Kyoto, Japan’s “eternal capital,” remains surprisingly timeless. For one thousand years—794 until the Emperor moved to Tokyo in 1868—Kyoto was the capital of Japan. Now the former center of government bears witness to that history with more than 2000 temples and shrines, but with significantly fewer people and less urban development than the current capital of Tokyo. And because so many of these shrines are surrounded by tranquil parks, evergreen gardens, and Zen landscapes, Kyoto is a wonderful destination for exploring Japanese culture with children.
Activity 1: Start On a Path of 10,000 Gates
Thousands of cinnabar-red torii gates encase a path to the summit of Mount Inari at Fushimi Inari, one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines and headquarters for 30,000 Inari shrines in Japan. The Inari are Shinto religion deities of foxes, fertility, agriculture, and industry which explains the many fox statues and sake bales. But there’s no explaining the surreal impact of those gates tunneling through verdant forest—you just have to see it to believe it.
The entire round-trip hike can take 2-3 hours, yet multiple return paths means you can bail at any time. Grab water at the base souvenir shops and keep the kiddos moving with promises of ice cream at the Yotsusuji overlook (about 30-45 minutes up the mountain). If you happen to bring your appetite, there are a couple of spots for a bite as well—including a traditional noodle shop with an amazing city view.
Activity 2: Wander Through a Bamboo Forest
Arashiyama’s Bamboo Grove is a natural wonder. Sky-high bamboo limbs converge along an otherworldly walking path connecting multiple temples—including UNESCO World Heritage Site Tenryu-ji, an important Zen Buddhist temple, and part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.
In addition to several temples, the trail passes a traditional Japanese home and delightful gardens at Okochi-Sanso Villa, a curious hermit’s hut at Rakushisha Poet’s Hut, and the hilltop Kameyama-koen Park where, if you’re lucky, you may spot monkeys.
Hire a human-powered rickshaw or rent a bike to travel the path, and if you have time, book a short trip on the Sagano Romantic Train. A short 25-minute ride each way aboard an open-sided rail car passes jaw-dropping scenery in the Hozugawa Ravine.
Activity 3: Go for the Gold
The main attraction at Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, is without question the Zen temple itself. Pure gold covers the top two floors, and the entire building literally glows on the edge of lake. Strolling the grounds is quite pleasant, particularly if you include a stop at the garden teahouse for Matcha tea and gold leaf adorned Kinkaku sweets. Do pack coins to have on hand for tossing at pots and statues; it’s reputed to bring good fortune.
Activity 4: Ascend to Enryakuji
Traveling to Enryakuji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its “marathon monks,” can be an adventure in itself. The temple is perched amidst pine trees at the top of Mount Hiei, and while you could take a bus directly from Kyoto, you’d miss the thrill of riding gondolas and funiculars. Instead, take the city subway to Eizan Electric Railway, and connect to the Eizan Cable and the Eizan Ropeway. Both offer incredible views, culminating in the sight of Kyoto and Lake Biwa when you arrive at Hiei Garden Museum.
The gardens are a bit of a surprise as they replicate impressionist painting such as Monet’s Water Lilies series. You soon catch on as replicas of the original paintings are posed next to the gardens. Head to the opposite entrance to catch the shuttle to Enryakuji.
Tip: You might want to save exploring the garden until the return as it closes later than the temple.)
1 Great Place to Stay: Piece Hostel Sanjo
Stay where Japanese travelers stay, at a traditional Japanese “ryokan” recently reimagined (as of July 2015) as a boutique hostel. The stylish update includes a variety of room types (from family suites to dormitories,) garden-facing dining/kitchen area, laundry room, and an onsite independent coffee shop. Check the bulletin boards for current festivals and other fun things to do; English-speaking staff will direct you. Bike rentals and airport shuttles are available (for a fee.) Best of all, Piece Hostel Sanjo is conveniently located in Kyoto center within walking distance from many attractions, restaurants, and great little shops.
1 Great Place to Eat: Nishiki Market
Snack your way through Nishiki Market or pick one of several restaurants; with more than 120 booths, the 400-year-old food market offers lots of choices. Stalls sell exquisite fruit, fresh grilled fish, omelets, roasted chestnuts, and the prettiest candy you’ll ever see. The market is famous for Beef Manju Bun—a kid-approved option—but adventurous diners with older children won’t want to miss the stand-up counter only sushi bar.
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