The second most visited place in Japan is the city of Kyoto. With a population of over 1.4 million, the city is filled with tourist hot spots, and my family couldn’t wait to visit as many as possible.
My husband, son and I decided to use Veteran’s Day weekend to take the 2 night, 3 day trip to the city. We had two options-drive 5 hours, or take the 2 hour Shinkansen (bullet train). I had been wanting to take the bullet train since we arrived in Japan, so that was an easy decision. Many of our friends had recommended AirBnB, so that is the route we decided to take. Our rental was approximately two blocks from the train station, so very convenient to access the train throughout the weekend.
We arrived around 3:30 pm, and with only about 48 hours to see as many (kid friendly) sites as possible, we knew we had to make it count. Here are our Top 5 Must-See Destinations in Kyoto:
- Nijo jo Castle
About a block from our AirBnB, was the Nijo-jo Castle. The castle lets in its last guest at 4:00pm, so we had to hustle; fortunately for us, we were the last ones allowed in. Built over 400 years ago, the Nijo-jo Castle was the residence of the most powerful man in Japan and first Tokugawa shogun (military government ruler), Ieyasu. In 1893, it became an imperial palace after the fall of the Tokugawa before being donated to the public in 1939. Today, visitors can walk throughout the castle, viewing each of the numerous rooms and learning of its purpose. Some rooms were designated for the less ranking officials, while others were held for special guests. Breathtaking murals are painted throughout the castle, each with a distinct meaning and purpose. Some rooms are covered in tigers, while an adjacent one may have floor to ceiling pine trees. The most unique feature of the castle is the “nightingale floors.” To warn against sneak attacks or assassins, the boards were intentionally structured to make a bird chirping sound when anyone walks on them. Walking through this centuries old palace and getting a glimpse into the style of that time period can be considered beautiful in itself, but when guests exit the building, they are surrounded by acres of gardens, moats, and elaborate gates once used to protect the castle from outside enemies. English audio tours can be rented for 500 yen (around $4.50), and we wish we could have taken advantage of those. I’m sure we would have learned even more about this destination; however, being the last visitors, we simply ran out of time. Fortunately, there are signs throughout the castle explaining much of the site. Cameras are not allowed in the castle, so it really is a spot one must see.
Cost: 600 yen per person (kids are free)
Kid Friendly: Unlike many castles that go up, this one is considered a flatland castle. There are very few stairs; however, strollers are now allowed. Shoes also must come off before entering, but both strollers and shoes can be safely stored at the entrance.
- Fushimi Inari Tight
The next morning, we headed to the most famous shrine in Japan, theFushimi Inari Taishi in southern Kyoto. About a ten-minute walk from the Kyoto train station, the shrine has thousands of torii gates dating all the way back to 711 A.D. Each of the torii gates were dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice and their names and dedication dates can be found in kanji writing on the backside of the gate. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, so many statues are located throughout the grounds.
Upon arriving to the destination, visitors will quickly see the gates start to ascend up a mountain. Many hikers will explore the full 2.5-mile path; however, all guests are welcome to turn back at anytime.
Kid Friendly: Strollers are not allowed on the trail; however, the mountain is not steep, and with the flexibility to turn back at any time, it is definitely manageable with children. Take comfortable walking shoes.
Arashiyama is a full sightseeing district and definitely worth the trip. Thinking our son would love it, we decided to take the hike up the Iwatayama Mountain and see the monkey park. With over 150 macaque monkeys up close and personal, the monkey park is about a 30-50 minute hike.
Being six months pregnant, this proved to be a bit more difficult for me, but there were benches located throughout the train that several visitors were utilizing. The trail itself had some dangerous areas, no railings and steep drops, so there were several spots we wouldn’t allow our one year old to walk and needed to be carried. Towards their top of the mountain, and just short of the park, is a “resting area” with a small playground. Once we left the playground, and ascended another 100 feet, an absolutely incredibly view of Kyoto opened up for picture taking. For a few moments, we didn’t even pay attention to the monkeys walking right next to us because we couldn’t take our eyes off this beautiful city, but once we broke away, the exhaustion from the trail was quickly forgotten. Our son loved the monkeys; however, he did decide to throw a tantrum when we wouldn’t let him play with them. Visitors can purchase food to feed the monkeys and there is no shortage of spots where monkeys are relaxing, but there are signs everywhere to not look them directly in the eyes. After half an hour or so, we decide to head back down the mountain, which proved to be much easier!
Cost: 550 yen ($5.00) per adult. Kids 4 and under are free
Kid Friendly: Semi depending on age. Strollers are not allowed, so be ready to carry small children.
Once we exited the monkey park, we took the 10-15 minute walk to the bamboo Grove, passing dozens of shops and restaurants and crossing a bridge with even more gorgeous sites to take in. I was so incredibly exited to get to these paths, which cover over 500 meters, and it was completely worth it. Shaded and peaceful, the bamboo forest really allows visitors to take in the tranquil surroundings of the area. If traveling without the kids and for a bit of a romantic feel, rickshaw rides can be rented for 5000-7000 yen (roughly $40-60). English tour guides on the rides will take up to two guests on private trails, picturesque spots, and provide knowledgeable information on the area. Although we snapped dozens of photos, none can convey the atmosphere in person, making it an easy (and free) must see.
Kid friendly: Very. Strollers are allowed, and guests can turn back at any time.
- Golden Palace
On our last day in Kyoto, we knew we wanted to check out the Kinkaku-ji , which became a favorite stop for my family and the most photographed temple in Japan. After a quick bus ride, we arrived at the Kinkaku-ji, better referred to as the Golden Pavillion, the Kinkaku. Dating back to 1397, the temple was originally built for statesman, Saionji Kintsune, and later purchased by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. After Yoshimitsu’s death, and designated in his will, his son converted the complex into a Zen temple. In 1950, a crazed monk burned much of the original structure, but the pavilion was restored to its original design, including the gold-leaf coating that covers the temple. Besides the obvious gold element that makes this temple so unique, the building also boasts three floors of different styled architecture. The Kinkaku-ji is located in the middle of a pond, and although it cannot be entered, often the windows of the pavilion are open, where statues of Yoshimitsu and Shaka Buddha can be seen on the first floor.
Visitors can continue to follow the garden path around the pond and up a slight hill where a tea house will end the tour. The beautiful shaded trail is a must-see during the fall season when the leaves are changing colors.
Cost: 400 yen per adult & 300 yen per elementary/middle school aged child (toddlers/babies are free)
Kid Friendly: The garden path is a flat pathway and very easy to walk with small children and strollers; however, there are stairs towards the end of the trail (and must be climbed to access the tea house). We took turns going up the stairs to check out the tea house and small markets located at the top of the hill, while one of us stayed with our son (about an additional 10 minutes each). We then simply turned around and went back down the way we came down the path.
- Kiyomizu Sera
Once we left the Golden Pavillion, we jumped back on the bus and within a few minutes we were walking our way up towards the Kiyomizu Dera. Our last major stop on trip, this Buddhist Temple was founded in 780 and is best known for its “stage” that extends from the main building providing stunning sites of Kyoto. Like many sites throughout Kyoto, the Kiyomizu Dera is located up a steep mountain; however, the path is considered the Higashiyama District and is aligned with numerous shops and restaurants catering to tourists.
We were surrounded by both men and women in Kimonos and couldn’t help but to stop in a little shop to pick our son up his very own.
Throughout the Kiyomizu Dera are areas where guests can stop to pray, whether with the use of incense or in front of a statue. Once visitors exit the temple, they descend down a trail lined small waterfalls and even more views of Kyoto.
Cost: 400 yen per adult (kids are free)
Kid Friendly: The HigashiyamaDistrict is very crowded, but strollers are allowed; however, they must be left at the bottom of the temple due to the amount of stairs needed to climb. The temple itself is an easy walk with children.
What we wish we could have done:
There was one thing I really wanted to do on our short trip to Kyoto, but we simply ran out of time. I wanted to see a Geisha! Upon leaving Kiyomizu Dera, we decided to walk to the train station versus taking the bus. The walk was much farther, but it allowed us to walk through Gion, the area to find a Geisha. We had learned that dusk was the ideal time to spot one, and timing wise, we may have been a bit early, but that didn’t deter us from looking down every alley we passed. If you have extra time to sightsee, check out the neighborhoods of Hanami-koji-dori in Gion, especially n the weekends and holidays, but remember, snap a photo from afar since many geishas don’t have time to stop for a picture, as they are usually on their way to an appointment.
Overall, our trip was amazing. Kyoto is beautiful and has over 17 UNESCO World Historic Monuments. Traveling with a child (or children) will slow any family down, but children should never be an excuse to not explore the world.