Loaded with historical yet kid-friendly sites, Kyoto, Japan, is a great place to introduce your family to the country’s culture while still enjoying the modern amenities most kids are accustomed to at home. The list of activities and things to do in Kyoto that both parents and children can enjoy together is long. But I think what I enjoy about Kyoto with kids the most is that it offers so many chances to do one of my favorite things when traveling as a family: teach. Great destinations like Kyoto make learning fun.
Kyoto boasts 2,000 temples and shrines. So how does a family choose which to visit? The good answer is that there really isn’t a bad choice. During my three days in Kyoto, I visited seven. Several of these were planned, others I stumbled upon while out wandering. Some of my favorites temples in Kyoto are conveniently close together, which can be a key to vacation success when you’ve got kids in tow.
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The grounds of Kodai-ji Temple are vast and varied. Along with actual structures, the gardens scream for exploration. Pathways lead visitors from one spot to the next, and while adults may tend to focus on the views, kids enjoy what is actually creating the scenery: a bamboo forest reflected perfectly in a lake. The 80-foot Buddha, Ryozen Kannon, sits next door. Certain times of year, Kodai-ji opens at night for what’s called Temple Light Ups. Be sure to explore at night if the timing works with your Kyoto itinerary.
An open area and parking lot sit between Kodai-ji Temple and Ryozen Kannon, giving little ones a nice space to run off some steam. There’s also a spot to grab a quick snack. But don’t leave without visiting Ryozen Kannon, a tribute to the Unknown Soldier of WWII. Walk around as long as the kids will allow; the Buddha’s stone footprint is bound to be a hit.
A short 5 minute drive will take you to this grand castle built by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu where he took residence.The castle grounds are a great romp and the nightingale floors, which are designed to chirp to let the Shogun know of intruders, are a hit with kids.
All you have to do is give them a rub. In the area surrounding Ryozen Kannon and Kodai-ji, there are assorted small Buddha statues tucked into nooks and crannies. Pink signs tell passersby that touching the roadside Buddhist statues will bring prosperity and happiness. The instructions are pretty simple: Just touch the statues with your right hand or both hands, and touch the pedestals of the taller statues. Think of it as a Buddha treasure hunt of sorts when visiting Kyoto.
I know what you’re thinking: a romantic train that’s family-friendly? I’d have my doubts too — but it’s equally fun for kids. Whether you’re at the window seat of one of the Sagano Romantic Train’s closed cars or on an open-air car, the half-hour trip takes you along the Hozu River. With spring come cherry blossoms; fall brings colorful foliage; summer, a scenic landscape; and winter, snow and less crowds.
When you get off at the last stop, the Diorama Kyoto Japan will be waiting. It’s like an amusement park for train lovers: This model railroad, with numerous trains, runs through Kyoto’s historic sites on more than a mile and a half of track. Kids and kids at heart can operate select trains in the diorama. The controls are, fittingly, installed in the front cab of a full-size electric locomotive. If you’re true train lovers, you can also visit the Kyoto Railway Museum.
Tip: If you invest in the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) as part of your public transport plans, the Sagano train journey is usually included in that.
What was once a Japanese elementary school is now the Kyoto International Manga Museum, housing nearly 300,000 items related to manga. On weekends, artists give demonstrations on how to draw manga in the Manga Studio, and kids will enjoy the collection of manga and picture books in the Children’s Library. All explanations and descriptions throughout the museum are in both Japanese and English, so no worries about translation.
Nishiki, the 400 year old food market of Kyoto, is a great place for a rainy day with over 100 covered food stalls ranging from the green tea ice cream parfait and kumquat juice parlors, to pickles and fried fish on a stick. It’s a great place to replenish your snack pack with everything from lego-shaped candies to dried beans and the tea houses there are a welcome place to rest your feet or lay down tired kids while the grown-ups refuel.
Editor’s Note: Dana’s trip to Japan was hosted by the city of Kyoto. As always, our thoughts and opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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