Japan with kids

Kyoto with Kids: Japan’s Ancient and Imperial Capital

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We had 10 days in Japan which is never enough time to see a country.  But it was an opportunity to get an introduction to Japan, its unique and rich culture, and delicious foods.  We split our time between Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan and glitzy, futuristic mega-city Tokyo.  You can read all about our planning for Japan in this post.

Related Read: a 10 Day Itinerary for Japan

If you can only visit one place in Japan, make it Kyoto.  Kyoto is old Japan, with its hundreds of gorgeous shrines, temples and gardens, many UNESCO Heritage Sites, picturesque narrow lane ways and wooden buildings, and artistic and seasonal kaiseki food.  This may not sound like the most kid-friendly destination, but our kids soaked up the rich culture.  Sure, they got “templed-out” and our stress levels rose higher as we tried to quiet them in a country known for its calm and serenity.  But, Kyoto with kids was such a great introduction to Japan.  Kyoto with kids

Visiting Kyoto with kids is all about balancing different interests.  We didn’t visit as many of the temples and shrines that we would have if we didn’t have kids, but we visited the main ones.  We spent time in the Japanese gardens where the kids could run off some energy and appreciate some nature.  We bribed them with daily visits to the ubiquitous vending machines that are everywhere in Japan for a soda in the afternoon.  Since we were visiting in the humidity of August (side note, listen to people that warn you not to visit the interior of Japan in the summer!) the kids got ample opportunities to indulge in ice cream and loved covering their sweat towel around their neck with water to stay cool.

One of the highlights of our 10 days in Japan was staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn.  It was an amazing cultural immersion experience to sleep on futons on the tatami matted floors, bathe in the communal onsen and eat strange foods served in our room.  You can read all about our ryokan experience in this post.  Ryokans are pricey and we only stayed one night.  The rest of the time in Kyoto we stayed at a compact Airbnb in the Gion and Higashiyama neighborhood.

We had 3.5 days in Kyoto and if I was to do it again, I would have shifted a day from Tokyo, giving us an extra day in Kyoto.  There is just so much to do in the city and lots of amazing day trips as well.  It rained most days we were there (remember, Japan in July or August is hot and sticky) and so we had to shift plans each day and didn’t get a chance to do everything we wanted.

So without further ado, here are our highlights of visiting Kyoto with kids.

what to do Kyoto

Just wandering the streets is a highlight in Kyoto

Kyoto Map

I have created a map of what to do in Kyoto with all of the attractions and things to do mentioned in this article identified to help you plan your Kyoto itinerary.

Kyoto Tours with Kids

There are a number of great tours for families in Kyoto.  Here are some of the most popular:

We traveled independently in Kyoto, but Intrepid has a great 12-day Japan Family trip.

Kyoto with Kids

Higashiyama

The Higashiyama district is home to the largest concentration of temples and shrines in Kyoto.  But, there is so much more to this area to love.  It is one of the city’s best preserved historic districts, features beautiful wooden buildings and narrow laneways, many quaint shops and restaurants and lots of kimono-wearing domestic tourists.

You can easily spend a whole day wandering this district, but if you have kids or are travelling in sweatbox August, half a day, might be more appropriate.  Let me explain the weather comments.  We were warned by a few Japanese friends not to travel to interior Japan in August.  They said it would be too hot, too humid.  I brushed those warnings off and figured since we had lived in Malaysia, how bad could it be?  Quickly after landing in Osaka and stepping outside into the humid, August heat, I realized that we had misjudged.  While the humidity didn’t ruin our trip, I would definitely avoid traveling Japan in July and August.  For us, we couldn’t because we were enroute between Canada and Australia, but if you can, do it.

Hot Kyoto in summer

Feeling happy after picking up these sweat towels and fans.

Our apartment was near Chion-in Temple and so that is where we started our Higashiyama day.  This temple features the largest wooden gate in Japan at 24 meters tall.  This temple is free to visit and like most of the temples we visited, was under renovation.  We learned how to wash our hands and mouth at the water pavilion before entering the temple.  Using the wooden ladle, you pour water over your left hand, then you right, and then pour water into your hand to rinse your mouth.

Chionin Kyoto

The massive gate at Chion-in Temple

Japan with kids

Washing before entering the temples

We wandered through Maruyama Park and Yasaka-Jinga Shrine, where we caught a glimpse of a traditional Shinto wedding.

From Yasaka shrine, we followed the preserved historic streets towards Kiyomizudera.  You could spend hours in this 2 km stretch.  The shops selling matcha products, kimono rentals, Japanese sweets and handicrafts beckon, especially when you feel the air conditioning blasting out of each shop.  Even the Starbucks is camouflaged into the heritage streets.

Higashiyama Kyoto

Can you spot the Starbucks?

As you get closer and closer to Kiyomizudera (one of the most celebrated temples in all of Japan), you will sense it.  You will get pulled along in the sea of tourists headed up the mountain.  This temple was founded in 780 and is known for the beautiful views over the city of Kyoto from the wooden stage.  Unfortunately, the main façade was covered over due to renovations and we couldn’t get that classic photo of the temple.  We visited on a weekend and the temple was buzzing with activity.  In addition to noticing all the splendid details of the temple, we loved people-watching. Temple and grounds entry 400 Y/adult, 200 Y/children 6+

Kiyomizudera Kyoto

The entrance of Kiyomizudera

Kiyomizudera view

The view of the Temple (under renovation) and City

After some matcha ice cream on the way back down through the crowded streets (not pram friendly), we found a great little tempura restaurant at Yasaka-no-to Pagoda square.  For 850 yen a bowl we had delicious tempura and rice overlooking this beautiful square.  This was one of our first meals in Japan, but is classic Japanese: simple and delicious and artfully prepared.  Read our 7 awesome Japanese food experiences here.

ice cream Japan

While I loved my matcha ice creams, the kids preferred the fruit flavours.

There are so many great temples to explore in northern Higashiyama and I would have loved to have done the Philosopher’s Walk if we had more time (and less rain!).

Arashiyama

Taking advantage of the side effects of being up at 4 am with jet leg, we got an early start to the day and headed out to Arashiyama.  Arashiyama is a lovely district on the west side of Kyoto, most known for its beautiful bamboo groves.  This is one of the most popular places to visit in Kyoto now, thanks in large part to Instagram.

Since we got there so early, we almost had the area to ourselves and got lots of great photos.  The bamboo groves are free to see and they are spectacular.   I loved the opportunity to get away from the city and be in nature on the edge of the city.  It felt quiet and peaceful in the mountains of Arashiyama and there is lots of green space to explore.

Arashiyama bamboo groves

We were up so early, we had the place mostly to ourselves.

Arashiyama bamboo

There is just something about bamboo!

Arashiyama

A rare family shot in the bamboo groves

I thought Arashiyama was only about the bamboo, but it was a cute area that I could have spent more time at.  Exploring by bicycle rental through the preserved town area would be a lovely way to spend a day.  There are lots of temples you can visit, machiya style housing and the lovely riverside to explore.

We walked from the bamboo groves, along the river, over Tongetsukyo Bridge to the Iwatayama Monkey Park.  Here, you hike up a mountain for about 20 minutes to encounter the wild monkeys that live at the top.  Kids love monkeys and ours enjoyed feeding them at the top.  We loved the walk through the forest, especially after we purchased our sweat towels for around our necks.  Near the top, there is a little playground for kids.  At the top, you are rewarded with awesome views over Kyoto.  Best of all, you can go inside a building, buy banana or peanuts and feed the monkeys.  Kind of like a reverse zoo thing where you are in a cage.  This is a great thing to do in Kyoto for kids and a nice break from temple hopping.  550 Y/adults, 250 Y/children, 100 Y/bag of monkey food.

Feeding monkeys

How cute is this Mom & babe?

Arashiyama Monkey Park

The view of Kyoto from the Monkey Park

Arashiyama snow monkeys

Don’t you love watching monkeys?

We took the train to Arashiyama, but you can take the Sagano Scenic Railway or the Hozu River Boats.

Kikakuji (Golden Temple)

We debated if we should visit one of Kyoto’s most famous sites: Kikakuji or the Golden Temple.  It is out of the way and known to be very busy and we would be hitting it up in the middle of the day.  I am so glad we decided to see it because it was definitely my favorite temple in Japan and one of the top things to do in Kyoto.

You may have seen photos of Kikakuji before, but it is even more stunning in real life.  It is described as a Zen temple and even though there are so many tourists, it really is the most zen place I have ever visited.  Every thing is perfect, from the gardens, to the lake, to the intricate details of the temple. The kids were enchanted with the idea of a temple made of gold.  As with all temples in Japan, there are lots of opportunities to purchase candles, incense or wooden plaques to write your wishes on.  Temple and grounds entrance fee 400 Y/adult, 300 Y/child 6+.

Golden Temple

My favorite temple

Kikakuji Kyoto

Pure perfection!

Japan with kids

Lighting a candle

Fushimi Inari

This is another one of those not-to-miss Japanese landmarks and you have likely seen the beautiful photos of the thousands of orange torii gates that ascend up the side of a mountain.  It is incredibly beautiful and we spent a few hours walking all the way to the top.  The crowds thin the higher you ascend and there are lots of small shrines tucked away in the forest along the torii gates.  Like in Arashiyama, I loved getting out into nature and walking through the gates in the forest.

The kids loved the challenge of running ahead to try to get a photo without other tourists.  On the way back down, you notice that on each orange gate are the name (in Japanese characters) of the person who donated the funds for that gate.

This is another great free activity in Kyoto with kids and is a Kyoto must see.  I definitely recommend setting aside 2-3 hours for your visit so that you can make your way to the top.  The torii gate pathway is mostly steps, so not suitable for a pram (bring a carrier).  FREE!

Fushimi Inari Japan

Simply breathtaking in scale and atmosphere

shrines in Kyoto

The orange torii gates aren’t the only things to notice.

Fushimi Inari

I have a million photos of this beautiful place

Nijo-Castle

This wasn’t a site that we set out to see in Kyoto, but a rainy day had us googling “what to do in Kyoto rainy day” and Nijo Castle was often recommended.  Nijo Castle was built in 1603 by the first shogun of the Edo-era.  The grounds are massive, but you can walk through the main buildings, making it a great rainy day thing to do in Kyoto.  The kids loved trying out the Nightingale floors that squeak when you walk on them, an apparent early security mechanism.  The murals, tatami floors, and intricate carvings are beautiful and there is good English signage (audio guides are also available for a fee).

Nijo Castle

A great rainy day activity (no photos allowed inside)

Nijo CAstle Kyoto

Kids are fascinated by moats!

Outside of the Castle, the Ninomaru Gardens were my favorite Japanese gardens on our trip.  The large pond, perfectly-positioned stones and manicured greenery was breathtaking, even in the rain.  So while this wasn’t on our original Kyoto itinerary, I am so glad we visited.  As we were leaving, we noticed a small sign saying the Castle was closing early for the day due to the incoming typhoon.  We hadn’t even heard of the typhoon that was hitting the southern coast and luckily for us, it just brought lots of rain. 600 Y/adult, 200 Y/children.  

Nijo Castle

My favorite gardens that we saw in Japan

Kyoto International Manga Museum

I had read that you could get manga caricature drawings done here for a very reasonable price, which was the main draw.  I would classify this place as more of a library then a museum.  It consisted of lots of people hanging around reading from the massive manga collection.  Most of the books were in Japanese, but there were some kids and adult books in different languages.  Our kids hadn’t really been introduced to manga comics yet so there really wasn’t much for us to do here.

We did get each of the kids’ portraits drawn by the manga artists there.  As you enter, just past the gift shop, you will see the artists set up.  Book a time as soon as you arrive because you might have to wait an hour or so.  If all you wanted to do was get your portrait done, I don’t think you would have to purchase admission to the museum.  We looked around the “museum” while we waited and the kids enjoyed the area where they had paper and fancy pens to test out their artwork.

The portraits were extremely well-done and will be a great keepsake of our trip to Japan.  Our youngest wanted to be a ninja and his portrait is hilarious.  I love the personality that the artist imbues in the drawing and think this is a great Tokyo attractions for kids. The portraits cost 1000 Yen for one person, making this an excellent value souvenir from JapanMuseum entry is 800 Y/adults, 100 Y/children.

Manga Museum

Manga portrait = best souvenir ever

 

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Markets and Shopping

Kyoto offers a mixture of shopping options for traditional markets to large department stores.

Nishiki Market is definitely worth a walk through.  This narrow, covered food market street features fresh vegetables and seafood, Japanese sweets, kitchen utensils and even tiny restaurants.  At the end of the market, you will enter the modern shopping street of Teramachi Street, which is also worth a wander.

Market Kyoto

Food, food, food at Nishiki Market

The large department stores on Shijo-dori are fun to look around in, especially the basement food halls.  We found some lovely French bakeries where we stocked up on croissants and pastries.

Gion

Many people that visit Kyoto want to spot a real-life geisha.  Gion is the most likely area to see a geisha, especially at dusk.  We didn’t see a real geisha (we did see lots of dressed up girls in geisha and maiko attire in the daytime), but we didn’t put a lot of effort into it.  The streets around Gion are lovely for walking, especially Shimbashi Street.  The old wooden buildings and lanterns will make you feel like you are in a completely different era.

Dress up Kyoto

Dressed up geisha and maiko ladies

Kyoto dress up

Doesn’t this couple look fabulous in these traditional clothes?

Eating in Kyoto

One of the things we were most excited about in Japan was stuffing ourselves with the delicious foods.  While Japan is not known as a budget destination, we found lots of reasonably priced restaurants.  Sure, you can spend 5000-10000 Y/person on a fancy Japanese meal, however we usually spent 4,000 Y for our family of 5.  I will have a whole post coming on all of the amazing foods we ate in Japan, coming soon.

A lot of places had English menus and every restaurant has a plastic version of their food on display outside.  We really didn’t plan our meals in advance, but just stumbled upon places.

Here are some ideas for places to eat in Kyoto.

Musashi Sushi – our first kaiten sushi experience (conveyer belt) in Japan, this place does a bustling business.  Plates were 170 Y and the sushi was fresh and tasty.  It is popular with tourists so we did have to wait 20 minutes for a seat.  Sanjo/Downtown area.  

Sushi Kyoto

The kids felt very proud of how many plates we ate

Pontocho Alley – this is Kyoto’s most atmospheric dining area and the narrow laneway features lots of restaurants, many with seating over the river.  We enjoyed walking the alley, but found the restaurants to be out of our budget.

Kyoto where to eat

A great place to check out in the evening

Yasaka Pagoda – we don’t know the name of this restaurant, but it is right in the square at the Yasaka Pagoda.  Here we had simple and lovely tempura for 850 Y/bowl.  We loved the air conditioning and people watching from the second floor seating area.  Near Kiyomizudera Temple.

tempura Japan

Simple and delicious tempura

Day Trips from Kyoto

While we covered all of the main sites in Kyoto, we could have spent longer in the area because there are so many great day trips.

If the weather had been better, we would have loved to get out of town (1 hour by train) and do the hike between Kibune and Kurama.  You can eat in these really unique over-river restaurants where you have to catch your noodles as they flow by.  After the hike, you can unwind in the Kurama onsen hot springs.  The 3.9km hike (2-3 hours) would be right up our alley and looks like a lovely way to spend the day.

Another day trip we would have loved to take would have been to Nara, home to more beautiful temples and lots of deer that roam the city.

Where to Stay in Kyoto

Ryokans in Kyoto – Kyoto is the perfect place to experience a traditional Japanese Inn.  You can read our full review of our experience here.  We stayed at Gion Shinmonso, which fit our moderate budget and was a nice family friendly ryokan in Kyoto.

where to stay Kyoto

We loved the ryokan experience

Airbnb in Kyoto – We found it hard to find reasonably priced hotels in Kyoto, so opted to stay in a very small and compact Airbnb apartment.  It was pretty much a one room apartment, but in a quiet, residential neighborhood.  We were close to Gion, the metro and all the Higashiyama sites.  If you have not signed up with Airbnb, use this link to save $50 on your first stay.

Hotels in Kyoto – there are lots of hotel options available throughout Kyoto. Check out these deals:

Check out this excellent resource on where to stay in Kyoto from a fellow blogger.

Getting to Kyoto

From Osaka – there are two airports in Osaka – Itami and Kansai.  We flew on ANA into Itami and from there took a bus to Kyoto (1 hour).

From Tokyo – take the speedy shinkansen (bullet train).  It may be expensive, but it is one of those experience you just have to have in Japan.  It only takes 2.5 hours and you can sometimes get lucky and catch site of Mount Fuji (sit on the left if you are headed to Tokyo).  Tickets cost 14,300 Y/adults, children 50%. 

Alternatively you can visit Kyoto and other Japanese destinations on a Japan cruise.

Getting Around Kyoto

We tried almost all of the public transit options available in Kyoto.  The sites are fairly spread out, so you will need to take trains, buses or taxis to get around.  Pick up a transit map or use Google Maps to plan your journey.  For the metro, you buy tickets at the station machines.  For buses and tram-trains, you can pay with exact change when you get off.  The transit system is very reliable and easy to use.  Remember, that eating and talking loudly are not allowed on public transit in Japan.  Our kids were definitely guilty of talking loudly and being a bit rambunctious on the metro.  However, I was probably more worried about it then anyone else.

getting around Kyoto

It looks confusing at first, but actually makes sense

Our Verdict

We loved Kyoto with kids and could have easily spent more time there.  When visiting with kids, it is all about balancing every one’s interests.  The kids were interested in the history of Japan and did appreciate the shrines and temples.  However, they also needed breaks from that type of sight-seeing.  Spending time in the Japanese gardens or even at the arcades was a good way to break up some of the temples and walking around.  Staying in the ryokan was definitely the highlight of our time in Kyoto and I really recommend it as a way for families to sample Japanese culture more fully.

We spent the second part of our trip in Tokyo, which was totally different, but equally enjoyable.

An alternative to staying in Kyoto is to base yourself in Osaka, which is very convenient for a number of great destinations nearby.


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