First Class (Green Car), Reserved, and Non-Reserved cars. A ticket on the first two of these assures you an assigned seat. There is a risk of standing on the non-reserved car if it is full. The reserved car ticket does cost more than the non-reserved car, though not by much, and I personally think that an assured seat is worth it (the price difference varies according to the route). Like on a plane, First Class seats are a little wider and a little more comfortable, but I couldn’t convince myself that they were worth the additional cost.

Buying Your Shinkansen Ticket

Tickets for the Shinkansen can be purchased in advance, and doing so assures that you will get a seat on your desired train. I bought our tickets to Hiroshima two days in advance at the Shinkansen ticket office at Kyoto Station. There are automatic ticket machines for the Shinkansen, but I was nervous I would buy the wrong tickets, plus I wanted to use my credit card. The ticket agent in the office spoke excellent English and I was able to use a credit card. The cost for our tickets each way to Hiroshima were $108 apiece. Travel by Shinkansen is obviously quite expensive. Your costs can be significantly reduced by purchasing the Japan Rail Pass or one of JR’s Regional Passes prior to your arrival in Japan (see below).

Riding the Shinkansen

On travel day, you wait for the train on a platform, just as you would any other train in Japan. Ours pulled up exactly on schedule, we got on and found our seats, and after a few minutes, we were off. So much easier than air travel. There is overhead luggage storage, fold-down tray tables, and an attendant that comes through from time to time selling snacks. I definitely felt the speed, and obviously the world outside rushes by. I personally found it hard to read my iPad, experiencing a slight bit of motion sickness if I tried – I was fine when I stopped looking at it.

Inside a Shinkansen Bullet Train - the fastest form of public transportation in Kyoto

Saving Money with the Japan Rail Pass

The Japan Rail Pass is a great way to save money on train travel in Japan. You will save money with the Japan Rail Pass on your Kyoto public transportation costs if:

  1. You plan on using the bullet train for roundtrip travel between Tokyo and Kyoto
  2. Or you plan on using bullet trains more than once for regional travel around Kyoto. 

If you use the bullet train for only one regional trip as we did to Hiroshima, then Japan Rail also offers money-saving regional passes. I did not know about regional passes – otherwise I would have saved a significant amount by using the Kansai-Hiroshima regional pass.

In addition to saving you money on the expensive Shinkansen train tickets, the JR Pass also includes any travel on local JR trains as well – including the Haruka Limited Express (back and forth from the airport)!

There are two different versions of the Pass. The Ordinary Pass for reserved Shinkansen seats, or the Green Pass for first class Shinkansen seats. The Pass can be purchased for 7, 14, or 21 day periods (at incrementally increased pricing)

How to Get a Japan Rail Pass

The Japan Rail Pass is only available to foreign visitors. It costs significantly less if you purchase the pass online ahead of time. You will be mailed a voucher which is then exchanged for your actual Pass at the JR ticket office upon arrival at any major international airport in Japan. Click here for more JR Pass information or to purchase a JR Pass.

Other Forms of Public Transportation In Kyoto

The Subway System

Kyoto’s subway system is not extensive.  It only has two lines.  We used the trains more, but did combine train and subway travel when Hyperdia told me to.  

Kyoto Buses

We rode the Kyoto Bus a few times.  Certain sites for us were best accessed by bus, since our hotel was near Kyoto Station. The station is a major transportation hub for all forms of public transportation in Kyoto.  The bus is easy to ride. You enter from the back and pay with your ICOCA card when you exit the front. 

Google Maps was the best resource for guiding our bus travel. For example, choose your GPS location as your starting point, add your desired destination, and Google Maps will show you all your transportation options (walking, bus, train, subway, and taxi with estimated fare).   As I mentioned, I preferred Hyperdia for my train/subway route – Hyperdia’s information was more extensive.  But if I wanted to ride a  bus, Google Maps would show me the nearest bus stop directly on the map, the bus number that I needed to take, the anticipated time the bus would arrive, and my anticipated time of arrival. Technology is awesome!

Taxis

We used a taxi twice in Kyoto. In both cases we were tired and not near any train or subway stop. A note on taxis in Kyoto – neither of our drivers spoke English and I read that is usually the case. Fortunately, we were going back to Kyoto Station each time and both drivers understood that.  Payment is in cash and tipping isn’t expected. Google Maps will give you an estimate of your taxi fare which is very helpful.  There is no Uber or Lyft in Japan as of this writing. There appears to be a Japanese version that would pop up on Google Maps, but it always appeared to cost the same as a regular tax ride.

And Don’t Forget About Walking

And we walked.  A lot!!  Many cities are best explored on foot and Kyoto is one of those. Google Maps is very useful for walking guidance too, as long as you are connected.  That blue GPS dot not only keeps you from getting lost, but it is also helpful in determining walking distance and walking times.  

Storefronts in Kyoto's Southern Higashiyama District
Walking through Kyoto’s Southern Higashiyama District
Walking along the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto
Pagoda in Kyoto's Southern Higashiyma District
We came across this couple taking their wedding pictures while walking through Kyoto

Regardless of whether you are walking, or using one of the many the great public transportation options in Kyoto, I’m sure you will enjoy everything this great city has to offer!

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