Join Darcy from the Garden of Eden blog on her travels to Kyoto…
Kyoto seems to be at the top of everyone’s list of cities to visit in Japan. Largely spared from air raids and bombings during World War II, it retains a great deal of historical charm whilst still being a very modern city. Kyoto was the Imperial Capital of Japan from 794 until 1868 and you’ll find temples, shrines, gardens, and palaces throughout. Not to mention that Kyoto is easily reached by bullet train from Tokyo.
Information abounds about the best sights to visit in Kyoto, but it can be easier said than done to explore temples and shrines with small children in tow. First, the best and easiest way to get around Kyoto is by bicycle. There are numerous bike rental shops in the city, many of which seem to have a kid’s seat and helmet (oddly, children wear helmets in Kyoto but not adults). You’ll see people riding bikes with 2 or 3 children onboard all over the city and we rode all over and never felt unsafe. Note that you do need to park your bike in designated bike parking lots throughout the city.
The added advantage to riding your bike around the city is that you’ll stumble upon random playgrounds. I found it difficult to locate playgrounds in advance, but we biked past many of them and were able to easily stop and let our daughter play for a bit.
A new perspective on Kyoto (and Japan) can be gained by living in a traditional Japanese machiya—local townhome–for a few days. We rented one near Umejenko Park via airbnb and felt like we had a very authentic Japanese experience. Our home was located on an incredibly narrow street. We would play soccer in the street in the afternoon, sometimes with the three neighbor children. They spoke no English and we didn’t speak Japanese, but it’s amazing the connection you can make with people through the mutual experience of having children (and that children make with one another in an instant). If you need help finding more traditional lodging in Kyoto (and elsewhere in Japan), I recommend contacting Japan Experience. Not only do they have some fantastic housing options, they’ll help with other details of your travel, greet you upon arrival, and assist you in navigating Japan.
The added bonus of staying in a home with a kitchen is that you can grocery shop like a local and cook if you’d like. In Japan, the grocery stores sell healthy and fresh prepared food (including sushi) and so you can easily make a meal without having to cook. We found this particularly helpful when we needed a break from Japanese food – I’ll admit we cooked a few distinctly American meals during our two weeks in Kyoto. Two grocery stores we really liked were called Central Square Life and Kyoto Yaoichihonkan, plus there is a Dean & Deluca if you are desperately craving familiar food. We particularly enjoyed picking up local ingredients and specialty items at the Nishiki Market. You can sample pickled vegetables, regional specialties, preserved fish, mochi, soy products (tofu, milk, and even donuts), tea, and all sorts of other goodies. We hired a local guide who walked us through the market and explained different foods and practices, which was helpful and interesting.
Aside from the logistics, there are amazing sights to visit in Kyoto. First, I’d recommend an early visit to Mount Daimonji-yama to hike from Ginkaku-ju Temple to the top of the mountain. The hike takes approximately one hour round trip. It seemed every four-year-old in Kyoto was hiking the day we visited. The view from the top gives you a sense of the size of Kyoto and some perspective on the layout of the city. At the base of the hike you can visit Ginkaku-ju Temple and walk the famed Philosopher’s Path. If you have rental bikes, you can bike along the Philosopher’s Path rather than walk and we found that about ¼ mile away from Ginkaku-ju Temple, the path was relatively quiet.
Second, the oft-photographed Fushimi Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine, with ten thousand orange Torii gates lining its paths, is as magical in person as it appears to be in photos. Children will love running through the gates and looking at the fox sculptures that appear throughout the shrine grounds. The foxes are thought to be the Inari’s messengers. It’s worth hiking to the top of Mount Inari for the view of the city and to escape the crowds who stop halfway up the mountain.
Third, for a fun day with more of a kid-focus, head just west of Kyoto Station to Umekoji Park where you’ll find a huge playground with adjacent café, a network of streams for splashing and playing, an open field for running around, and both the Kyoto Aquarium and the Kyoto Railway Museum. If you want lunch nearby, head to Konjiki Ramen that you order at a vending machine. They have English translations, high chairs, and a fun selection of children’s books in Japanese.
Fourth, if you are up for a longer bike ride, pedal out to Arashiyama, which is quintessentially Japanese and is quieter than the rest of Kyoto. Have a meal along the Katsura River (or grab coffee at % Arabica), walk through Kameyama-koen park, visit the bamboo grove, and spend some time in the tranquility of Tenryu-ji Temple. Blythe loved walking the path around the temple garden herself and observing the fish in the streams and pond. If you need a playground nearby, Saga Park has swings, slides, and some equipment for climbing.
Finally, head north to a different part of Kyoto and explore the Kyoto Botanical Gardens. The gardens themselves are a manageable size for exploring with kids and have winding paths around lakes and through flowering trees to explore. Just inside the main entrance to the gardens is a playground, plus several massive mushrooms that double as book storage – you can stop and read a book or two as if you were at a library.