I think I’d guess correctly if I said that you want to see at least some sort part of traditional Japan, authentic Japan, temples, and Japanese countryside, on your trip. Despite the fact you may be coming all this way to buy Pokemon cards in Japan (perfectly valid reason 😉 ), it’s probably in your best interests to make the most of your trip by visiting somewhere a little more peaceful than those big cities. When the choice arises between two of Japan’s most Zen areas, which should you choose out of Kyoto vs Nikko?
While Nikko and Kyoto both have many similarities, they’re perhaps too different to entirely pick one over the other. Kyoto is an entire prefecture (and a lot bigger), while Nikko is just a city in Tochigi. With their location being 4.5 hours away from each other also makes your location and itinerary far more important in deciding which one to visit.
As someone who has been to both of these places about 4 times in multiple seasons, I think I’m more than qualified to help you make this decision!
Location and accessibility
First up, both of these places are in completely different places which means you’re likely searching for this comparison because you’ve got some free time in your itinerary, or you’re basing your trip around this choice.
Nikko is a decent day trip or 2 away from Tokyo, and Kyoto is somewhere worth staying for a bit longer. at over 4 and a half hours away from each other, you probably won’t be able to travel from one to the other in a single day, and nor should you
Location of Kyoto
I would imagine some part of your research has brought you to this general area, if not specifically to Kyoto.
Location of Nikko
You’re most likely to visit Nikko when you’re hanging around Tokyo, so I’ll go forward thinking that’s the case. It takes just under 2 hours to get there by train and is a great spot to relax near Tokyo if you’re looking for somewhere to chill out for a few days.
As I briefly discussed in the things you need to know before boarding Shinkansen article, I’ve used both the Limited express train and the normal commuter/rapid trains to get there. Both are suitable options, but the train you take will depend on your budget, time constraints, and the level of comfort you’re after.
The Kegon limited express trains
Cost: Around ¥3,000 ($20)
Taking the Kegon limited express train from Asakusa station in Tokyo, all the way to Tōbu-nikkō station is by far the quickest and most straightforward way to get to Nikko. As far as I’m aware, there are a couple of limited express trains that operate on this line (from Asakusa station), and some are a little faster than others.
The Spacia Kegon operates on the same line as the train above and it’ll just be a potluck which you get when you arrive. In case you’re wondering what it looks like, imagine a bullet train that never quite got to be a bullet train and you’ll have a rough idea. Kinda cute in my opinion.
The Kinu train diverts a few minutes before the other trains do and travel up to Kinugawa-onsen. It’s still in Nikko and is a great area to stay at an onsen hotel if you haven’t done so yet.
No matter which train you chose, you’ll still usually only need to hop on one limited express train from central Tokyo to Nikko. In any case, it’s a very simple journey.
Depending on where you’re staying in Tokyo, google maps might like to offer you an alternative that’s just commuter or rapid trains. I’d advise against going that route because it’ll likely either include multiple transfers, there won’t be guaranteed seats, and/or it’ll be a lot more hassle for what may only save you a few yen.
Things to do
Things to do in Kyoto
Kyoto is a city that never ceases to amaze me, and exploring its backstreets is a fantastic way to experience it. It still has a number of places to escape to in nature, but it’s a more popular destination than Nikko.
It’s also a far bigger area (it’s a prefecture rather than a city) which means there’s a lot more to do meaning everyone can spread out more.
So, while more people may go to Kyoto, it actually feels a lot less busy than Nikko does during peak season. Make sense?
In terms of things to do in Kyoto, there are lots. Far more temples and shrines than in Nikko, even though Nikko has a boatload of them.
Higashi Hongan-ji Temple
I don’t know how recommended Higashi Hongan-ji Temple is, but we turned up here at about 6 am and had the entire place to ourselves. It’s literally about 5 minutes away from Kyoto station.
It’s visually very impressive. Compared to a lot of temples I’ve been to in Japan it’s pretty darn big!
In case you’re interested in seeing what it’s like to arrive in Kyoto that early in the morning, I’ll embed the youtube video I made below. In my opinion, this video gives off early-morning Kyoto vibes perfectly!
Kiyomizu-dera is a classic recommendation, and definitely one of the most popular things to do in Kyoto. Over the 3 times I’ve been here, I’ve found it pretty but quite busy. So if you’re looking for quiet temples or relaxing things to do in Japan then this certainly isn’t one.
If you don’t get up to the top early enough, it’s one of the places in Japan that can get incredibly busy. That’s not fun for anyone!
Just a short walk from the temple we’ve just talked about is an area called Gion. It’s filled with ancient backstreets, kimono-clad day trippers, and an utterly wonderful vibe. It’s a great area to come to if you’re looking for that old Japan kind of atmosphere, especially if you’re looking for historical buildings and traditional tea houses.
Last but by no means least is Arashiyama. If you’ve heard of this destination, you’ve heard of the bamboo forest, and perhaps the monkey park too.
Why did I travel there? For one very specific moss garden (pictured above – article coming soon!), and literally to lay down by the river. It was the epitome of everything I wanted my life in Japan to be, and it lived up to it!
This was just a very basic list, so I’ll write out a bigger one (with a load of secret locations I found) in a few months’ time. I’ve got so much to share!
Things to do in Nikko
Nikko might be a smaller area than Kyoto, but that doesn’t mean it’s short on things to do.
Catch the steam train on the turntable
This is something I caught by chance when I visited Nikko last year, the SL/DL Taiju Steam Train on the turntable outside Kinugawa-onsen train station. The steam was bellowing, the horn filled the air, and everyone outside the station loved it.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a train nerd, but I’ve been here before and not seen it, so I was pretty excited! Admittedly not quite as much as when I saw Japan’s last sleeper train couple up in Okayama.
I liked that so much, I rode it twice!
Back to Nikko’s steam train, you can reserve tickets on the Tobu Railway website for a pretty cheap price. The journeys are only small, but it’s a great thing to do in Nikko if you’re a little strapped for cash but have researched beforehand.
It’s not something you can do if you’re planning on traveling around Japan without a plan, though.
Take a traditional boat ride
I can’t remember the exact name of this particular boat ride because our homestay host booked us in (and came with us!), but if you just type in ‘Kinugawaonsen River cruise’ to Google, something should come up.
It’s worth noting here that we sat cross-legged on the tatami for almost an hour before disembarking further down the river. I loved it, but I can absolutely see how this would likely be an uncomfortable experience for a lot of people
Visit the Shrines
There are a number of incredibly beautiful shrines in Nikko, and to a certain extent, it feels more like you’re in the middle of nowhere than the main area in Kyoto.
Toshogu Shrine is the biggest in the area, and probably the one you’ll want to go and visit.
I visited the main Toshogu Shrine quite a few years ago, and for the cost of ¥1300 (just under 10 dollars) to get into the main section, I think it’s definitely worth visiting at least once. As far as I’m aware all of the shrines and temples in the grounds fall under the “Toshogu Shrine” umbrella, but you only have to pay to go inside (and around the grounds of) the main building.
This 28-meter-long vermillion-colored bridge is one of the most well-photographed in the whole of Japan. Apparently, Shondo (the monk we talked about above) ask the mountain deities for help crossing the river, and two snakes appeared and turned themselves into a bridge.
Love a good story for places like this! It’s just at the top of the hill, within easy walking distance from the temple and Kanmangafuchi abyss.
This is a place I’d seen on google maps and knew I wanted to visit (who wouldn’t with a name like ‘Abyss’??). The statues are said to protect children, women, and travelers on their journey.
It’s interesting to see how weathered many of these have become over the years they’ve been here. Some of the ones at the end are literally just stumps.
Visiting is absolutely worth it, and you can do a nice circular walk from the Shinkyo bridge that should take around an hour or so. Be warned, you’ll likely walk past FuFu Nikko which is a flipping incredible hotel that I’m jealous I can’t afford to stay there…
Tobu World Square
One stop before Kinugawa onsen is Tobu World Square, one of the most highly rated things to do in Nikko. Classed as both a museum and a theme park, Tobu World Square has 1/25 scale reproductions of 102 world-famous buildings. This is definitely one for the more nerdy travelers like me!
This one’s on my bucket list of things to do, it’s giving me major Legoland flashbacks and I love it!
Prefer something a little more historical? Edo Wonderland is a kind of ‘History theme park/open-air museum’ where you can feel like you’ve stepped back in time as you wander around an Edo-style town (1603-1868). Dress in a Kimono, don some ninja attire or simply take in your surroundings.
There are loads of live-action performances, a house of illusion, a trick maze, a haunted temple, a theatre, places to throw ninja stars, and much more.
I’ve been here a few years back and it was a really cool trip. Don’t expect it to be the best thing you do in Japan, but if you’re looking for a fun day out, this is a great choice.
At an altitude of 1,269 meters (Japan’s highest lake), a 25km hiking trail, and some of the most spectacular views of Kegon Falls, this is easily another bucket list destination in Nikko for me.
To get there you’ll need to get on a bus headed for Okunikko Yumoto Onsen from Nikko station or Tobu Nikko station, and get off at whichever point around the lake you want to.
Accommodation in Kyoto
If you’re looking for an old Japanese townhouse (Machiya) to stay in, Kyoto has loads of them. Well, less if you book in peak season, haha!
Annoyingly, I only took a picture of the outside of our accommodation in Kyoto. Take a look at this video we filmed to see the inside. It’s full of tatami floors, and even has a suit of samurai armor in it!
One thing to keep in mind is the proximity and costs of accommodation in Kyoto. Comparatively, Kyoto is more expensive than Osaka (30 minutes or so away) to stay in.
This means it’s well worth understanding your itinerary before booking your accommodation. Depending on the time of year you go, you may get a better deal and a nicer place in Osaka if you’re willing to travel a little further.
Everything is relatively central around that area so it’s not too much of an issue to stay in Osaka, though the experience I’ve had in Kyoto has 9/10 been a nicer one. Honestly, I’d pay more for the location well before the look of the place, but the choice is yours.
Though I’ve loved all the Airbnb’s I’ve stayed at in Kyoto, as I said above, we normally book through this company instead
Accommodation in Nikko
While not as large as Kyoto, and still technically just a small city, it is still a huge area, and as you’ll see later there’s not really a single area you should or shouldn’t stay in. My best suggestion to you would be to stay as close to one of the stations as possible, or at least within walking distance.
Staying close to a station will give you quick access to other areas in Nikko, a good amount of infrastructure, and more than enough connections with busses to get to the more remote areas. If, however, you’re planning on doing hiking or something more remote for a couple of days, it makes sense to book somewhere much closer to that activity.
When I stayed in Nikko, I went to Nikko Hoshinoyado. It was a really nice traditional Japanese hotel with onsen, tatami floors, zen gardens, all the good stuff.
I’ll start out by saying that if you’re looking for a Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) experience, then Nikko (or perhaps Hakone?)is a great place to come. If this is one of your main reasons for coming to the area, I’d suggest checking out places near Kinugawaonsen, which is another area of Nikko worth visiting if you have the time. It’s very easy and quick to from Tobu Nikko & Nikko station as well.
At this price point, I don’t think it was anything special that you couldn’t get in Kyoto. Depending on the time of year you visit, I think they’ll either be more than enough accommodation options for you not to worry (both areas are fairly big), or way too many people to get anything unless you’ve booked well in advance.
Food options in Kyoto
The food options in Kyoto are spectacular and I have a lot of photos of it. I’ll just show you a few that Nadia took, though do check out her website if you’re interested in learning more.
Whether you’re vegan or a meat eater, love cakes, or prefer traditional cuisine, this place really has it all.
If there’s a certain place you want to go to, it’s worth looking up its popularity as you may have to book in advance. We got caught out by this a number of times, so please don’t make the same mistake!
The okonomiyaki in the middle is from Gion Tanto, and absolutely worth the 2 times we tried queueing to get into it. The curry on the left was just from Cocoichibanya, but I still enjoy it! And the mochi… I mean, it’s just so damn tasty!
Food options in Nikko
Nikko has quite a few places for food, in both the Kinugawa onsen area and the area from Tobu Nikko station. You’ll find most types of Japanese food around the area, with the slightly more expensive places around the high street.
One place in particular that I love is Yasai Cafe Meguri (food pictured above). It’s a cute cafe that serves absolutely outstanding food, coffee, and tea. Plus it used to be an antique store, so the interior is very aesthetically pleasing.
Another place I’d recommend is the Bell Cafe that’s just a bit past the Shinkyo Bridge. It’s literally like going to eat at your grandma’s house. I don’t want to say anymore in case I ruin the vibes, but go there if you’re looking for a meal!
Places to shop in Kyoto
Depending on where you are, the shopping options in Kyoto can either be extensive, or minimal. Almost as soon as you step out of the station you’ll be greeted by this behemoth of a building in front of you.
This is Yodobashi Camera Kyoto, and I absolutely love it! It sets the scene for the sheer amount of shops around this area, though I’d caution you to set a timer before you go in because you’ll be here for a while if you’re anything like me!
You’ve also got places like Nishiki market (incredibly busy at times) with over 100 small shops and market stalls, as well as downtown Kyoto which is perfect for souvenir and upmarket shopping.
Places to shop in Nikko
The area you stay at in Nikko will determine the amount and type of shops you’ll have access to. Up by Nikko station, you’ll find a lot of souvenir shops, a few boutique homeware shops, and one or two Konbini (convenience stores).
Further down at Shimo-Imaichi station, you’ll find some bigger stores, clothing outlets, and even a mall or two. Up in the Kinugawa onsen area, there are bigger supermarkets, barber shops, auto part stores, and independent outlets.
If you’re looking for more places to shop, Kyoto is your winner!
Best time to visit
If you only visit Kyoto once, make sure you go in the spring. There really is nothing quite like wandering through the cute backstreets and happening across spectacularly placed blossom trees.
Granted, it’s a busy time of year especially in Kyoto, but you need to do it at least once.
It’s also a really nice place during most of the other seasons as well. It’s slightly cooler than places like Tokyo in the Summer, or at least it feels like it is because of the fewer amount of highrise buildings.
Autumn in Nikko paints the landscape with a breathtaking palette of rich and vibrant colors. For that reason, I would recommend autumn as the time to visit.
I’ve been to Nikko in the autumn, and you can see the tree leaves changing colors higher in the mountains and working their way down the valley. I think I was about 1-2 weeks too early for the peak, but it was still 100% worth it.
Just be prepared, autumn is probably the second busiest time to be traveling in Japan after Spring. We took the car in and were stuck in traffic for quite a few hours before we got moving again.
However, we managed to avoid most of the tourists and people just like we avoid the crowds in Japan by walking a little further.
One of the most popular spots to admire the autumn foliage is Lake Chuzenji. Surrounded by majestic mountains, the lake offers a serene setting to witness this seasonal transformation. Whether you choose to stroll along its shores or take a boat ride, the panoramic views of the vivid autumn colors reflecting on the water are genuinely incredible.
Additionally, the nearby Senjogahara Marshland showcases a unique contrast of golden grasses and fiery leaves, creating a picturesque landscape that’s perfect for photography enthusiasts. I’ve also always wanted to visit here, so I’ll be super jealous of you!
Budget and Expenses
How much does Kyoto cost?
It completely depends. As far as accommodation is concerned, Kyoto is far more expensive than staying in Osaka.
As I said before, I think that’s worth the extra cost, but you may want to spend your money on something else.
Eating in Kyoto is comparable to other big cities, though can be less or more depending on the places you eat. If you visit in spring you’ll find attractions will charge slightly more, and food prices will likely increase as well.
It’s just one of those things that can’t be helped and should be budgeted for accordingly.
Because Kyoto is far bigger than Nikko, you’ll find yourself spending a lot more time here. That obviously means you’ll be spending more money in total, but there are a lot of free things to do in Osaka and plenty of cheap or free things to fill your days with in Kyoto as well.
As I mentioned before, this area has lots of outdoorsy-type things to go and see, and the vast majority of them don’t cost a penny. All you’ll have to do is budget for transport and food!
How much does Nikko cost?
Everything in Nikko is fairly clumped together, and you’ll just need to hop on the train if you want to visit another part of it. As we all know, trains in Japan are incredibly reliable and, in my opinion, very cheap, so transport won’t pose a problem.
If you’re a fan of walking or natural /outdoor activities then you won’t need much money to keep yourself entertained. There are a few temples and day trips you can do from Nikko that will cost a bit, but they’re totally optional and there’s more than enough to do in the city whether you want to spend a lot or a little.
Which Destination Should You Choose?
It’s really hard to choose between these two because, in all honesty, they’re too different. If you’re looking to spend a day away from Tokyo then I say go for Nikko (or perhaps Hakone), but if you’re looking to fill up a big chunk of your holiday then hit up Kyoto because that place is huge!
If you decide to go to Kyoto, just make sure you don’t take the Japanese night bus, check out these things to know before getting on a shinkansen, and consider grabbing Japan’s last sleeper train home. You won’t regret that last one! 😉
My Top Japan Travel Resources:
What’s the best way to get cheap flights to Japan?
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Should I live in Japan?
Maybe – I’ve made this quiz specifically for you! Who knows, perhaps you’re closer to those bowls of ramen than you think 😉
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It depends – To help you figure it out, I’ve made this quiz just for you!
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Honestly, it might be cheaper than you think. I’ve made a Japan budget calculator to help you work things out!
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You can! – The eSIM is the one I’d recommend using, plus it’s perfect if you’re planning to travel somewhere else afterward.
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Yes – I’ve got a Japan bucket list just for you! Simply download the PDF, print it out, and tick off some of the things you’d like to see, do, and eat.
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Yep – The Zero-fee card I use to get money in Japan hasn’t steered me wrong yet. Highly recommended to any traveler!