Kyoto Family Travel
My 8-year-old daughter loves Japan, and two years in row has chosen Tokyo for her annual one-on-one trips with me. This year I suggested adding on Kyoto as well and she agreed – both because she had already read all about Kyoto, and because she wanted to ride the bullet train.
Shinkansen Tokyo to Kyoto
Our first day in Tokyo we walked over to the JR ticket office at Shinjuku Station and purchased Shinkansen (bullet train) tickets from Tokyo to Kyoto departing five days later. There are frequent trains between the two cities and we had no issue finding available seats at the exact time we wanted.
We chose to depart from Shinagawa Station since it was closer to our hotel (the Park Hyatt Tokyo) than Tokyo Station, the other option. When we checked out we were planning on taking a taxi to Shinagawa Station (easier than walking to Shinjuku Station with luggage and taking the train). But the Park Hyatt offered us a hotel car instead, which we happily accepted. The drive took roughly 50 minutes with traffic – far longer than the 26 minutes Google Maps had estimated – but we still arrived in plenty of time, since it takes no more than five minutes to get from the drop-off to the train platform, including buying snacks for the train. I’d recommend leaving early so that you don’t get stuck in traffic, but really there’s no reason to be there more than 10 minutes before your train departure.
The bullet train left right on time (of course), and two hours and twenty minutes later we arrived in Kyoto. We took a taxi from the station to our Gion hotel, maybe ten minutes away. I’d highly recommend having the name, address and phone number of your hotel available (in Japanese) to hand to the driver. English is not widely spoken or understood.
Kyoto Inn Gion
I chose the Kyoto Inn Gion based on location. Gion is Kyoto’s charming, older neighborhood, and the inn got good reviews on TripAdvisor. We were happy with the choice. The location is right in the middle of everything we wanted – temples, the Higashiyama District, the Kyoto Subway, the Osaka airport bus pickup, and the streets and alleys of Gion. We had a small room with two twin beds and a bathroom/shower. The staff spoke perfect English and gave us excellent itinerary recommendations. Given how much we love the Park Hyatt Tokyo I’ll likely try the Park Hyatt Kyoto, which opened in 2019, next time. Otherwise I’d be perfectly happy to return to Kyoto Inn Gion.
What We Did in Kyoto
We arrived early on a Friday afternoon and left on Sunday afternoon, so we had two full days to explore. We managed to fit in a lot, and we got a very good feel for the city. Obviously longer is better, but even if you only have two days, you can see the highlights.
We traveled in early November. There were some red and orange leaves throughout the city, and some trees had already lost their leaves, but we were maybe two weeks early for the peak fall colors.
We started by simply turning left out of our hotel, crossing the street, and walking up to Chionin Temple. It was raining lightly and we had the temple almost to ourselves. We explored the complex for roughly twenty minutes before moving on to the Temple’s Yuzen Garden (which required a small fee) for another ten minutes.
There are pedestrian(ish) paths all the way from Chionin Temple to Kiyomizudera Temple. We LOVED this historic district. Of course everyone loves this area, and it was very crowded, but still fun – lined with Japanese specialty stores, souvenir stores (all classier than in most other parts of the world), food stands, and cartoon character shops (so fun), and especially on weekends a lot of people are dressed in traditional kimonos – rentable numerous places for around $30/day.
At the top of Kiyomizu-Zaka Street is Kiyomizu-dera Temple. This is Kyoto’s most popular temple, and can get crowded, but the climb is worth it, with great views over Kyoto.
We had purchased tickets in advance for a performance of GEAR at Gear Theater. This was a lot of fun – I enjoyed it and my daughter loved it. The basic premise is that a doll comes to life in an abandoned doll factory and brings the factory’s remaining Roboroids (robotic androids) to life, all with unique talents – dance, mime, magic, and juggling. It’s completely non-verbal, so there’s no need to understand Japanese. Photos aren’t allowed, but you can get a feel for it on YouTube. Tickets are available here.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
I love Fushimi Inari Shrine, with its 10,000 torii gates that snake up a mountain. It’s open 24 hours a day, but best seen when it’s daylight and uncrowded, which means early in the morning. We left our hotel at 7:15am, walked 10 minutes to the Gion-Shijo subway/train station, and took the train to Fushimi-inari. Or rather, we attempted to. I didn’t realize that there were express and local trains and that the express trains don’t stop at Fushimi-inari. But watching our journey in real time on Google Maps, I saw that we sped past the shrine. We got off at the next stop and hopped on a (local) train coming back towards Kyoto. Learn from us: make sure you get on a local train!
The shrine is a few minutes’ walk from the train station. We arrived just before 8am and started hiking up. It’s possible to make a big loop through the path of gates, which takes roughly two hours, but we simply walked up for maybe half an hour and then turned around and retraced our steps. There were very few others on the way up, but it was starting to get crowded on the way down. And mid-day is far worse.
One of my favorite things about Fushimi Inari is that there are excellent street food stands between the shrine and the train station. I always get the sweet potato wedges, and my daughter said that the dumplings were her favorite food in all of Japan. It was only 9am when we were coming back through, or we would have had lunch there.
After Fushimi Inari we returned to our inn for down time and then retraced our steps from the day before, starting at Chionin Temple and walking to to Kiyomizudera Temple. We got lunch along the way at several street food stalls.
We weren’t expecting to see anything different this trip, but when we noticed a lot of people entering and exiting the gate of the Kongoji Temple, we went inside. This turned out to be a highlight! It’s a Buddhist shrine with a very unattractive Buddha (am I allowed to say that?), but it’s unique because of the kukurizaru – cloth balls that people write their wishes on and then attach to the temple. Easily the most colorful temple I’ve ever been to, made even better by all of the kimono-wearing visitors. This a must stop for us on future trips. And Saturday afternoon was a very good time to go. The more crowded, the better (and yes, that’s the only time I’ve written that about any destination).
Arashiyama and its bamboo forest were the only other must-see destination on our list. On Sunday morning we headed out at 7:15 once again and, taking the subway and train, arrived at the bamboo forest roughly an hour later. There were already people there but I managed to get a few photos with just my daughter in them.
The bamboo forest is actually fairly small – it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes to walk through it. So we explored a lot more of the area. We walked both directions from the bamboo grove. We headed down to the Katsura River and watched boats and people with toy boats. We crossed the river, got ice cream and headed to the small Ichitani-Munakata-Jinga Shrine. Then we crossed back over, shopped a little and got street food.
There are several worthwhile temples/gardens nearby that I had explored on previous visits, including Tenryuji and Hogonin, but my daughter had had enough temples. So she opted instead for…
The Kyoto Bengal Cat Forest
We saw a sign for a Bengal cat cafe and headed in. It’s not really a cafe – you choose the included hot or cold drink from a vending machine – but my daughter loved playing with the cats for half an hour.
Kyoto to Osaka Airport
From the Bengal Cat Forest we headed across the street to Arashiyama Station, took the train and subway back to Gion, and picked up our luggage at our hotel. We then walked maybe 10 minutes to the Shijo Airport Limousine Bus Stop. We took the 1pm bus to Osaka Airport, arriving a little after 3pm. The other option to KIX Airport is the train, but we would have had to get to Kyoto Station, so the bus seemed like a simpler – albeit longer – option.
What We Didn’t Do
There’s a LOT we didn’t do in Kyoto. As always, I suggest activities and sites to my kids, but they make the final decisions. My favorite sites from past trips to Kyoto that didn’t make my daughter’s final itinerary were the Saihoji Temple (Saihō-Ji) Moss Garden, the incredibly-peaceful Ryoanji Temple, and Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Temple). All highly-recommended if your kids are good with them!
Where We Ate
Breakfast was included at the Kyoto Inn Gion, so we did that both mornings. We had street food random places for snacks and lunch.
For dinner our first night we walked down the street maybe three minutes from our inn and found Gion Tanto. It’s small, but we timed it well and were seated immediately. The fried noodle dishes with various meats were excellent – prepared in the kitchen, but then served directly onto a hot grill in front of us.
Our second night we hadn’t made plans, and as it was Saturday, everywhere we passed that looked good had long lines. So we kept walking until we stumbled upon this hole-in-the-wall, where we ordered udon bowls and ate standing at the counter. I have no idea where this even is exactly! And I don’t know the name. But it is possible to be adventurous and head into a random spot where there’s no English-language communication and be just fine!
Our Shinkansen tickets cost $184.44. The Kyoto Inn Gion was $494.51 for two nights, but I booked through hotels.com/venture with my Capital One Venture card to get roughly 20% back (an offer sadly no longer available). GEAR tickets were $62.52. The Kyoto-Osaka Airport bus tickets were $25. Meals weren’t expensive – between $5 and $12 per person. Subway/train tickets were just a couple dollars each trip.
Have you been to Kyoto with kids? What do you/they recommend?
This is super helpful! Great post Eric.