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The duel of Japan: Tokyo versus Kyoto

Tokyo is just one of those places that give even the simplest of things a uniquely different twist so that nothing is mundane (just wait until you go to the toilet).

Of course, they are both great cities and if you have the time and money, you should definitely see both. But people love conflict and contrasting viewpoints; like Batman vs Joker, Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader, or Kanye West vs Everybody Else.

And although these two cities are only a super-fast bullet train away from each other, they are two very different places (different from anywhere else in the world and from each other). So, let’s compare and contrast Tokyo and Kyoto.

TOKYO

Eighteen million people can’t be wrong. Tokyo is huge, with its hyped-up intensity being one of its main attractions. Unlike cities like London, Paris or New York which all have world-renowned tourist attractions and landmarks, Tokyo is somewhat under the radar in that respect. So it’s useful to have at least some idea of what you would like to see and experience, apart from ‘some weird stuff’.

For instance, one of the city’s main attractions is a pedestrian crossing. Shibuya (which, back in the 80s, was pronounced “She-boo-yah!”) is in the heart of Tokyo and the crossing is supposedly the busiest in the world. All traffic lights go red at the same time and then pedestrian chaos ensues.

Tokyo traffic
Photo by Rachael Hibbs

The Starbucks has a second-level window which is not only great for a time-lapse but also a cup of over-priced coffee. After Shibuya, you can head over to Takeashita street.

When you think of a Japanese high street, you think of Takeshita and the surrounding area of Harajuku. It’s worth spending an evening there to dazzle in all its odd and lovable glory. There are also good places to snack, shop and drink. We ate a sweet waffle.

Other than crossing roads, the parks are spectacular. And we visited many parks. For us, the two best central parks in Tokyo were Yoyogi Park and Shinjuku Gyoen. Yoyogi is much more wooded, has a serene temple hidden in the middle and is a big cultural hangout.

Shinjuku Gyoen holds everything in it that makes the world marvel at how the Japanese arrange their gardens.

An alternative I would recommend is the Edo Museum. Many tourists are drawn to Japan for its culture and the Edo Museum proudly takes you through Japan’s history with great interactive exhibitions.

The museum’s architecture takes you back through the ages, which contrasts the neo-futuristic outside design of the building itself.

Japanese building Edo musuem
Edo Museum. Photo by Rachael Hibbs

As much as I’m selling the city to tourism with the idea of crossing a road and then walking on some grass, Tokyo is one of those places that give even the simplest of things a uniquely different twist so nothing is mundane (just wait until you go to the toilet).

I recommend eating as much good food as you can (not a really difficult task) and exploring all the different areas from Asakusa to Roppongi Hills. Also, make sure to take in your fair share of ‘weird stuff’; cat cafés are quite fun.

Some of our best day trips were further outside of the city, but close enough so I can justify mentioning them here. Our favourite trip was to Kamakura. We sat on the edges of the Tokyo metro line by the sea which boasts the second largest Buddha monument in Japan. While that alone doesn’t justify a whole trip, it’s worth getting off the train at the station before, called Kita-Kamakura.

Buddha with the blossoms
A giant Buddha amongst the blossoms in Kamakura. Photo by Rachael Hibbs

Take a look at the quiet little temple next to the station, after which you can enjoy a laid-back two-hour walk through the Japanese countryside down to the coast. Once there, you can relax and take a break from the city bustle for a while before returning to the wonderful chaos of Tokyo.

The high street encapsulates some charming, slightly touristy, and picturesque Japanese small-town vibes. We witnessed dozens of bids of prey flew over the town at dusk. We never found out why, but it definitely added to the magic.

KYOTO

Kyoto is a completely different story. You can bike almost everywhere around the city and it is one of the main ways of getting around. The transport links aren’t great and the buses take forever. It’s quite fun but easy to get lost if spontaneity is your thing. Plus, biking is healthier and at this point, we were definitely in need of burning some ‘dumpling calories’.

The grid structure of the city makes it easy to navigate – even without Google Maps. The place has a much more laid-back feel compared to Tokyo.

If you are visiting Japan for the temples and shrines (I don’t really know if there is a difference between a temple and a shrine because I’m secretly super uncultured) then Kyoto is definitely the place you want to be. Some are better than others – the Golden Leaf temple and the Nijo Castle didn’t overly ‘wow’ me, despite being some of the most popular tourist attractions.

Kiyomizu-dera, which I will refer to as ‘the wooden one’ (see how cultured I sound?) is one I did very much enjoy. Views stretch over green treetops and mountains in the distance – it is stunning. There are also plenty of other things to see and just imagining how they built it back in the day is mystifying. 

Kyoto temple
Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto, also known as ‘the wooden one’. Picture by Rachael Hibbs

Fun fact: there are over 1000 temples in Kyoto alone, and some of the better ones are the lesser-known ones. Apparently, all but two temples in the WHOLE of Japan have actually survived throughout history. All the rest were rebuilt at some point as many were burnt down. Sorry, that probably should have come with a spoiler alert…

My personal favourite was the Fushimi-Imari shrine. It is a beautiful trail of over a thousand bright orange structures winding around a hilltop. The lower parts are packed with tourists but if you have time and energy, trek up to the hilltop to get postcard-worthy shots of the shrine. 

Inari gates
Photo by Rachael Hibbs

Another place to mention is the Gion District, otherwise known as the Geisha District. The place is full of upmarket bars and restaurants that were totally out of our price range. To even get a glimpse inside some of these bars you have to know someone really important in Japan.

Apart from temples, probably the coolest thing in Kyoto is Arashiyama. Slightly outside the centre, the two main things to do include a National Park where monkeys roam freely, and a walkway through a bamboo forest (I told you it was cool).

monkeys in Kyoto
Photo by Rachael Hibbs

The park is on a hill, so it is not the most leisurely climb, but halfway up you will start to spot families of monkeys. At the top, there is a place to rest; except it is also an area where the monkeys hang out and look cute in return for nuts and photoshoots (perhaps more so for the nuts).

Arashiyama’s bamboo forest on the other side of the river is also beautiful. It can get crowded, so plan your visit with that in mind. Arashiyama is also where we found our favourite temple. We took a walk down from the monkey park, following a road that seemingly didn’t go anywhere until we saw a sign: “Best temple in all of Kyoto – this way”.

Bamboo arashiyama
Photo by Rachael Hibbs

I couldn’t check it out, even if it was just to dispute the claim. After hiking back up the hill, we found the quaintest little temple nestled between the trees. It had one of those big bells that all Japanese temples have, but with one difference – you can hit the bell yourself! Being the only people there, and with the most amazing view of Arashiyama, it was worth checking out.

For Kyoto day trips, Nara Park is a place where they believe deer to be holy spirits, so they let them wander around freely. They’re so clever and tame; they’ve learnt that if they bow to humans, they will get a treat. You will fall wholeheartedly for this cute gimmick (has it got to the point where even animals can be gimmicky?), perhaps until they start headbutting you for more food, so their politeness is still somewhat wanting.

There is another temple in the park but due to the entrance fee and the fact that we were templed out*, we gave it a miss. Apparently, it is one of the more impressive temples, also with a giant Buddha statue.

TOKYO OR KYOTO?

If you want the weird and wonderful, Tokyo has it all. The mad fashion, marvellous inner-city parks, the neon streets that have all the food (when I say ‘all the food’, I mean ‘rice and ramen noodles’, but in all its delicious combos), and the endless flux of bizarre, yet relatable city-life.

If you want to go back in time, walking through enchanted forests, shrines and temples, getting a little sense of Japanese culture, and how it once was, and maybe reconnect with your Zen, then Kyoto is for you. 

*A term put about frequently in Asia to describe being somewhat less enthralled than when you previously arrived at all the picturesque temples.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
Hotels and hostels often get booked out quite far in advance, especially in the popular seasons, so make sure you plan your accommodation a good couple of months early. We booked our accommodation with AirBnB, which can save you some money and it’s also a nice cultural experience. For a bit of fun, you can try out a capsule hotel. They are more popular in Tokyo than Kyoto and I thought they were surprisingly spacious.
Get a way of travelling around, knowing where you are going. Google Maps re-translates to Japanese, making navigation impossible. You can buy a SIM card at Narita airport for a reasonable price (something we mistakenly decided against) or you can download an app such as Maps.me, which is essentially like an offline version of Google Maps that doesn’t re-translate itself (this is something we also only heard about after our trip).
Transport in Japan is well laid out, which I guess is one of the perks of having a country that is long and thin, giving you basically only two directions. Travelling with the metro in Tokyo is surprisingly simple considering you’re in a giant cityscape with another alphabet. Riding the Shinkansen, or bullet train, is also simple and a good option is to get a Japan Rail Pass if you are doing a round trip. A one-way ticket costs between ¥13-14,000, depending on how many stops they have.
It is not a cheap travel (equates to $120-130) and personally, it seemed cooler to look from the outside than it did to be on the inside, in my opinion. It is moving so smoothly you almost forget how fast you’re going until you look out the window and see whole cities breeze past you. 

Blake Anderson James

Blake Anderson James started moving between countries from the age of fourteen and has been inspired by travel ever since. He spent a season living and travelling through South East Asia; he has explored South America and journeyed through most of Europe. He is an adventurous soul who enjoys activities such as scuba diving and anything that his body and budget will endure. If his humour is not evident enough from his writings, look out for him in the flesh because he loves to practice stand-up comedy whenever he gets an opportunity.

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