You are standing in front of Kyoto Station, with the glass cathedral to transport immediately behind you, and Kyoto Tower, pointing to the skies in front of you. The clock has just gonged at 12 noon.
Phil Keoghan, the host from the TV series Amazing Race, hands you an envelope. In this TV series, you need to get to a destination the fastest to get a prize. You break out in sweat, tearing it out. It says you have three hours to get to the Tsukiji Tokyo, with 20,000 yen. How do you do it?
The discount ticket shop diagonally opposite JR Kyoto Station, on Shiokoji dori, one and a half blocks east of Kyoto Tower, is a good place to start. They sell plane, train and bus tickets to Tokyo at 5 to 15% off the regular price.
It is just under 500 Km or 310 miles between Kyoto and Tokyo, so unless you are the six million dollar man or wonder woman, I would not run it. Even if you walked it, it would take twelve days. In times past, they did have runners on this route, with a change of runners between towns to another to ensure the runners don’t get too exhausted. This led to the Hakone Ekiden, a relay marathon between Tokyo and Hakone.
The coastal road between Tokyo and Kyoto is called the Tokaido Road, immortalized in the 1800s by a series of Ukiyo e woodblock prints called the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido by Utagawa Hiroshige. These days, the Tokaido is better known as the train line between Tokyo and Kyoto and Osaka, snaking its way through Yokohama, Hamamatsu, Nagoya and Gifu.
My initial reaction to this speed challenge was to rush to Tokyo on a plane. The airport bus leaves from the South exit of JR Kyoto Station, and it takes me to Osaka Itami Airport in less than 50 minutes. Sitting back in the Sakura Lounge, I must be thanking my lucky stars at getting a First Class upgrade for just 8,000 yen. Being in Japan the flights leave on time, and with two trains, I get to Tokyo in 234 minutes. Without the upgrade, the total fare would be 26,300 yen. Overseas travelers can instead purchase a Yokoso Japan or Japan Air Pass and fly this sector for 10,000 yen prior to arriving to Japan.
Recently, low cost carriers (LCCs) like Peach or Jetstar fly from Kansai to Narita for 4,000 yen, but once you paid another 3,000 yen for the airport trains and spent an extra 60 minutes of traveling time, it is not so attractive. Better leave the LCCs for longer distances like the fun fairs of Sapporo.
What if I take the train? The fastest Shinkansen (Bullet Train) Nozomi 224 departs promptly at 12:06, and after changing at Shinagawa, I arrive at Tsukiji at 14:40, elapsed time of 154 minutes. Total Cost: 13,130 yen. Nearly half price!
While Japan Rail Pass holders cannot use the Nozomi (Japanese for Hope), the Hikari (Japanese for Light) takes only 20 minutes longer.
On the other hand, the Kodama Shinkansen takes close to 240 minutes. This slow train to Tokyo may be the path least taken, but it is brimming with surprises, from kindergarten kids filled with smiles on their first trip on the big train, as well as the opportunity to connect with the quieter parts of Chubu, from the resort gateway of Odawara to the villages by the shadow of Mount Fuji.
If you buy a Kodama ticket at least one day in advance, you can purchase the "Puratto Kodama Economy Plan", which gets you a reserved seat for 9,800 yen, instead of 12,710 yen on the day. This is a good option for those without a Japan Rail pass. You can get it at JR Tokai Tours at JR Tokyo or Shinagawa, or at JTB or JTB Traveland counters at Osaka and Nara. In JR Kyoto the two branches are at the Central Exit, on the second floor, and the Hachijo exit, on the first floor.
Many travelers these days fly in to Kansai and out from Tokyo Narita, so the Kodama Economy Plan is a cheap option. For a 7 day return Tokyo Kyoto train ticket, the new Central Japan Flex-Rail Ticket is only a touch more than 2 single Kodama tickets, but allows you to use non reserved seats on the faster Nozomi as well, plus a 1 day Kyoto bus and subway pass worth 1,200 yen thrown in for free. That is 27,460 yen of value for at 21,000 yen. With the 6,460 yen saving you can stay two nights at a hostel like Hana or Khaosan.
From Kyoto to Tokyo there are 4 to 5 Nozomi bullet trains an hour, while the twice hourly Hikari trains to Tokyo depart Kyoto at 29 and 56 minutes past the hour. The Kodama Shinkansen leaves Kyoto at 9 past the hour, with the first Kodama for Tokyo at 8:09 am and the last one at 7:09 pm.
From Tokyo to Kyoto the Nozomi leaves every 10 minutes, while the Hikari departs every half an hour, at 3 minutes and 33 minutes past the hour from 7 am to 8 pm. For early birds the first train is at 6 am and the last train just after 10 pm. The Kodama departs at 26 and 56 minutes past each hour, though you have to change at Nagoya on the 26 past trains. On Public Holidays there are actually more frequencies around noon for the Nozomi. Every train is needed on the peak vacation periods of New Year, Golden Week and Obon, so if you don’t book well in advance, you might not even get standing room.
Just slightly faster than walking is the Seishun Juhachi Kippu, a vacation period ticket favored by backpackers or those on extreme budgets. This route shuns all bullet trains, and with just 6 changes on local trains, you can arrive in Tokyo in 512 minutes, just in time before the hostel check in counter shuts its shutters at 10pm. It is only 2,300 yen per coupon, and a “book” of 5 coupons can be shared between 5 people or 5 days. It can be used from 1st March to 10th April, 20th July to 10th September, and 10th December to 20th January.
Alternatively buses range from 4,000 to 10,000 yen, with day or overnight options. If you can’t sleep on the bus, why not try a flatbed on the overnight train,starting from 14,600 yen. It is a wonderful way to start a day by waking up in the Grand Central stations of Tokyo or Kyoto, and watch the city awake in the dawn light.