Last updated on 3. October 2020 at 21:01
Kyoto was the second stop of our Japan trip after Tokyo. The old imperial city with its insane density of shrines, temples, gardens and palaces had to be, we thought, and if we ever come to Japan again, we will go there again. Nevertheless Kyoto with children is not such a simple thing at all.
Evening in Arashiyama in Western Kyoto
They found it quite nice, our professional acquaintances in Tokyo, that we visited their city. But when we told them about our further travel plans, they beamed and clapped their hands: "Yes! Kyoto!" And we thought: Aha, the mega-metropolis may be big and advanced, but the heart of the Japanese beats for the old imperial city with its cultural treasures.
Where does Japan feel most Japanese?
Then we arrived in Kyoto – with the legendary express train Shinkansen, which actually deserves its own blog post. The cab driver who took us from the train station to the hotel was as elegantly dressed as his Tokyo counterparts, even the seats of his car were covered in lace – but he was a bit less friendly and good-humored than the cab drivers we had come to love in Tokyo. By the time we reached the hotel, we had received a grumble from our older daughter: "You didn’t tell me that Kyoto is a tourist city. There are more Westerners here than Japanese!"A gross exaggeration, but of course: Kyoto is visited by almost every traveler to Japan, and you see many more non-Japanese than in Tokyo.
Moreover, Kyoto is an important destination for intra-Japanese tourism – and as in any tourist stronghold, one notices signs of dullness here as well. Of course, people in Kyoto are still infinitely more polite and considerate than in Germany, but each of our four family members found the vibe in Tokyo a bit better. With the strange result that we felt more "in Japan" in hypermodern Tokyo than in the city that embodies traditional Japanese culture like no other.
Kyoto with kids: Where to start?
Wikipedia claims Kyoto has 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines. It’s great, but it’s also a real problem. Where to start? At the top sights? But there are so many of them that our three days are not enough. Even three weeks would not be enough. And even culture-savvy parents touring Kyoto with children can feel overwhelmed by the abundance of things to do. We experienced it first hand.
Still, we think: Anyone who travels all the way to Japan should not miss Kyoto – with kids or without. Here’s a selection from our Kyoto discoveries that we recommend for a first time Kyoto with kids. Nevertheless, a to-do list for the next trip is in my notebook.
First time Kyoto with kids: Our favorite discoveries
1. The Fushimi Inari Shrine
Kyoto would be worth it for the kilometer-long walk through the torii alone
The Shintoism is the original religion of Japan: a natural religion that originated on the Japanese archipelago and was practiced there before Buddhism came from China. And, this is the amazing thing, even afterwards: Buddhism and Shintoism exist side by side in Japan, and many people feel equally connected to both religions.
The fox is an important animal in Shintoism
In Shintoism there are no temples but shrines. Small shrines can be found everywhere in Japan. They are mostly dedicated to certain nature deities. The Fushimi-Inari-Taisha in the south of Kyoto is under the sign of the fox, which is of great importance as messenger of the deity of rice harvest and fertility. Fushimi-Inari Shrine is one of the oldest and most important shrines in Japan – a fact you become acutely aware of as you walk from the nearest train station to the shrine. The streets are lined with souvenir stores and street food stalls; it’s as bustling as – in our personal comparison – Mont Saint-Michel, but emptier than the Colosseum. After we enter the huge grounds of the shrine, however, it doesn’t take long for the crowds to get lost in the thousands of vermilion Torii, that stretch over an entire mountain.
We will never forget thi.
The further we walk, the quieter it gets. It is magical to walk through the forest in this orange-red tunnel. A little bit out of touch with the world we always stop at places with small and smallest torii, where we are sometimes all alone and always come across fox figures.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is a highlight in Kyoto with kids
Much about the customs and meanings of objects in Shintoism is beyond our knowledge, but we still feel not just like spectators, but captured by the spiritual atmosphere of this place.
2. Kodai-ji temple
Not far from the center of Kyoto: the Kodai-ji temple complex
Shintoism has shrines, Buddhism temples. Our first Japanese temple is not one that is on the top ten list of travel guides. I want to go to the Kodai-ji, because there is a special Teahouse there. It was built in the 16. century according to the plans Sen-no-Rikyus built, who is considered one of the founders of the tea ceremony and was forced to commit ritual suicide at the end of his days by the samurai ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Very dramatic, very Japanese, very interesting for architecture fans like me and tea fans like my younger daughter and me.
Tea house, designed in 16. Century of tea master Sen-no-Rikyu
We stifle our quiet disappointment that the little house is locked and we can’t see its supposedly simple, rough, earth-toned interior, the epitome of wabi-sabi. However, we don’t regret one bit to have visited Kodai-ji, because since it is not overly famous, it is not overcrowded either. Very relaxed we can walk through its beautiful garden, get an idea of Japanese temples and even discover our first temple on its grounds Zen Garden made of raked gravel.
Ornaments of raked gravel in the Zen garden
As we leave the temple grounds, we see a monk ringing a large bell. The beats echo across the city, and we are happy as can be.
Beautiful even without geishas: the old streets of Gion
To put the truth right up front: We did not see a single geisha. Supposedly there are some of them in Kyoto’s old entertainment district Gion, but we find two things there: narrow streets full of tourists and restaurants and narrow streets that are completely empty. Among the latter Shinbashi-dori with its traditional wooden houses, the Machiya, which the author of the – highly recommended – Lonely Planet Kyoto praises as "probably the most beautiful street in Asia. We can’t really join in, but we want to believe him.
Traditional machiya townhouses in the shinbashi-dori
The juxtaposition of the Machiya, of Kyoto’s old wooden merchant houses, is interrupted by hardly any modern element; that’s why tourists like us find here exactly what they are looking for everywhere and what there would be far more of in the world without it: authenticity. Maybe a bit museum-like, but still: Well preserved old Japanese streets are rare in the whole country, because the traditional wooden architecture is very susceptible to fires.
4. Kagizen and Takashimaya: Culinary
Such sweets are traditionally served at the tea ceremony
"You have to go to Kagizen Yoshifusa"two of the Tokyo professional acquaintances mentioned at the beginning of this article tell us independently of each other. Since Kagizen is a candy store, they are preaching to the choir. What we find behind the discreet wooden facade of Kagizen in Gion is a showpiece of Japanese aesthetics. If anyone is planning a course on "Japanese Design for Kids", come here. The salesroom is decorated in dark brown tones, the showcases in sparse elegance populated with boxes of the highest graphic beauty. Pastel-colored sugar candies made in old stencils lie exactly next to each other inside or form finely coordinated ensembles with jelly sweets. There is no visual excess, instead balance, clarity and concentration. Such sweets are not to be stuffed into one’s mouth; traditionally they are meant as an addition to the meditative tea ceremony.
Speciality: Kuzukiri, iced noodles in sugar syrup
We sit down in the cafe behind the Kagizen salesroom and order what was recommended to us as a great specialty of the house: Kuzukiri. These are transparent, ice-cold noodles made of starch, which are dipped in a brown sugar syrup. A Kyoto traditional recipe of national fame. For us, a crazy goo that you can hardly get on your chopsticks and that our western palates don’t really find as a treat. There’s a photo of our younger daughter eating, but showing her grimace would probably be a violation of privacy rights.
Rice crackers with a fruity-sweet taste
Later we spend quite a long time in the basement of the department store Takashimaya on, where there is a food section where everything looks beautiful, where every little stall is a masterpiece of culinary aesthetics and we buy many edible souvenirs. We don’t always know what we’re buying, but the packaging alone is enough to make us pounce.
There are Japanese snacks – but not only
No one visiting Kyoto with children should skip this food section. And if the kids – or the parents – are just a little tired of Japanese food, there are also Mediterranean-inspired baked goods.
5. The bamboo grove of Arashiyama
For us and our children an exotic enchanted forest
Arashiyama is located on the western outskirts of Kyoto and is easily accessible by local train. Many tourists steer Arashiyama because of its bamboo grove – as do we at the end of a hot day when cultural fatigue has us in its grip.
"Here are mosquitoes!" – "I think I have an allergy to bamboo!" – never mind, it’s still great
The bamboo forest is magical: dense and enchanted, on our sides countless elegant trunks whose crowns close into tunnels above the paths. We feel like we are in a green counterpart to the corridors of vermilion torii we walked through at Fushimi Inari Shrine. However, we have made our bill without the mosquitoes. They love the evening, and they love us. We escape. And remember the trip to Arashiyama’s bamboo grove as one of the highlights of our Japan trip.
6. Manga Museum
A software with which you can design your own mangas
The Kyoto International Manga Museum just happens to be a few steps from our hotel, but we probably would have gone otherwise. On all floors the walls are filled from top to bottom with manga from different decades, series, genres. You can pull them off the shelves and sit down somewhere on one of the many designated benches in the museum and on the terrace to read them. Even if you don’t speak Japanese: A whole section is dedicated to translations of Japanese Mangas.
Meikos are a bit more "kawaii" than full-grown geishas
On the walls hang drawings of meikos – that is, geishas in training – painted by various manga artists for the inauguration of the museum. The range of artistic signatures is impressive and says a lot about the vast playing field of manga art.
A new mouth can change everything
At a hands-on station, the children try out how a figure changes as soon as a detail – eye area, mouth, nose – is replaced: by means of transparent foils placed over a pre-drawn face. We wander through this universe of an ancient Japanese art, enjoy a discovery here, try something out there, but also find: For non-Japanese like us, there could be a bit more explanation – about the origin of the manga, its history, its most important artists.
7. Kinkaku-ji: the Golden Temple
The most famous photo motif of Kyoto
Should you or shouldn’t you? The gold-covered Kinkaku-ji is something like the main sight of this city truly not lacking in great sights. As we roam its grounds in the tourist pack on predetermined paths, stopping repeatedly at photo hotspots that make the temple look like it stands lonely in the landscape, I’m not quite sure this agenda item was really necessary. In retrospect, however, I think: yes. This incredible golden building hovering over the water is such an iconic sight that it’s good to have seen it. The daughters are taking pictures like crazy. Besides, it’s a great way to entertain unmotivated kids with the building’s troubled history: built in 1397 as the palace of a shogun and intended to be a temple after his death, the Golden Pavilion was burned down in 1950 by a young monk obsessed with its beauty. The current version was reconstructed in 1955 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, we can’t enter it – which is no wonder considering the crowds of visitors; the dainty building probably wouldn’t withstand the rush for long.
8. Ryoan-ji rock garden
Gravel and stones: the Zen garden Ryoan-ji
Not far from the Golden Pavilion, and almost as famous, is the temple’s stone garden Ryoan-ji, from the 15. Century origin. There are not quite as many visitors here as at Kinkaku-ji, but one would think still too many to feel anything of the meditative aura of this enigmatic Zen garden. But exactly this is not the case. We sit on the stone steps at the edge of this arrangement of 15 stones, not completely in view from any angle, and look at. Without question, without answer. None of the visitors makes noise, the silence of the stones is effective even in the presence of many other visitors.
Kyoto with kids: Getting around and staying put
Kimonos can be seen more often in Kyoto than elsewhere
Yes, we had a hotel, and yes, it was good. Very good. And much too expensive. We have two double rooms in the Noku Kyoto We stayed in a hotel in Kyoto – because the location was favorable, because several hotels were fully booked several months before our trip, we couldn’t find one with a family room and because Kyoto is a very expensive place. Even more than Tokyo. If we ever come back, we want to live more economically, but we don’t know how yet. Some of the traditional machiya townhouses are rented out as vacation apartments, but in our case the almost two-meter-tall family man who still has the vacation house of our last summer vacation in southern Sweden in his cross had reservations. There, in fact, he could stand upright only in one room. Regardless of the price, we can heartily recommend the Noku Kyoto: modern, beautifully decorated with Western furniture and many subtly used Japanese style elements. A dream for design lovers. A family-friendly vacation home tip for Kyoto with children, also in terms of price, is offered by the website Little Travel Society.
Hotel Noku Kyoto: entrance area
Unlike Tokyo, you can’t reach every place in Kyoto by subway or local train, but the bus network is well developed and quite manageable. The only requirement: You should get a bus plan right at the beginning of your stay in Kyoto. You can often get one at the hotel, otherwise at various transportation hubs and at the tourist information office. For short distances, we found that taking a cab with a family of four is cheaper than taking the bus, because the bus fare is always the same; no matter how far you go.