There are no direct trains between Narita Airport and Kyoto. With a distance of over 600 km around the coast, it is at the tipping point between where a plane could be faster than a train. While air is technically quicker for this route, the wait time for the connecting airport to city transport renders rail as the more reliable means of getting to Kyoto. However, inter-continental passengers on Japan Airlines (JAL) or All Nippon Airways (ANA) can take advantage of complementary or discounted flights from Narita to Osaka, making it a cost effective option with possibly just a small increase in travelling time. Here are five options that you can choose from fastest to slowest, depending on your schedule and priorities.
Option 1 –Narita Express Train + Nozomi Bullet Train
One transfer is required at Tokyo for the Nozomi shinkansen bullet train. The 200 minute trip costs ¥16,690, with discount shops saving you another 5%.
Pro – This is the fastest option with the shortest waiting time, with Nozomi trains departing every 10 mins from Tokyo to Kyoto.
Con –The JR Pass is not valid on the Nozomi.
My rating - Speed: 9/10, Frequency: 9/10, Convenience: 9/10
Option 2 – Plane to Osaka Itami Airport
This route requires just one transfer. Once you have landed in Itami, take the airport limousine bus (basically a glorified name for a dedicated airport express coach) to Kyoto Station. JAL or ANA operates this route, with fares starting from ¥10,800 for the Yokoso Japan or any Japan air pass available for foreign visitors. After including the ¥1280 airport bus, you are looking at a total cost from ¥12020. If you are flying from Australia, Europe or North America on JAL, you may have this flight included in your international ticket for free (conditions apply), making this the cheapest option.
While these flights are infrequent, the departures are timed to connect with inter-continental arrivals on JAL or ANA, making this a good option if you are in this situation.
It only takes 190 Minutes including a 35 minute wait at Narita Airport, however if the transfers are not good it can blow out to over 200 minutes.
Pros – Most cost effective option if paired with an intercontinental flight from JAL or ANA. You can see Mount Fuji from the plane on the right.
Con - Flights are irregular.
My rating - Speed: 8/10, Frequency: 3/10, Convenience: 9/10
Option 3 – Hikari Bullet Train - valid for Japan Rail (JR) pass
There are two differences between the Hikari and the Nozomi. One is that Hikari stops at more stations on the way from Tokyo to Kyoto, so the trip in total takes between 230 and 250 minutes. The other is that the Hikari is less frequent. Other than that, they use the exactly the same trains.
From a ticketing perspective, there is one huge difference. JR pass holders can use the Hikari for free, but not the Nozomi. If you don’t have a JR pass, this trip would total ¥16,700.
Pro – can use the JR Pass
Con – Hikari trains only run every 30 mins
My rating - Speed: 6/10, Frequency: 7/10, Convenience: 7/10
Option 4 – Plane to Kansai Airport
This option also has one transfer, but Kansai Airport is much further away than Itami Airport. Fortunately the airport train keeps the train trip from Kansai to Kyoto down to just 77 minutes. When added to the 35 min wait at the airport, 15 min wait for the train and 85 minutes on the plane, the total travel time of 202 minutes is faster than the Hikari train. The Kansai to Narita route is the domain of low cost carriers like Jetstar Japan and Peach Airlines. With airfares around ¥6,000, you are looking at a total cost of around ¥8,000, saving a good ¥4,000. Similar to the Yokoso Japan air pass, there are no discounts for children with low cost airlines.
Pros – Cheaper than the Hikari train for non JR pass holders.
Con – Flights from Kansai to Narita are irregular, with Jetstar Japan currently five times daily, a problem if your flight into Narita is delayed.
My rating - Speed: 8/10, Frequency: 3/10, Convenience: 8/10
Option 5 – Sunrise Seto Overnight Train
If you arrive at 9pm the Sunrise Seto could be a suitable overnight option. At 600 minutes the train travels leisurely while you sleep. Departing from Tokyo at 2200 there is only one transfer after you wake up at 5am at Himeji. The all up price starts from ¥ 18,080, with options to upgrade to flat bed sleepers for the price of a 2 star hotel room.
Pro – Ideal for early start in Kyoto
Con – Light sleepers could struggle to sleep well on the overnight train.
My rating - Speed: 2/10, Frequency: 1/10, Convenience: 9/10
* Please note that you should allow more time if you are using these options for the first time if you are unfamiliar with the airports and train stations and also if you need to check in your luggage.