Where first, Tokyo or Kyoto – it should be an easy choice, right? They’re polar opposites, after all: Tokyo is a land of neon and skyscrapers, the archetypal metropolis; Kyoto is full of kimono-clad geisha, temples and tea ceremonies. So just decide whether you want your first glimpse of Japan to be cutting-edge modernity or high-brow tradition, and your choice is made.
But as with everything else in this tantalising and contradictory country, it’s not quite that clear-cut. Here are a few ways to make that difficult choice.
Which is best for foodies?
It’s hard to eat badly in Japan no matter where you are, but there are a few key differences between the food scenes in Tokyo and Kyoto. If you’re not keen on wall-to-wall Japanese food, Tokyo may be a better bet. The capital is far more multicultural, and home to some of the best French, Italian and Chinese restaurants in the world.
Kyoto is more traditional, packed with places to try Japanese dishes you might not have seen back at home. If in doubt ask for the teishoku (set meal), and you’ll probably end up with a slightly overwhelming array of tasty dishes. Kyoto is also home to a thriving café culture, with standouts including riverside efish, book-filled Cafe Bibliotec Hello and vegetarian Mumokuteki.
The two cities both have amazing high-end cuisine – you could almost eat at a different Michelin-starred restaurant every day of your trip if you had the cash. Tokyo has plenty of cheap spots, often clustered into districts like Omoide Yokochō in Shinjuku, but you’ll generally find Kyoto a little cheaper overall.
Where can I party?
In Tokyo, there’s a huge amount of choice. As the city’s so large, rather than looking up a few places you want to go to, it’s best to head to an area you’re interested in and just see what takes your fancy.
Roppongi is the traditional nightlife area but is a little commercial; try Shimokitazawa for low-key bars and live music, or head away from the main drag in Shinjuku for world-class clubs and music venues. Golden Gai is also a must-do, a tiny area of tumbledown bars and karaoke spots.
Kyoto’s club scene is unfortunately pretty dire, but has a few notable exceptions; try Club Metro, based in an abandoned section of a subway station with DJs, live bands and avant garde performers.
The heart of Kyoto’s nightlife is its bars (especially izakaya, Japan’s answer to the pub) – there’s a huge variety of independent places around Shijō and Sanjō streets, just west of the river.
Where can I get back to nature?
Tokyo has some stunning spots to take a breather, but most of them are parks or gardens rather than “nature” in the strictest sense. The only really “wild” experience is at the Institute for Nature Study in the Meguro district; it’s a small area of the primeval forest that once covered the plains hereabouts, and as entry is restricted to a few hundred people at a time you can enjoy it without the usual Tokyo crowds.
If you’re feeling hemmed in by the skyscrapers looming over the trees, your best bet is a day-trip to Kamakura, or an overnight one to Nikkō or Hakone.
Nature is a little more accessible in Kyoto. The city is set in a basin between mountains, meaning a 30 minute train ride can get you out into open spaces. To the west is popular Arashiyama, where you can take a boat cruise or walk on the wooded slopes; northeast is the holy Hiei-zan, home of Tendai Buddhism; while to the north you’ll find plenty of trekking routes, such as one linking the appealing small towns of Kurama and Kibune.
Within the city itself, the scale is a bit more manageable, so you can cycle from park to temple rather than squeezing into a rush-hour subway train.
Which is best for culture and history?
If you’re keen to see Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines you’ll be spoiled for choice in Kyoto; some of the main areas are Higashiyama and the Philosopher’s Path in the east and Arashiyama in the west, but wander any neighbourhood and you’ll find the local one. In the south of the city is the low-key, traditional area of Fushimi, with a particularly spectacular shrine: Fushimi Inari Taisha, thousands of red torii (shrine gates) leading you up a mountain, to glorious views over the city.
Tokyo, while also home to several venerable shrines and temples, is better known for its cutting-edge modern architecture. Take a walking tour of the city to see some stunning examples, from Tange Kenzō’s awe-inspiring St Mary’s Cathedral to Kurokawa Kishō’s sinuous National Art Center – not forgetting Philippe Starck’s infamous Asahi Beer Hall, affectionately known as kin no unko (“the golden poo”) for the stylised gold flame on top.
Both cities have some excellent museums, but simply by virtue of size Tokyo has to come out on top. It’s worth setting aside a whole day to explore Ueno Park’s several museums. You should also make time for the charming Nezu Museum, and the slightly less charming – but morbidly fascinating – Meguro Parasite Museum.
The Roppongi Art Triangle gives you a reason to visit the district in daylight hours, with its three excellent galleries full of a diverse range of artistic styles and periods. Possibly the best museum in Tokyo, though, is the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, a joyful exploration of Miyazaki Hayao’s wildly original animated world. Book well ahead – entry is timed, and tickets usually sell out weeks in advance.
Some of the standouts in Kyoto are the International Manga Museum, Insho Domoto Museum and Sumiya Motenashi Museum. A little further afield – and well worth a side trip – is the fascinating Miho Museum, an arresting I.M. Pei-designed space holding Japanese and foreign antiquities.
So where should I go first?
As always, it really depends what you’re after. You can easily fit both into one trip (the bullet train between the two cities takes about two and a half hours), but they definitely start you off on a different foot.
To race straight into things, head to Tokyo first: the beating heart of Japan, filled with energy, excitement and – yes – crowds like you’ll see nowhere else on the planet. Kyoto may be a slightly gentler introduction, but it allows you to sample a bit of everything – you can visit revered religious sites, eat mouth-watering Japanese food, and still stagger home at 5am after a night of shōchū and karaoke if you fancy it. Really, the choice is yours.