Tackling temples, tempura, and tatami mat sleeps with kids in tow in Kyoto
Kyoto, Japan is famed for delivering on that old world Japan that you may have in mind when conjuring up images of this wonderful country: geishas clip-clopping over pebbly streets, red shrines, manicured zen gardens, exclusive ryokans, ornate temples, and tea ceremonies. While you will find snapshots of these scenes, Kyoto is also very much a big city with bustling malls and lots of tourists. So, how do you navigate the best of Kyoto with kids in tow? Will temple touring bore children to pieces? Do ryokans accept kids? How much time do you need to do it justice?
We were planning a trip to Kyoto with two kids (4 and 6 years old) and had so many questions and not enough answers. This Kyoto travel guide aims to help you with all the practical information you are looking for on affordably seeing the best of Kyoto with kids.
How to get to Kyoto from Singapore
Kyoto doesn’t have its own airport. The nearest airport is Osaka International Airport, also known as Kansai International Airport (KIX) which is about a 6 hour (direct) flight from Singapore. Fly direct if you can as that’s easier and quicker. But if you’re looking for a cheaper option (or you’re booking at the last minute like us!) don’t panic. We travelled on budget carrier Scoot via Taiwan (which increases the journey time by 2 hours) and survived. Getting off the plane and stretching our legs at Kaohsiung airport for 30 minutes actually turned out to be a welcome break for the kids and we were able to give them some decent food which we had brought ourselves rather than eat the airline chow.
Getting from the airport to Kyoto is very simple with taxis (most expensive option), buses and a direct train (very comfortable and convenient at 75 minutes with trains every half hour). We bought train tickets (1 Day JR pass) in advance with Klook, picking them up at Kansai Airport, and would highly recommend this for ease. Klook, the travel activities and services booking platform, actually came in handy a few times as once we had booked our accommodation and flights we used this app to book transport, WI-FI and activities in advance.
Where to stay in Kyoto: Hotels vs Ryokans vs Airbnb
If you are travelling to Kyoto as a family you can stay in a Western-style hotel with all the mod cons, or search out a kid-friendly Ryokan to give your family a taste of the Japanese way of life (like sleeping on tatami floor mats). Ryokans are notoriously expensive and may prove too challenging with small kids due to the quiet and tranquil atmosphere, lack of cots, strict breakfast and dinner timings with set menus etc. It’s not impossible though, and if you have older kids, staying at a Ryokan can be the highlight of a trip to Japan (families rave about experiencing a set dinner of kaiseki sat on the floor wearing kimonos!). But for younger kids with fussier eating habits and loud voices it may be more stress than you need.
Having stayed in a Ryokan before pre-kids we chose to go the Airbnb route over a ryokan or hotel this time. The pros of this with kids were that we could still find a Japanese experience – choosing a flat with tatami mats where one sleeps on the floor – and we could (in theory) make our own snacks/breakfast. In reality the abundance of 7/11s and Lawsons (that often stock essential items like diapers) with their array of ready-to-eat kid-friendly snacks (pastries, breads, onigiri and fruit, not to mention coffee for tired parents) made this unnecessary. The main convenience of an Airbnb over a hotel, we felt, was not having to worry too much about being a little bit rambunctious. Though be warned many Japanese flats are often tiny and in close proximity with each other and most have delicate bamboo paper screens that just beg to be poked at by little fingers so keep an eye out!
Getting around Kyoto
Kyoto has a convenient MRT network and buses are great value. We travelled on public transport most of the time with no issue. We pre-bought IOCACA cards on Klook for the adults (pre-elementary kids don’t need to pay, and kids IOCACA cards can be bought at an MRT station). You can download a free English-language PDF of the Kyoto train and subway system from the official JR Pass website. Taxis are more expensive and there’s the language issue, but if you get your destination written out in Japanese or print a map it may be helpful, especially if you are in Kyoto for a limited time.
Definitely look into pre-buying a pre-paid SIM with unlimited data. This was a life saver as we could research best routes, walking maps, and restaurants on the go and saved us a fortune in roaming costs.
We were in Kyoto for five full days and this gave us time to comfortably see a lot of Kyoto, plus outskirts Arashiyama and Nara. You could definitely see central Kyoto in three days or so but with smaller kids we wanted to not be rushing and this gave us time to balance activities that the kids enjoyed with must-see spots on our adult list.
What to do in Kyoto: Kid-friendly activities
Temples and shrines: Mix up visiting temples (of which there are 1,600 so you’ll need to research which ones appeal!) with other activities to keep kids sane. Note that some of the temples are “participatory” temples like Kiyomizu-dera Temple – so kids may find these more interesting. Kids can have a go ringing bells, washing their hands with holy water and navigating the famous “love stones”. There’s also the underground passage known as the Tainai Meguri to look for. Just be mindful that temples are a place of worship so the kids can’t go too wild.
Njio Castle makes a fun visit where kids can run around the castle grounds before walking around the UNESCO World Heritage site palace. The palace buildings are connected by corridors with nightingale floors that squeak when stepped on (you can hear them if you get down low from outside the building) — apparently designed to alert against intruders.
Cycle rides along the river make a great activity. Cycling is big in Kyoto (just search out a convenient cycle shop on google maps, but note that most hire by the day ie roughly 930am – 6pm only, not by the hour). You can rent kids bikes and adult bikes with kids’ seats plus helmets. We rented ours from here and they even had a bike to suit my 6ft 5 husband, so not a bad selection.
Nishiki Market– famously named Kyoto’s kitchen, Nishiki Market is a covered food market with plenty of food stalls squashed together where you can sample strange and delicious eats, from baby octopus on sticks to yakitori, a rainbow of pickles and tofu doughnuts.
Geisha spotting is on everyone’s list but while you will see plenty of lovely looking ladies in kimonos (kimonos can be rented out per hour), spotting a real Geisha takes patience (you’ll know one when you see one– a telltale sign is the white painted face and bare neck). Your best bet is hanging around Pontocho Alley around 5pm onwards. You can find restaurants and bars in this area or if you are with kids – see our playground tip below!
Playgrounds: When the kids were tired of temples, walks and posing for photos we’d ask google where the nearest playground was! Our kids loved a random scruffy tiny playground right near Pontocho Alley called Pontocho Park – it only had some swings, a mound to climb up and a slide but they had a ball, go figure. Kyoto Imperial Palace Park has a modest playground in the northeast corner of the park with slightly worn equipment but a sandpit and swings. Our kids just loved running around with sticks and making their own fun here.
The Kamo-gawa Riverside is lovely to stroll along with kids. We cycled all along it from Gion for 5 km with a 6-year-old and it was a highlight. The area near Demachiyanagi (where Imadegawa-dori Street crosses the river) is a great place for kids to play or sit and have a picnic. We saw some kids wading in the shallow water (and spotted a muskrat up close), and during the summer months the restaurants along the river open their roof terraces up to sit and have a drink.
Kyoto Railway Museum– it’s been called the country’s best train museum. Kyoto Railway Museum covers all aspects of trains, from steam engines to the ultra-modern Shinkansen bullet trains. There are lots of interactive exhibits to explore and there’s a platform where you can board a train pulled by the “SL Steam” locomotive (extra cost).
The Kyoto International Manga Museum is meant to be good for older kids or adults who have a thing for Japanese comics.
Ninja training: if your kids are ninja fans you can seek out ninja lessons (for adults or kids alike) and get a speed lesson on becoming a ninja.
Nara is just a train ride away. Here you can feed the deer with special deer biscuits (careful as they can be a bit aggressive if you don’t feed them fast enough).
Arashiyama: the famous Bamboo forest gets very crowded so go early (6am ) if you want a photo without others in view. Or do as we did and take a rickshaw ride (touristy, yes but the kids loved it!) — which we booked again through Klook. Small kids can fit on your lap or else two people fit per rickshaw. Our guides were very interesting to talk to and took some excellent (vertical panorama) shots of us in the bamboo forest, plus took us outside the crowded areas for a lovely morning jaunt ending up at the Monkey Park.
Monkey Park in Arashiyama: the kids didn’t mind the 20-minute uphill walk to get here and at the top they loved watching the monkeys in the wild. You get an excellent view of Kyoto from here, too. Kids can go inside a special cage and feed the monkeys and there’s a sweet playground complete with swings and a very long slide that the kids enjoyed.
Where to eat in Kyoto: Kid-friendly Restaurants
Food for me is a big deal but as I researched the best sushi, tempura, and udon spots, I realised a few things… Many good restaurants need a Japanese person to make the reservation for you, in Kyoto particularly. You need to book well ahead for famous spots (the amount of Michelin starred restaurants in Japan and Kyoto are mind-boggling), and you’ll pay a small ransom for many of them, too! Plus there’s always the question of whether kids are allowed in. I called ahead at one of the best tempura restaurants and was told I’d need to reserve the private room instead of the coveted counter seats if coming with an under 5-year-old. In the end we decided to go with the flow and follow our noses. This is a ridiculous idea as in Kyoto restaurants often have no signage (gasp) and if they do have any indication of being a restaurant (that a tourist is allowed to enter) then it will just be a very modest sign written in Japanese. Again, we survived. Thank you Google! We actually found some excellent spots that were easy with kids and not too crazy on the wallet.
Make sure you try the huge variety of different types of food. Kyoto-style Kaiseki Ryori is a traditional multi-course meal served in a special order according to the seasons and is fun to try, especially if you aren’t staying at a ryokan already. Be warned, though, that if you have small kids they may struggle with the unusual dishes (and protracted length of a meal). Then there’s shojin ryori (veggie Buddhist cuisine), traditional and Kyoto sushi (kids will love the conveyor-belt sushi restaurants), tempura, okonomiyaki (a kind of omelette-noodle-pancake that kids will love cooking themselves at the table), ramen, yuba (tofu skin), udon and all the matcha-inspired desserts, just to name a few!
Books have been written on the best restaurants in Kyoto but if you are looking for somewhere family friendly and affordable here’s a quick summary of mainstream restos that are pretty kid friendly:
- Kyoto Station: You may find yourself at the absolutely huge Kyoto Station after your flight or before a trip to Nara. There are plenty of affordable spots to look for: Eat Paradise and The Cube Food Court are food courts on the 11th floor of Kyoto Station with a wide selection of different foods on offer. Kyoto Ramen Koji is an entire floor (on the 10th level) dedicated to different ramen shops.
- Ippudo Ramen (part of the reliable chain also now in Singapore) for ramen and gyoza
- For sushi: our favourite spot was Sushisei next to Daimaru department store (and our kids were fine to sit at the counter, which gave us a great experience interacting with the chef). Sushisei was very well priced and we were happy with the quality of sushi (we had the set lunch).
- Den Shichi and Ganko Sushi are always reliable for sushi, or the Musashi Sushi is a hit with kids with its conveyor belt sushi (there’s one in Kyoto Station too).
- Takashimaya and Daimaru department stores: the food departments here in the basement are a treat for the senses – you can sample a huge amount of delicacies and then buy take away bento boxes of sushi or bakery items that kids will identify. Great choice of food for picnics or for kids snacks if you are on your feet all day.
So, Kyoto – should you go with kids? A resounding yes! We would highly recommend a trip here. The kids still talk about going back and my youngest’s new favourite food is…you guessed it… sushi! If this has given you an appetite for travelling to this interesting part of Japan, please send us a postcard, won’t you?
Lead image courtesy @FlavourForager at Kiyomizu-dera Temple