Tokyo vs Kyoto: Which I Prefer
While Tokyo and Kyoto may sound synonymous, the two cities (which are arguably the most popular destinations of Japan) are significantly unique. Each city has its own particular charms that may make it more appealing to certain travelers than the other. Personally, I preferred Kyoto; but, in my description of both cities, perhaps Tokyo will be more attractive to some travelers.
Considering the two cities, Tokyo absolutely takes the cake in population and geographic size.As the
largest metropolitan in the world, the urban giant that is Tokyo and its greater area stretches over a seemingly endless amount of land. Even after I spent a year there, I was never able to see it all. Kyoto – which is by no means a small town – simply takes up less space. There was something inherently satisfying to me about the knowledge that I could eventually see everything that Kyoto has to offer, without feeling overwhelmed. Of course, for some, it would be equally as exciting to know that in Tokyo, you could potentially see something new every day – even if you were there for a lifetime.
History and Architecture
As the previous Imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto revolves around the deep history surrounding it. People have lived in the region since the Japanese Paleolithic period (40,000 BCE to 14,000 BCE). More recently, in the 8th century CE, Kyoto (named Heian-kyō at the time) became the Imperial capital and remained so until the title was transferred to Tokyo during the Imperial Restoration in 1869. During its reign as the seat of the Emperor, the capital city became the center of great cultural movements. Literature, music, art, and architecture dominated the region and had great influence over the city. The Imperial city lead to the creation of the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, written by the lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu. It also was the original home of kabuki, a classical Japanese dance-drama.
While most of Kyoto’s architecture is post-16th century due to numerous wars and fires, the city was mostly untouched by American firebombing of World War II and was spared being the target of an atomic bomb due to the American Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s personal understanding of the historic and cultural value of the city. Thus, there are a multitude of intact and ancient shrines and temples throughout the city, which are a marvel to see.
Much of Kyoto’s charm relies on its connection to history while Tokyo’s appeal largely rests on its modern innovation. Tokyo, which was original a small fishing village named Edo, eventually grew to become one of the largest cities in the world by the 18th century. A city marked by
continual growth and innovation, by the time Tokyo became the new capital of Japan in 1869, the region had already overtaken Kyoto as the new cultural and political center of the nation.
Unfortunately, much of Tokyo’s architecture was destroyed by the firebombing of World War II. However, in true Tokyo fashion, the city took this as an opportunity to completely rebuild and it did so in spectacular fashion to display its forward and upward global momentum. Marked by one of the busiest transportation networks of the world and its monstrous population, Tokyo is full of constant movement. The city lights are incredible and mesmerizing and there are always activities happening whether it be in the city-center or within the smaller suburbs, no matter what time of year.
Perhaps one of the main reasons that I prefer Kyoto to Tokyo is the sense of tranquility that can be achieved there. As stated previously, while the city is by no means small and can be incredibly busy during certain seasons, since there are a multitude of shrines, temples, and parks, finding a quiet space is fairly easy to do. It is also bolstered by amazingly beautiful locations such as Kinkaku-ji, Fushimi Inari Taisha, or Shugakuin Imperial Villa. Once you are at these locations, it feels like a separate world completely blocked off from the rest of the city. Within Tokyo, when you visit shrines and temples, you generally remain fully aware that you are located within the largest city in the world. There is no escaping the gargantuan skyscrapers and the bright lights. While this largely has to do with city ordinances, Kyoto also has a strict building height policy to retain an aesthetic cityscape, so it is undoubtedly more pleasurable to experience shines and temples in Kyoto.
In Tokyo’s favor, I will admit that navigating transportation is a much easier task than it is in Kyoto. Particularly for foreign visitors. While there are a multitude of lines and trains which may be confusing for travelers, in Tokyo, one can see all the generally considered ‘important’ sights by taking the JR line, which travels in a square. Within Kyoto, the subways and trains are lacking and taking the public bus to visit the sights can be a little confusing. I have unfortunately gotten my party lost on multiple occasions. While the payment system is the same, navigating all of the sights in Kyoto can be somewhat taxing. The highly valued sights are largely spread out and since there is not a convenient way to get there, it can be discouraging. I will say, though, that it is worth it to visit as much as you can. Once you make it to each stop, you are never disappointed.
Both Kyoto and Tokyo have so much to offer to travelers and I would wholeheartedly recommend visiting both. I enjoyed my year in Tokyo to no end, but the highlights of my time there were dominated by what I was able to see and experience in Kyoto. If I was given the opportunity to visit only one of the two cities again, I would choose Kyoto in a heartbeat. It is only due to my particular personality that I prefer Kyoto. Yet the beauty of Japan is that despite Tokyo and Kyoto being the two most popular cities in the country, they are only a couple of hours away by Shinkansen and traveling between them is easy and common. All in all, if you have the chance to take a trip to either city, even for a short period of time, take it. Both are incredibly unique in their own ways.