Despite being an ancient city—indeed, Japan’s ancient capital—Kyoto, like every other city in Japan, has been very much modernized with an easily navigable transport infrastructure. It's simple to get around Kyoto, with bus routes and the subway being your best and most efficient options. Learning to navigate Tokyo’s intense subway and train networks can take weeks of practice, but Kyoto can be easily navigated immediately. The subway is stripped down and clear to understand, and the bus network may look daunting but can get you wherever you want to go.
You can use Google Maps to help you get around in Kyoto or you can use the dedicated Arukumachi KYOTO App which provides routes, timetables, and fares for buses and rail.
Also, as Kyoto is a particularly walkable city, you’re rarely more than 20 minutes’ walk from a nearby station. It’s a beautiful city with interesting shops and restaurants tucked around every corner so walking around will reveal a lot. People love cycling in Kyoto so renting a bike is another great option. But for those times when you really need transport, here’s how to navigate Kyoto’s fantastic public transportation system.
How to Ride the Kyoto Subway
Catching the subway is the quickest way to get around the city but, as there are only two lines, people tend to use the buses more for the extended reach. You can catch the north-south Karasuma Line which goes through Kyoto Station or the east-west Tozai Line which can take you to the Higashiyama sightseeing district. The lines then meet in the middle. To get from Kyoto Station to downtown Kyoto the Karasuma line is the best option available.
Although not as cheap as the buses, taking the subway is a quick and definitely easier to navigate. It’s also much cheaper than catching a taxi in Kyoto (unless you’re in a large group and aren’t traveling far).
Fares: Depending on the length of your journey, fares range between 210-350 yen. You can get a 10 percent discount if you use a prepaid card.
How to Pay: You can use coins or cash in the tickets machines with the subway station or purchase a Kyoto City Subway One-Day Pass. You can buy these in the subway stations or from Kyoto Tourist Information Centers and they come with a range of discounts for local museums and attractions. Alternatively, you can purchase the Traffica Kyoto Prepaid Card from the subway stations (3,000 yen) which you can then top up and use on the buses and subway. If you have an IC card—one of the ten interchangeable subway cards that can be used all over Japan (such as Pasmo or Suica)—it can also be used and purchased here. They work the same way as the Traffica card. Picking up a card is by far the easiest way to navigate the public transport.
Routes and Hours: The subway runs between 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily, which can be awkward if you want to enjoy the Kyoto nightlife. For this reason, booking your hotel within walking distance of the center is a good idea or be prepared to take a cab.
Navigation: As there are only two lines, navigating the Kyoto subway is very simple. Stops are written in romaji or English (as well as kanji) and there are maps in each station you can look at. Station conductors are also very happy to help.
Service Alerts: The Hyperdia app will keep you updated on any issues on public transport and you can also check out the JR West Japan Railway website for updates.
Accessibility: Many of the stations in Kyoto have lifts and a minimal gap between the train and the platform edge, you can check the accessibility of each station on the Japan Accessible Tourism website.
How to Ride the Kyoto Buses
The buses run all over Kyoto and cover many of the areas the trains don’t reach but they’re notoriously busy during commuting times and are best avoided during those times. Buses are boarded from the back and exited from the front. Once you’re onboard, all announcements are made in both Japanese and English. Where you're ready to get off, just press the button before your stop.
Routes and Hours: Using a travel app is the easiest way to figure out the bus you need and you can get to most of the tourist sites by bus from Kyoto Station. The buses run from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Fares: To pay your fare just place the change in a box next to the driver as you’re leaving the bus; there’s a flat fare within the city of 230 yen per ride. If you don’t have the exact change then you’ll find a machine under or next to the box which will provide you with the change, or you can tap your travel card which is much easier. If you’re taking a bus outside the city flat fare zone then you’ll need to take a ticket and wait for your fare to show up on the screen or just tap your travel card at the beginning and end.
Using Taxis in Kyoto
It’s really easy to catch a taxi in Kyoto and, although they’re not the cheapest option, they’re great if you need to get somewhere quickly or you miss the last train back. Also, if you’re traveling as a group, it can sometimes be cheaper or the same price to take a cab. You’ll always find taxis outside the subway and train stations, major tourist sites, or shopping centers. It’s also fine to hail a cab on the street by sticking out your hand.
You’ll be able to tell if they’re available if the light on the windshield is on and displays the 空車 sign. Alternatively, if it’s full it will display 賃走中. You can also just check to see if there are people inside. There aren’t any rideshare apps or apps to help you call a cab in Kyoto so hailing is the easiest way to get going.
Kyoto taxi drivers always use the meter and are licensed, so you won’t have to worry about being ripped off. It’ll help to have your destination written in Japanese or have your map open just in case the driver doesn’t speak English. The ride will cost you 640 yen for the first 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) and you pay in cash, though some cabs will take a credit card.
Tip: During holidays like Golden Week and the cherry blossom season, the traffic in Kyoto can be exceptionally bad in the tourist areas so taking the subway will be much quicker in this case.
Getting to and From the Airport
Kyoto actually has three surrounding airports but thankfully they’ve all got great transport links so you won’t have any trouble getting to the center. The closest airport is Osaka Airport (a 50-minute drive from Kyoto) but this mainly serves domestic flights.
If you’re arriving internationally then you will very likely be arriving at Kansai Airport (a 90-minute drive from Kyoto). One of the best ways to travel from either airport is by using the Airport Transport coach service, you can purchase tickets at the airport or you can book online. Tickets range between 1,000-2,000 yen. The quickest way to get to the center from Kansai Airport is using the Limited Express Haruka train which costs 2,850 yen and takes just over an hour. You can access the train from terminal one, platform four and you buy tickets on the day from the ticket machine.
If you arrive at the third Central Japan International Airport, then your best option for getting into Kyoto will be by train, it takes around 30 minutes and costs 850 yen. Tickets can be purchased from the machine at the station.
Leaving the City
If you’re hoping to travel around Japan from Kyoto, it couldn’t be easier. The high-speed Shinkansen leaves from Kyoto Station and you can reach a number of exciting destinations within a couple of hours. Alternatively, you can reach Osaka and Nara using the local trains from Kyoto Station. You can take the 45-minute Miyakoji Rapid Service train to Nara and if you’re going to Osaka, take either the Hankyu Line or the Keihan Line. It’ll take around 45-minutes to get to Osaka or 15 minutes by high-speed train.