Japan’s ancient capital offers much for families

An oarsman pilots an excursion boat down the Hozu River, just outside Kyoto, Japan, as a guide points out sights to his passengers. The two-hour ride offers the chance to spot wildlife while threading rocks and rapids, and is an especially appealing outing for a trip with children.
An oarsman pilots an excursion boat down the Hozu River, just outside Kyoto, Japan, as a guide points out sights to his passengers. The two-hour ride offers the chance to spot wildlife while threading rocks and rapids, and is an especially appealing outing for a trip with children.

KYOTO, Japan — Rocks to the left of us, rocks to the right. With the Hozu River rushing in between, our oarsman swung the boat hard, threading the boulders as water splashed overboard — and onto my 10-year-old daughter’s lap.

You never know how kids will react to new experiences, but not to worry. “Daddy,” my daughter said, beaming as we headed for more rapids, “this must be the best summer ever!”

Any parent who has charted a family vacation hopes for that kind of reaction. But when my wife and I made plans to take our son and daughter to Kyoto, I had a few doubts. Kyoto is one of the highlights of any trip to Japan, an ancient and fascinating city packed with temples and shrines, a place to savor refined culture.

But can it be kid and family-friendly? Most definitely, especially if you take advantage of the variety Kyoto has to offer, hop on the city’s easy-to-use bus system, and keep your eyes open for some of its surprising travel bargains. With that in mind, here’s a checklist for enjoying Japan’s ancient capital in ways that you and your kids will enjoy.

TOUR OF TASTES: One of our favorite stops was the Nishiki-koji market, a short bus ride from downtown, where Kyotoites stock their refrigerators and kitchen cupboards. Nishiki is a long, narrow street lined with shops selling all sorts of snackable delicacies, like just-baked rice crackers, sashimi on skewers, and croquettes filled with chocolate. It’s as interesting to browse here as to eat, and many places give out samples of their edible wares.

MEET A SAMURAI: Visit the Toei Uzumasa Eigamura (movie village) and you may well see crews filming a samurai flick or television drama. But even if the cameras aren’t rolling, the “village” designed to look like the Japan of yore is fun to wander, offering the chance to meet actors in period costume who are happy to pose for photos. There’s also a theater on site, where live-action ninja shows are staged.

RIDE THE RAPIDS: We built a day around the 10-mile ride down the Hozu, starting with a short train ride just outside the city and ending in the lovely neighborhood of Arashiyama. Guides pole boats seating about 20 people through a deep gorge, where my 8-year-old son spotted turtles, snakes, deer, and numerous water birds. Ask your hotel or at the excellent tourist information office inside Kyoto station (tell them you want to go on the Hozu-gawa Kudari) to help you call ahead for a reservation, which is recommended but not required. Tickets cost 3,900 yen ($42) for adults and 2,500 yen ($27) for children older than 3 (credit cards not accepted).

SOAK UP CULTURE: Bathing is an almost religious ritual in Japan and can be the centerpiece of a memorable vacation experience. We stopped at Sagano Onsen - Tenzan no Yu, a hot spring spa minutes from Arashiyama on a charming one-car train. A cheaper and more plentiful destination is one of the city’s “super sentos,” public baths with multiple tubs. The tourist office can provide a sheet in English listing these. In either, you wash thoroughly at bathing stations before entering soaking pools, both indoors and out.

GET FESTIVE: Kyoto hosts many festivals throughout the year. When we visited Kyoto in August, the city was celebrating the weeks around the Tanabata festival with lights, including computer-animated projections on the wall of the city’s castle and the launching of thousands of lighted blue plastic balls down the Horigawa, a narrow waterway not far from downtown. In May, the Aoi Matsuri, held at a pair of shrines, features a procession of people in ancient Japanese court costumes. In October, the Jidai Matsuri centers around a parade that highlights various periods in Japanese history.

MAKE A PILGRIMAGE: When you’re ready to visit temples and shrines, the challenge is choosing which ones. Kiyomizu temple should be on any itinerary. Yes, it’s choked with tourists, but worth the trip. The temple is famous for its stage, a broad platform that juts over the hillside forest on immense wooden stilts.

We also enjoyed an outing to Fushimi Inari, a shrine known for its gates, which are said to number in the thousands. The shrine’s main buildings are worth a visit and sit within a minute or two of a train station, but you could spend hours here climbing the forested hill behind the shrine, on paths that lead up through the bright red gates to ancillary shrines.

WHAT TO EAT: while Kyoto is known for ultra-expensive and delicate kaiseki cuisine, there’s a lot more that kids will love and that you can afford. So try a restaurant specializing in okonomiyaki, sort of a dinner pancake, usually cooked on a grill at your table, and filled with meat, vegetables, or seafood of your choice. These are casual and reasonably priced places, often popular with students.

Chances are your kids will also like yakitori, a selection of chicken and vegetables, usually sprinkled with salt or brushed with a soy-based sauce, and grilled on bamboo skewers. It’s traditionally bar food, but is also often served at some of the chain restaurants that offer wide menus.

And don’t forget ramen, the steaming bowls of noodles, with toppings like roast pork, in your choice of broth. Most ramen places also serve gyoza, fried dumplings that are hard to resist.

Any kid visiting Japan in warmer months will quickly learn to spot banners touting kaki kori, or shaved ice, doused in a choice of fruit syrups and topped with condensed milk. Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines sell everything from green tea to sports drinks to hot and cold coffee.

WHERE TO STAY: It can be challenging for a family to travel in a country where accommodations are frequently priced by the person, and Kyoto has no lack of exquisite, but expensive lodgings. But there are bargains, especially if you’re willing to make do without luxuries. To look for deals, consider using an online search engine. One that works well in Asia is agoda.com.

GETTING AROUND: Kyoto is built on a grid that is easy to figure, and has a subway system that will get you quickly to some attractions. But the key to exploring is using city buses. Routes are numbered and color-coded, and each stop is clearly announced, so even visitors unfamiliar with the Japanese language can manage.

A bus ride costs 220 yen ($2.40) for adults and about half that for children. But for 500 yen ($5.40), you can buy a card entitling you to unlimited rides for a day. You can buy cards and get a route map at the bus office, immediately outside Kyoto Station.

WHEN TO GO: Kyoto has a reputation for stifling heat and humidity in the summer. Spring and fall offer moderate temperatures, along with cherry blossoms in spring and beautiful foliage in the fall in the mountains around the city.