In the autumn of 2015 the Keihan and Myojo Bus Companies introduced an open top, double decker touring service called the Kyoto Sky Bus. This Sky Bus tour of Kyoto provides an excellent introduction to Kyoto’s major sites, and is also an enjoyable way to learn a little about Kyoto’s history and culture.
There are two separate tours:
- 90 minute “Drive Around” tour with no stops
- 4 hour circuit of the city which stops at Kyoto’s two most iconic sightseeing locations: Kinkakuji Temple and Kiyomizudera Temple.
In this article we will look at the 4 hour Sky Bus tour.
The Sky Bus tour begins outside the north central exit of Kyoto Station. You can find the sightseeing bus stand directly in front of the Isetan department store. Boarding the bus you will be given a set of earphones for your audio guide and be directed up to the top deck.
All seat numbers are preassigned and printed on your ticket, so you don’t get to pick your own seat. However, all the passenger seats are on the top deck of the bus, so you can be assured of a good view. Once settled into your seat, plug your earphones into the audio guide, fasten your seat-belt and prepare to enjoy the ride!
To listen to the audio guide, simply pick your channel: English is on channel 2, Chinese on channel 1, and Korean on channel 4.
The guide is full of interesting information, not only about the sites you are passing, but also more general information about Kyoto’s history, geography, culture and climate. If you listen carefully, then by the time the tour has finished you’ll be quite the expert on all things Kyoto: whether it be the local dialect, Kyoto festivals, or the traditions of Kyoto’s geisha.
Heading north from Kyoto Station the Sky Bus heads north passing famous locations like Nishi Honganji Temple, Nijo-jo Castle and Kitano-Tenmangu Shrine before making a first stop at Kinkakuji Temple.
As the bus only makes two stops throughout the tour, you may want to make a note of locations that interest you along the way, in case you want to visit them properly yourself later. The arcane pentacle at Seimei-jinja certainly excited my curiosity!
In terms of scenery, the initial part of the tour between Kyoto Station and Kinkakuji Temple is the least satisfactory part of the route. Though there are many sites of interest along the way, this part of the city has not been well preserved, and the rather drab urban landscape may disappoint you. Don’t be too discouraged though, because after visiting Kinkakuji Temple, the bus travels east, and crosses the Kamogawa river into Kyoto’s best preserved and most beautiful scenic areas.
If you take the tour in early spring, you may even be rewarded by a glorious view of the cherry trees in Higashiyama!
At Kinkakuji, the Sky Bus will stop for 40 minutes and your guide will lead your tour group to the gates of the temple. Entry into the temple grounds is included in the price of your ticket.
Kinkakuji Temple is the site of the famous Golden Pavilion, and so it is a super popular location, and almost always crowded. However, 40 minutes should be plenty of time for you to make a circuit of the grounds and take lots of memorable pictures.
Following the visit to Kinkakuji Temple the Sky Bus cuts east across the city, past the Imperial Palace Park and crosses over the Kamogamo Delta at a point where two rivers meet. In terms of natural scenery the view here of the two rivers, the mountains beyond them and the sky overhead is one of the best in Kyoto.
The Sky Bus then continues on to the scenic Higashiyama district, crossing over and running alongside the canal and its cherry trees and passing Heian-jingu Shrine.
Going south you will pass too many ancient shrines and temples to mention, but one stand out location is Chion-in Temple. The massive Sanmon gate is the largest gate of its kind in Japan.
The bus will then enter the Gion district, passing by the famous Yasaka-jinja Shrine, which sits at the hub of many of Kyoto’s seasonal festivals.
The Sky Bus then runs along the Kamogawa river for a stretch before driving up into the eastern mountains and making a stop at Kiyomizudera Temple. Unlike the earlier visit to Kinkakuji Temple, entry into Kiyomizudera temple is NOT included in the price of your tour. If you want to, you can just take pictures from the outside of the temple, grab a bite to eat, explore the quaint streets of the area or do some souvenir shopping. In fact, when passengers first board the bus, they are actually given coupons for pickles and sweets which can be used at a souvenir shop close by Kiyomizudera temple.
However, entry into Kiyomizudera Temple is only 400 yen, and it is such a beautiful and extensive complex of temple buildings that it is well worth the extra expense to explore it. The spectacular sight of the “butai” or stage of Kiyomizu, and of the city beyond it is one of the must see views of Kyoto and it really would be shame to miss it.
The Sky Bus stops here for about an hour before heading back to Kyoto Station, but if you want to stay longer in this area, just tell your tour guide that you won’t be returning to the bus. If you do decide to leave the tour here, then you can explore the temple and the surrounding area at your leisure. This is actually a very good jumping off point for exploring southern Higashiyama and the Gion district, before strolling back into the center of town.
Ticket Reservations & Other Details
This article is about the current 4 hour Sky Bus tour which includes stops at Kinkakuji and Kiyomizudera Temples. Tour details and its pricing are subject to change. At present there are two tours every day which depart at 10:00 and 13:00. The tour costs 4000 yen for adults and 2100 yen for children. Discounts are also available for groups of 8 people or more.
The tour can be booked online up to 3 months in advance, but unfortunately at present the online booking system is only available in Japanese. However, you can make inquiries about reservations at this number: 075-672-2100 (open: 7:40 -20:00). If you wish to book the tour in person, you can do so at the Sightseeing Bus Reservation Center which is located directly in front of Isetan department store on the north side of Kyoto Station. Same day bookings are possible, but the tour is popular and fills up quickly, so it is a good idea to book the tour in advance.
There are a number of other seasonal and event based Sky Bus tours. Ask for more information at the Sightseeing Bus Reservation Center. They have a number of brochures there with up to date information on both Sky Bus tours and regular bus tours.
The reservation system is a little quirky. Once you make your reservation, you will not be given your tickets directly, but will be given a slip that you can exchange for your tickets on the day of the tour. Because of this system, you will have to stand in line a second time at the ticket office just to get the tickets that you have already reserved. This might take some time, so be sure to get there well in advance. It is recommended that you get there at least 15 minutes prior to departure.
One final piece of advice is about clothing! Unless it is high summer, it will probably get very breezy at the top of the bus, so you might want to bring a jacket to keep yourself warm. If it rains, the staff on the bus will distribute raincoats, but they ask that people don’t use umbrellas as this will obstruct the view for other passengers. Passengers are also asked not to stand up when the bus is in motion and not to use selfie sticks.
Article and original photos by Michael Lambe. All rights reserved.