Our kids aged four and seven walk ahead of us as we approach the Kamo-gawa Riverside. It’s a stunning day with blue skies and not a cloud in sight. Couples are sitting on the banks of the river soaking up the morning sun, a muskrat forages by the water and herons quietly fish downstream. It’s difficult to believe this scene is in central Kyoto, Japan’s 8th largest city and once the imperial capital. Kyoto is in fact full of these little snapshots of old world charm. Having escaped the bombings of World War II, the city is teeming with century-old shrines juxtaposed against modern buildings, UNESCO World Heritage sites and ancient zen gardens nudged up against busy streets with modern supermarkets selling hot canned drinks and onigiri with a myriad of different fillings.
We rent cycles for the day and stocked up on the aforementioned onigiri for a mid-morning snack. A cycle ride is one of the best things to do in Kyoto with kids. It was tough to decide what to see first as there is so much to do.
There are more than 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines (amongst them the golden temple of Kinkakuji, which is the one you’ll probably recognize from pictures). At Kiyomizu-dera Temple, kids can respectfully take turns ringing the bells and have a go washing their hands in holy water. There’s also a secret underground passage here known as the Tainai Meguri to hunt out.
While gardens like the Zen Buddhist garden at Ryoanji temple with its dry landscape of rocks and photogenic shrines like the popular Fushimi-inari Shrine with its vermilion gates may be on your must-see list, be warned it’s on every other tourist’s list too and fighting the crowds takes some of the charm out of the experience. We really enjoy stumbling upon the less famed Heian Shrine by chance (after getting on the wrong bus) and we spend a few hours soaking in the architectural splendour and peaceful atmosphere thanks to the complete lack of tourists.
Our kids are early risers (which works in our favour to beat the crowds) so we are first in line when UNESCO word heritage site Kyoto’s Nijo Castle opens. The kids have fun tip toeing around the castle trying not to alert the nightingale floorboards and then run wild in the connecting manicured gardens afterwards.
And then of course, there’s the food. Kyoto is literally swamped with Michelin-starred restaurants but there are also plenty of every day kid-friendly restaurants in Japan. It’s traditional for ryokans to serve their guests Kyoto-style Kaiseki Ryori which is Japanese haute cuisine and we make a booking to try this special meal. We sit cross legged on tatami mats around a low table as a multi-course meal unfolds, each dish served in a special order according to the seasons and everything beautifully presented with extreme attention to detail.
Kyoto is also known for shojin ryori (vegetarian Buddhist cuisine), as well as Kyoto style sushi using cured fish, yuba (tofu skin), and Kyo-wagashi (sweets) plus of course the full gamut of Japanese dishes from sushi (of which the conveyor belt ones are always popular with kids), to tempura. On day two a mild panic sets in. How will we possibly have time to eat all the delicious food that Kyoto has on offer?
Nishiki market offers some of the answers. Fondly referred to as Kyoto’s Kitchen, this sprawling covered market consists of one long stretch of food stalls and restaurants. It’s said to have been a wholesale fish market in the Edo period, but now its plethora of food shops offer a wonderful peek into the Japanese pantry. There are food tours to understand the intricacies of ingredients or you can wander the narrow spaces yourselves, feasting your eyes at each unique stall. We navigate the crowds, sampling different pickles (a favourite of our four year old), and stop to watch chefs making okonomiyaki (the Japanese pancake-noodle-pizza concoction). There’s fresh sashimi to eat on the spot, cold baby octopus with roe on sticks, and more kid-friendly delicacies like tamagoyaki omelette flavoured with sweet dashi, traditional sweets of green tea filled mochi and piping hot soy milk donuts.
We keep a few kid-friendly ideas up our sleeves if the weather doesn’t hold up; there’s the Kyoto Railway Museum (one of the country’s best train museums), Kyoto International Manga Museum (better for older kids) and a place that offers Ninja lessons for kids and adults alike. But it’s all crisp mornings and sunny blue skies and our two are happy sightseeing with a play at the occasional neighbourhood playground.
When the kids tire of temple touring we take a short train ride to Nara where the kids feed the deer with special deer biscuits. The deer are well accustomed to this treat and aren’t afraid to give you a nudge if you don’t feed them fast enough so be careful with little fingers.
On our last day we head to Arashiyama for the famous Bamboo forest. We don’t make it for the recommended 6am start for that coveted picture of the green sways of bamboo before the crowds descend. Instead we hop on a rickshaw (just to indulge the kids) and get whisked off the main route down side passageways whilst our guide entertains us with stories of his hometown, famous actors he has carried and other interesting trivia. The rickshaw ride finishes at the foot of the hill to the Monkey Park. The 20-minute uphill walk rewards us with beautiful views across Kyoto. Wild macaque monkeys are everywhere, babies clinging to their mothers or cheekily playing tag around a tree stump. A small outpost gives our kids the opportunity to feed the monkeys from the safety of a cage and afterwards there’s more running around (for the kids not just the monkeys) at the nearby playground, complete with swings and a slide.
We have one afternoon left and we saunter the pretty streets of Shinbashi Dori back in Gion, calculating how many more times we can feasibly eat sushi before we leave. Willow trees droop over the Shirakawa canal lined with both traditional wooden teahouses and trendy cafes serving reinterpreted matcha inspired desserts. Two girls walk quickly past us, their kimonos swishing as they navigate the cobbled stones. We don’t see their faces to find out if they are real Geishas or not. I’d like to think they are. Freeze this frame and it could be a scene out of Japan from two hundred years ago. I choose to squint and blur out the selfie stick.