As the former Imperial capital of Japan, you’d expect Kyoto to be a pretty big city, and it is. Many of the major attractions are on the outskirts, so hopping from one to the other can easily rack up your transportation expenses. Fortunately, there are easy ways to rationalize these and keep your transport costs down. Here’s how to get around Kyoto cheap:
Plan Your Excursions
We can’t stress this point enough. Plan where you’re going, and as much as possible visit attractions that are near each other on the same day. If you like to enjoy the sights in peace and quiet like we do, plan to visit the most popular attractions first thing in the morning, then walk if possible to others that are nearby.
Plan to Walk
The attractions in each quadrant of the city are mostly within walking distance or a short bus ride from each other, but hopping from say Kinkakuji in the northwest to Kiyomizudera in the east-central area can require two or more rides. Plan your trips so that you can walk from your first destination for the day down to your last, so you only need to take a ride twice or thrice for the day. If your hotel is in the Kyoto Station area you can expect to spend only JPY 460 per person on bus rides with this strategy (JPY 230 per ride).
Buy a Bus Pass
The Kyoto Bus Pass allows you unlimited rides for one whole day within the city’s flat-fare area for just JPY 500. You can download the Kyoto City Bus route guide here. Any destination within the red boundary line is covered by the pass; if you go outside it, say to Takao, you have to pay an extra charge. You get your money’s worth if you take the bus three or more times in a day.
The pass also covers the Raku buses, which are especially convenient for travelers as they run in loops connecting the major attractions starting from Kyoto Station. The Raku 100 bus covers the eastern (Higashiyama and Okazaki) areas, stopping at Kiyomizudera, Sanjusangendo, Heian Shrine and Ginkakuji, while the Raku 101 stops at Nijo Castle, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kinkakuji and Daitokuji.
One caveat using the buses, though: They can get really crowded and slow during peak seasons. We like to take the buses if we’re going out early enough to avoid the crowds, but for travel during the day, and when there’s a subway stop near to our destination, we prefer the subway. The good thing about buses, though, is that their stops are usualy much nearer the attractions than the nearest train or subway station.
Buy a Kyoto Sightseeing Pass
The Kyoto Sightseeing Pass is like an extension of the Bus Pass, this time allowing you unlimited rides on both the Kyoto City Bus and the subways. It’s JPY 1,200 for a one-day pass, JPY 2,000 for a two-day pass. As we’ve worked out the math, you get your money’s worth here if you take a combined total of six or more bus and subway rides in a day. That’s too fast-paced for us, but your time in Kyoto is limited and you want to see as much as possible, this pass can be a good deal for you.
Rent a Bike
Bicycle rental in Kyoto is very reasonable, and some hotels, especially the backpacker guesthouses and hostels, have their own bikes for guests. Prices average JPY 1,000 per day, calculated at 10 hours; some hostels charge less. Japanese motorists strictly follow traffic rules, so biking here is really safe, and there are many less-used roads and paths that invite exploration by bicycle. You’ll just have to get used to having traffic on the left, and ideally speak Japanese or have a guide to show you the way. Do remember to park your bike properly when you stop to explore on foot, and do lock them down when you park.
Can a JR Pass be Used in Kyoto?
As a rule, JR Passes are best for doing a lot of inter-city travel. If you’re only visiting Kyoto, Osaka and Nara, you don’t need a JR Pass. A JR Pass can be used only on JR trains and JR buses, which in Kyoto run routes to Kyoto’s outliers like Arashiyama and Takao. The JR Pass is not valid for use on the Kyoto City and Raku bus lines, nor for the city’s Tozai, Karasuma, Hankyu and Keihan lines.
So where in Kyoto can you go with a JR Pass? You can take the JR Saga line to Arashiyama, the JR Nara line to Tofukuji, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Uji, and to destinations in the surrounding prefectures like Lake Biwa or Himeji. You can combine a JR Pass for your day trips to Kyoto’s outliers and a Bus Pass or Sightseeing Pass for your touring within Kyoto city proper.
Regional Passes are now available from JR, so if you’re coming in from Kansai Airport and not going beyond say Iseshima in the east and Himeji to the west, you can get the JR Kansai regional pass instead of the all-Japan JR Pass.
ICOCA Card Combo
For us, the most practical and efficient way of getting around Kyoto is the ICOCA card, sometimes in combination with a Bus Pass, and walking. While the various passes each give discounted rides on a limited selection of transport lines, an ICOCA card allows you to take any train, subway or bus within the Kansai region.
No discount, but no lines, no fuss, and you can mix and match transport options at will. For example on our trip to Arashiyama we used subway + JR train to get there very early in the morning, a Bus Pass to hop around the attractions of Arashiyama, and then used the Bus Pass back to our hotel since the bus stops nearer to it than the nearest subway station.
Want help planning your vacation in Kyoto, Osaka or Nara? You can call or email us for our travel planning services. We charge only a modest fee for it, far less than you’d spend on a Japanese taxi!