Traveling with children in Japan can be intimidating. All that structure and serenity. I have visions of my children rearranging the rocks of a zen garden or putting their little fists through the traditional rice paper shoji screens that make up the walls of our ryokan. However, it is also one of the most beautiful, poetic cities in Japan and our children, age 3 ½ and 2, love running up the temple steps and seeing the koi fish swimming in the river along philosopher’s walk.
Kyoto for kids depends on the weather, with spring (cherry blossoms) and autumn (fall leaves) the best times to visit the city, though also the most crowded. The public transportation system, especially the busses, are top notch with a 500 yen per day pass that gets you to all major sites. And the city is slow-paced enough that people are willing to stop and show you where to go on a map or point out a nearby noodle shop where you can fill your children’s bellies.
Just walking around Kyoto is a treat and the tourist information office has a “Kyoto Walks” pamphlet that covers many of them. I’ve also heard that the walking tours given by Johnnie Hillwalker are good; however, they run from 10a to 3p and are too long for young children.
On a beautiful day, wandering through my favorite temple, Kiyomizu-dera, then past the snack shops for some mochi and lunch in a tea house off the cobblestone streets is a perfect half day. Kiyomizu-dera has lots of steps, so strollers can be a burden for this particular walk. As you enter the compound through the Chinese-influenced crimson gates and past the three-tiered pagoda, there is a dragon fountain with long-handled ladles where everyone washes their hands. Later, a three-channel water fountain provides spring water conferring wisdom, health, longevity. My children enjoyed looking at the many wishes written on wooden paddles on the wishing trees and ringing the giant bells. Love-sick teenagers might appreciate the Jishu love stones where you can try walking between the two stones with your eyes closed. If you can make the trip you will find true love.
The pedestrian-only cobble stone streets near to Kiyomizu will take you past some beautiful shops and tea houses. A hidden gem in Kyoto is the Italian food, a boon for kids tired of sushi, noodles and rice. The pizza and pasta is light and delicious and not any more expensive than the local food.
Ginkakuji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, and the Philosopher’s Walk
This mile-long walk starts at the Silver Pavilion with its pocket-sized gardens dedicated to tea ceremonies and moon viewing for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Philosophers of old would walk alongside the beautiful maple and cherry-lined canal to think deep thoughts. It’s also a nice flat path for a stroller if you need a rest. As the path winds to an end you can continue walking in to town to the Kyoto Handicraft Center, where you can have a try at making your own handicraft or purchase souvenirs.
A short 5 minute drive will take you to this grand castle built by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu where he took residence. The castle grounds are a great romp and the nightingale floors, which are designed to chirp to let the Shogun know of intruders, are a hit with kids.
Nishiki, the 400 year old food market of Kyoto, is a great place for a rainy day with over 100 covered food stalls ranging from the green tea ice cream parfait and kumquat juice parlors, to pickles and fried fish on a stick. It’s a great place to replenish your snack pack with everything from lego-shaped candies to dried beans and the tea houses there are a welcome place to rest your feet or lay down tired kids while the grown-ups refuel.
Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum
This turned out to be a hit of the trip for our kids and makes a particularly good trip for a rainy day. They have locomotives you can climb over, an old roundhouse, dioramas and lots of indoor play areas. The steam locomotive only goes 3 times a day so check ahead for timings.
Other great side trips:
Arashiyama Monkey Park where monkeys roam free and kids can view them through a cage. Beware of the steep walk up to the top.
Nara is famous for its palace grounds with deer that you can feed (half an hour train ride away).
How to get there:
Flying in via Osaka is the easiest way. The airport is easy to navigate and the Haruka Express train leaves every half hour from a station connected to the airport. The ride takes an hour and 15 minutes.
If you come up from Tokyo, you can take the famous Shinkansen bullet train.
Where to stay:
Hotel Granvia Kyoto is located just above the famous Kyoto station building and is within walking distance to many popular sites and a short bus ride to many others. The complex houses so many little restaurants and food stalls you can find anything you need.
A lovely garden feel outside of the Central area but close to the temples and on the subway line. They also have baby-sitting services and all of the amenities you would expect from an international-standard luxury hotel.
Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns which are generally geared more to adults and can be quite expensive. While we have not had the guts to stay in any of them with our kids, some general rules apply. You sleep on a futon on tatami mats on the floor. Children share a room with their parents and the charge is per person. Some ryokans just charge an extra bedding fee for kids.
You can find a guide to ryokans on the Ryokan Association of Japan’s website, as well as a ryokan that was recommended in some of the listservs on Kyoto ryokans with children called the Kyoto Garden Ryokan Yachiyo.
What to eat:
Japan can be intimidating for parents of picky eaters. We found that the vending machines and vending machine restaurants were a huge kick to our kids. Restaurants often had good value combos of tonkatsu rice and ramen that would feed both of their picky tastes (one only eats rice, the other noodles). Below, a guide to the various possibilities:
Sushi & Sashimi (note: best value is the set lunch)
Kushi Katsu (fried meat, fish, and veggies on sticks. “in kushi katsu, the veggies stay crisp and fresh inside their breadcrumb casing, and meat/fish is perfectly tender and done.”)
Tonkatsu (a pork cutlet rolled in panko breadcrumbs, and then (like kushi kastu), fried to absolute perfection)
Beef (Wagyu, Hida, Kobe)
Tempura (fried veggies with a variety of sauces)
Shabu Shabu (Japanese style hot pot (meat, veggies, noodles, tofu.cook the meat first to create “base” for other ingredients)
Pan-ice (vanilla ice cream inside french bread!)