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Kyoto is Japan's most visitor-friendly city, with lots of English-language signs and an easy-to-navigate transportation system.
By public transportation
Kyoto's subway and bus networks are efficient and quite easy to use. For more information, stop by the Bus and Subway Information counter in front of Kyoto Station to the right of the bus platforms (tel. 075/371-4474; daily 7:30am-8pm) or check online at www.city.kyoto.lg.jp/kotsu. One of the best ways to explore Kyoto, however, is by foot.
Kyoto has two subway lines, with stops announced in English. The older Karasuma Line runs north and south, from Takeda in the south to Kokusai Kaikan in the north, with stops at Kyoto Station and Imadegawa Station (convenient for visiting the Imperial Palace). The newer Tozai Line runs in a curve from east to west and is convenient for visiting Nijo Castle and Higashiyama-ku. The two lines intersect in central Kyoto at Karasuma Oike Station. Fares start at ¥210 (children pay half fare in Kyoto) and service runs from 5:30am to about 11:30pm. Although buses are generally more convenient (they usually get you closer to where you want to go), I sometimes opt for the subway even if I have to walk a bit, simply to avoid hassling with buses and their unknown stops.
The easiest way to get around Kyoto and to most of its attractions is by bus. Buses depart from Kyoto Station's Central (north/Karasuma) exit, with platforms clearly marked in English listing destinations. Both the Kyoto Tourist Information office and the Bus and Subway Information counter give out excellent maps showing major bus routes. Some of the buses loop around the city, while others go back and forth between two destinations. Most convenient for sightseeing is Raku bus no. 100 (some of which look like old-fashioned trolleys), which makes a run every 10 minutes from Kyoto Station to major attractions in east Kyoto, including the Kyoto National Museum, Gojo-zaka (the approach to Kiyomizu Temple), Gion, Heian Shrine, Nanzenji, and Ginkakuji. Raku bus no. 101 departs Kyoto Station for Nijo Castle and Kinkakuji, while Raku bus no. 102 cuts across north Kyoto and connects Ginkakuji and Kinkakuji.
The fare for traveling in central Kyoto is ¥220 for a single ride or ¥500 for a 1-day pass (good for all local buses; you can buy it on the bus). Board the bus at the rear entrance and pay when you get off. If the bus is traveling a long distance out to the suburbs, there will be a ticket machine right beside the back door -- take the ticket and hold onto it. It has a number on it and will tell the bus driver when you got on and how much you owe. You can see for yourself how much you owe by looking for your number on a lighted panel at the front of the bus; the longer you stay on the bus, the higher the fare.
If you think you'll be doing a lot of sightseeing in 1 or 2 days, it may pay to buy a pass. A city bus all-day pass costs ¥500. Passes for both buses and subways cost ¥1,200 for 1 day or ¥2,000 for 2 days and are available at subway stations or the Bus and Subway Information counter at Kyoto Station. Alternatively, such prepaid cards as the Traffica Kyoto Card, which give you a 10% discount, can be used for city buses and subways, and are available in values of ¥1,000 and ¥3,000. Because there is no time limit, they're convenient if you're staying in Kyoto for several days.
For journeys farther afield, the Kansai Thru Pass (Surutto Kansai; www.surutto.com) allows foreigners (you must show your passport) to ride subways, private railways (no JR trains), and buses throughout Kansai, including Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, and Mount Koya, with a 2-day pass costing ¥3,800 and a 3-day pass costing ¥5,000. Children pay half-price. You would have to do quite a bit of traveling to make this worthwhile. It's available at the Kansai International Airport's Travel Desk (first floor international arrivals) or at the Bus and Subway Information counter in front of Kyoto Station.
Taxis in Kyoto come in two different sizes with only slightly different fares. Small ones are ¥660 for the first 2km (1 1/4 miles), and large ones are ¥710. Taxis can be waved down or, in the city center, boarded at marked taxi stands or at hotels. MK Taxi (tel. 075/721-4141) also offers individualized English-language guided tours.
A popular way to get around Kyoto is by bike, made easy because there are few hills and because most streets are named. During peak season, you might even be faster on a bike than a bus. However, you do have to be on guard for vehicular traffic. Kyoto Cycling Tour Project, a 3-minute walk from the Central (north) Exit of Kyoto Station (turn left upon exiting the station and walk past the post office and APA Hotel; tel. 075/354-3636; www.kctp.net), open daily 9am to 7pm, rents bikes beginning at ¥1,000 a day, including a cycling map of the city. It also offers guided cycling tours.