Rocks to the left of us, rocks to the right. With the Hozu River rushing in between, our oarsman swung the boat hard, threading the boulders as water splashed overboard — and on to my 10-year-old daughter’s lap.
You never know how kids will react to new experiences, but not to worry. “Daddy,” my daughter said, beaming as we headed for more rapids, “this must be the best summer ever!”
Any parent who has charted a family vacation hopes for that kind of reaction. But when my wife and I made plans to take our son and daughter to Kyoto, I had a few doubts. Kyoto is one of the highlights of any trip to Japan, an ancient and fascinating city, packed with temples and shrines, a place to savour refined culture.
But can it be kid- and family-friendly? Most definitely, especially if you take advantage of the variety Kyoto has to offer, hop on the city’s easy-to-use bus system, and keep your eyes open for some of its surprising travel bargains. With that in mind, here’s a checklist for enjoying Japan’s ancient capital in ways that you and your kids will enjoy.
You could spend months visiting temples and shrines in Kyoto. But to kids, they can start to blur. So put some space in between them. Kyoto is best explored on foot, leaving lots of opportunities for stopping off at interesting destinations along the way to antiquity.
One of our favourite stops was the Nishiki-koji market, a short bus ride from downtown, where Kyotoites stock their refrigerators and kitchen cupboards. Nishiki is a long, narrow street, covered by an arcade and lined with shops selling all sorts of snackable delicacies, such as just-baked rice crackers, sashimi on skewers, and croquettes filled with chocolate, as well as wares such as chopsticks and gourmet cutlery. It’s as interesting to browse here as to eat, and many places give out samples of their edible wares.
Visit the Toei Uzumasa Eigamura (movie village) and you may well see crews filming a samurai flick or television drama. But even if the cameras aren’t rolling, the “village” designed to look like the Japan of yore is fun to wander, offering the chance to meet actors in period costume who are happy to pose for photos. There’s also a theatre on site, where live-action ninja shows are staged.
We built a day around the 17-kilometre ride down the Hozu, starting with a short train ride just outside the city and ending in the lovely neighbourhood of Arashiyama. Guides pole fibreglass boats seating about 20 people through a deep gorge, where my 8-year-old son spotted turtles, snakes, deer and numerous water birds. Ask your hotel or at the excellent tourist information office inside Kyoto station (tell them you want to go on the Hozu-gawa Kudari) to help you call ahead for a reservation, which is recommended but not required. Tickets cost $42 (Dh154) for adults $27 for children older than 3 (credit cards not accepted).
Bathing is an almost religious ritual in Japan and can be the centrepiece of a memorable vacation experience. Kyoto is not known for the hot springs that dot much of Japan, but it has a few. We stopped at Sagano Onsen — Tenzan no Yu, a hot spring spa minutes from Arashiyama on a charming one-car train. A cheaper and more plentiful destination is one of the city’s “super sentos”, public baths with multiple tubs. The tourist office can provide a sheet in English listing these. In either, you wash thoroughly at bathing stations before entering multiple soaking pools, both indoors and out.
Kyoto hosts many festivals throughout the year. When we visited Kyoto in August, the city was celebrating the weeks around the Tanabata festival with lights, including computer-animated projections on the wall of the city’s castle and the launching of thousands of lighted blue plastic balls down the Horigawa, a narrow waterway not far from downtown. In May, the Aoi Matsuri, held at a pair of shrines, features a procession of people in ancient Japanese court costumes. In October, the Jidai Matsuri centres around a parade that highlights various periods in Japanese history.
When you’re ready to visit temples and shrines, the challenge is choosing which ones. Kiyomizu temple should be on any itinerary. Yes, it’s choked with tourists, but worth the trip. The walk uphill to the temple is lined with shops, many giving out samples of the local sweet called “nama yatsuhashi”, delicious pockets of glutinous rice flour, filled with red bean paste or fruit preserves, dusted with sugar or cinnamon. The temple is famous for its stage, a broad platform that juts over the hillside forest on immense wooden stilts.
We also enjoyed an outing to Fushimi Inari, a shrine known for its gates, which are said to number in the thousands. The shrine’s main buildings are worth a visit and sit within a minute or two of a train station, but you could spend hours here climbing the forested hill behind the shrine, on paths that lead up through the bright red gates to ancillary shrines, with refreshment stops along the way.
Japan is one of the world’s great food countries. But while Kyoto is known for ultra-expensive and delicate kaiseki cuisine, there’s lots more that kids will love and that you can afford. So try a restaurant specialising in okonomiyaki, sort of a dinner pancake, usually cooked on a grill at your table, and filled with meat, vegetables or seafood of your choice. These are casual and reasonably priced places, often popular with students.
Chances are your kids will also like yakitori, a selection of chicken and vegetables, usually sprinkled with salt or brushed with a soy-based sauce, and grilled on bamboo skewers. It’s traditionally bar food, but is also often served at some of the chain restaurants that offer wide menus.
And don’t forget ramen, the steaming bowls of noodles in your choice of broth. We arrived in Kyoto late our first night and ended up on a floor devoted to ramen places in a department store straddling the train station. Most ramen places also serve gyoza, fried dumplings that are hard to resist.
Any kid visiting Japan in warmer months will quickly learn to spot banners touting kaki kori, or shaved ice, doused in a choice of fruit syrups and topped with condensed milk. Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines sell everything from green tea to sports drinks to hot and cold coffee.
It can be challenging for a family to travel in a country where accommodations are frequently priced by the person, and Kyoto has no lack of exquisite, but expensive lodgings. But there are bargains, especially if you’re willing to make do without luxuries.
Some of the streets just north of Kyoto’s train station are home to small inns, some of which offer good deals. We found a bargain at Ryokan Ginkaku, a spare but well-kept lodge popular with Japanese tour groups, where a Japanese-style room with four futons cost $94 a night in August. The only catch for the rate was that you had to provide your own towel or rent one at the desk. Nearby, the Hana Hostel has small, but inexpensive private rooms, as well as dormitory rooms.
Japan has also seen a proliferation of budget hotels in recent years. One of the biggest chains is Toyoko Inn, which has multiple locations in Kyoto, and where a “twin room” (in Japan, that means a room with two small double beds), cost less than $108. The chain does not charge extra for children of elementary school age, and rates often include breakfast.
To look for deals, consider using an online search engine. One that works well in Asia is agoda.com.
Kyoto is built on a grid that is easy to figure, and has a subway system that will get you quickly to some attractions. But the key to exploring is using city buses. Routes are numbered and colour-coded, and each stop is clearly announced, so even visitors unfamiliar with the Japanese language can manage.
A single bus ride costs $2.40 for adults and about half that for children. But for $5.40, you can buy a card entitling you to unlimited rides for a day. And when we were there, the city was waiving fares for kids. You can buy cards and get a route map at the bus office, immediately outside Kyoto Station.
Kyoto has a reputation for stifling heat and humidity in the summer and we can vouch for it. Spring and fall offer moderate temperatures that make sightseeing more comfortable, along with cherry blossoms in spring and beautiful foliage in the fall in the mountains around the city, which are filled with Japanese maples.