Evocative Japanese cities Tokyo and Kyoto are on most travel wish lists – but do you opt for the capital’s neon lights and Michelin-starred sushi spots, or choose Kyoto’s serene, temple-rich offerings?
Population: 13.9 million
Total area: 2,188 sq km
Famous for: Food, futuristic architecture and fun night life.
Population: 1.4 million
Total area: 827 sq km
Famous for: Temples, shrines and traditional gardens
Tokyo became Japan’s capital surprisingly recently, only earning the title in 1868.
It hasn’t been without its troubles – from devastating earthquakes to Second World War bombings – but the city always bounces back stronger.
Today, it stands as a shining example of prosperity, home to one of the largest urban populations in the world.
Kyoto served as Japan’s capital for over 1,000 years.
The city has resisted the urge to modernise: there are no airports, only two metro lines, and a ban on buildings over ten storeys high.
It feels like a time capsule, especially in the cobbled streets of the Gion district, with its tempting tea shops and beguiling geisha.
Tokyo might look futuristic, but it still has a historical heart. You’ll find quiet temples tucked into side streets, and bustling shrines – like Asakusa Jinja – hidden behind clouds of incense.
Make sure you visit the Imperial Palace, the Emperor’s primary residence, which stands above a still moat in Kokyo Gaien National Garden.
Kyoto is Japan’s culture king, home to over 2,000 temples and shrines. Walk through the 5,000 torii gates that wind through the mountains behind Fushimi Inari Shrine, or visit the dazzling gold pavilion of Kinkaku-ji.
There’s also the Kiyomizu temple, which is festooned with blossoming cherry trees in spring and golden maples in autumn.
From tiny sushi shops to rowdy izakaya bars, Tokyo’s restaurants have more Michelin stars than Paris and New York put together.
A fun place to spend a night is Omoide Yokocho (‘Memory Lane’) in Shinjuku, full of narrow alleyways lined with tiny lantern-lit eateries.
Hit the sake too hard? Slurp some ramen noodles, the local hangover cure.
In Kyoto, it’s all about kaiseki (pictured above), a wonderfully refined multi-course menu of delicate flavours and seasonal ingredients, originating from the city’s traditional tea ceremonies.
It doesn’t come cheap: a top-quality kaiseki can set you back 30,000JPY (£225), but it’s worth it for a true taste of Kyoto tradition.
Tokyo is a city of parks, from the vast Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (pictured below) to the lushly-forested Yoyogi Park.
These green spaces are often buzzing with live music and laughter, but especially so than during cherry blossom season – when locals flock for beer-fuelled picnics beneath the pink sakura petals that dance on the breeze.
Like the city itself, Kyoto’s outdoor spaces are serene.
Stroll between the swaying trunks of Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, or take a breath in a quiet central park.
The raked gravel garden of UNESCO-listed Ryoan-ji Temple is particularly meditative, and is designed so that no matter which way you look, one of its 15 rocks is always hidden.
Go hard in Tokyo and slow in Kyoto. Everything about the capital is fast, right down to its pedestrians’ walking pace.
Kyoto, by contrast, reveals the calmer side of Japanese life. Together, they offer real insight into local customs and culture, so don’t just pick one: do both.
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