Have you seen the stunning glass structure at Kyoto Station? It’s hard to believe it’s part of the ancient capital, right? This uniquely innovative, aesthetic, and eccentric Kyoto Station Building faced some controversy over its design when it opened to the public in 1997. It was built to celebrate the 1,200th anniversary of the Heian Capital, but some people thought it clashed with the city’s historical charm.
Designed by architect Hiroshi Hara (原広司, 1936-), who also designed the Umeda Sky Building in Osaka, this futuristic building is now not only the gateway to Kyoto, but also a place for relaxation and refreshment that entertains visitors and locals alike.
I often hear from tourists from overseas that they got lost in Kyoto Station. That is no wonder, as it’s one of the largest station buildings in Japan, stretching 470m from east to west and rising 60m high. You can find the Isetan department store on the west side, the Granvia Hotel, and the Kyoto Theater on the east side. There are also plenty of shopping and dining options.
Let me show you why the Kyoto Station building is more than just a transit hub, and one of the best attractions in Kyoto!!
Kyoto City is promoting “Hands-Free Kyoto,” a hands-free sightseeing program that lets you savor the joys of traveling.
To enjoy exploring the Kyoto Station and the city, you may want to drop off your large luggage first. You can find coin lockers throughout the station. Also, some luggage services offer temporary storage of large luggage that does not fit in the coin lockers, and deliver your luggage directly to your accommodation, as long as your hotel is one that is registered with the services.
~Kyoto Station Exploring Tour~
You can start exploring the station from anywhere, but to avoid getting lost, let’s start from the main entrance of Kyoto Station!
1. Central Concourse
As you enter the gate with Kyoto Tower behind you, you will be greeted by the central concourse, a spacious atrium (147m wide, 29m deep, and 50m high) covered by a large roof made of 4,000 sheets of glass.
First, take the escalator on your right to go up. You will notice that most people get off the escalator on the 2nd floor and head for the north-south pedestrian walkway. I will tell you a little about the 2nd floor later, but for now, the escalators will take you up and up…and up!
2. Great Staircase
Here you are on the 4th floor, where the Great Staircase awaits you. This impressive staircase has 171 steps and seems to soar into the sky. It is also used as a venue for concerts and other events, such as the “Great Staircase Run-Up Contest” held every February, as well as a place for couples and tourists to relax.
Every evening, this Great Staircase is illuminated with seasonal designs.
3. Happy Terrace
After ascending either the escalator or the Great Staircase, you will find yourself on the roof of the station building, Happy Terrace, an outdoor observation terrace overlooking the city of Kyoto. You can relax on the benches here under the sun with the gentle breeze. Or you can come here after dark and marvel at the beautiful night view with your date.
After leaving the Happy Terrace, take the Great Staircase once more down to the 10th floor. Look for the door that leads to Kyoto Ramen Koji (拉麺小路, open 11:00-22:00) on the 10th floor of the Isetan department store, shown in the picture below. Ramen Koji is a corridor full of ramen shops where you can find and dine in nine famous ramen restaurants from different regions of Japan. It is heaven for ramen lovers!
Enter the building through the door, walk left for about 30m, and you will notice the Skyway entrance on your left.
The glass-walled aerial pathway, 45m above the ground, is 147m long, with three observation points along the way, providing another vantage point from which to view Kyoto City. At night, the Skyway becomes a fantastic sight itself when it is lit up, as seen in the picture below.
You can also access the Skyway from inside Isetan. On rainy days, it is better to go from the 10th floor of Isetan through Ramen Koji.
5. East Square
After crossing the Skyway, take the escalator at the east end down to the East Square on the 7th floor of Hotel Granvia Kyoto. While taking the escalator down, you may hear the beautiful sound of piano music filling the air. The tone comes from the Station Piano on the left side of the escalator. You are welcome to play it if you wish!
☆LEGO model of Kyoto Station
On the right (east) side of the Station Piano, you can marvel at a 1/100 scale model of the Kyoto Station built entirely with LEGO bricks. It is an impressive 5m long and 70cm high, with a total of 301,584 pieces.
The model captures the interior of the station in detail, so you can have fun comparing it with the route you have just taken.
This East Square also features the bell monument used for weddings at Hotel Granvia and a cozy café, and is a relatively quiet and relaxing place to hang out.
At night, this square transforms into a magical space of light as well.
6. Karasuma Square
To get to Karasuma Square, descend two separate escalators from East Square. You can admire Kyoto Tower up close from here. There is a spot where Kyoto Tower is reflected in the glass and creates a double image.
This spot also gives you a great view of the central concourse, which was designed to resemble a valley.
7. South Square
You can access Wood Square from the 4th floor, the same as Karasuma Square. Wood Square features wooden playground equipment on artificial grass where children can have fun. It also offers desks for teleworkers.You can watch the Shinkansen trains arriving and departing from here.
Once you cross South Square, you will reach the Great Staircase again. To return to your starting point, take the north escalator down to the first floor.
If you get off the escalator on the 2nd floor, turn around and walk toward the north-south aisle. You will see the information desk on your right. You can also find another information center next to the Isetan 2nd-floor entrance. The north-south aisle connects to JR West Gate, Shinkansen Central Entrance, Kintetsu Kyoto Station, and Kyoto Station Hachijo Exit on the south end.
Did you have fun exploring the hidden gems of Kyoto Station? You can complete the course I suggested in just 30 minutes. Whether you want a quick stroll or a full-day adventure, you will surely discover the many wonders of Kyoto Station!!
Born and raised in Kyoto. A private tutor and a volunteer tour guide in Kyoto. Love sewing, kimono remaking, traveling, cooking, gardening, playing the shamisen(三味線), making stained glass and grandparenting as well.