Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 1000 years until the 19th century. Known as the traditional and cultural heart of Japan, Kyoto is full to the brim with ancient temples, beautiful gardens, and impressive examples of traditional Japanese architecture. It is home to 17 UNESCO world heritage sites!
One of the big challenges about travel to Japan with kids is that it can be an expensive place to visit. To alleviate some of the pressure on your wallet we share five fun and cheap things to do in Kyoto with kids.
- 1 1. Visit Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
- 2 2. Wander the old streets of Gion (and search for Geisha)
- 3 3. Admire the Gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha
- 4 4. Try the local delicacies at the Food Halls
- 5 5. Visit Nara
- 6 Other Cheap Things To Do With Kids in Kyoto
- 7 Other Kyoto Attractions
- 8 Planning Your Trip to Kyoto with Kids
- 9 When to visit Kyoto
- 10 Getting to Kyoto
- 11 Japan Rail Pass
- 12 Where to Stay In Kyoto With Kids
- 13 Plan your trip to Japan
1. Visit Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Our visit to the Bamboo Forest and surrounding area in Arashiyama was a highlight of our trip to Kyoto. Plus it is free!
It is very easy to get to by train on the JR Sagano line which is free for JR Rail Pass holders. The trip takes about 30 minutes from the centre of Kyoto.
The Bamboo Forest has a single pathway through it and meanders from town up the hill through the bamboo. There is plenty of space for the kids to run and work off some energy.
The forest is difficult to photograph as the light is quite tricky. If you are hoping to get a shot without everyone else in it, you will need to get there very early.
It is one of the most popular tourist sites in Kyoto and while it will get busy it is worth a visit.
A word of warning – on route from the train station to the bamboo forest there are a million tourist souvenir stores. It really is ridiculous how many there are.
I hate to say it but my kids actually loved looking through the stores. With a range of stores selling traditional painted fans, kimonos, samurai swords and a ton of little knick-knacks, the kids found many souvenirs right within their budget to purchase.
Other Attractions in the Area
When you reach the top of the grove, turn left to wander through the nature park down towards the Hozu-gawa River. Few people walk this way but it is a very pretty walk through gardens down to the riverfront where you can watch boats plying the river. It is one of a number of enjoyable walks in the area.
You can even rent a boat, which is particularly fun to do in spring when the cherry blossoms are out.
Walking along the riverbank, wandering through the surrounding gardens and through the Bamboo Forest is a great thing to do near Kyoto with kids.
While you are in the area we recommend stopping in at the nearby Tenryu-ji Temple. There is a small entrance fee – you can pay just to visit the gardens or include the buildings as well.
The garden is renowned as one of the best in Kyoto. The detail of the zen garden was a little lost on the kids but we all enjoyed it nonetheless. It is impressive in winter so I can only imagine how great it must be at other times of the year.
Also, up the hill at the end of the bamboo grove is the Okochi-Sanso Villa. The villa is said to one of the best examples of traditional Japanese architecture.
Within the grounds is a spectacular garden and tea house. There is an entry fee to visit the villa.
Rent a Kimono for the Day
As we wandered around the surrounding areas we noticed people dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos. At first we assumed they were locals, until we found out it is possible to rent a kimono for the day!
After selecting your outfit, it is possible to wander through the local gardens and temples – with plenty of photo opportunities in front of gorgeous temples and shrines. It certainly makes for a unique and fun experience in Kyoto with kids!
2. Wander the old streets of Gion (and search for Geisha)
Wandering through the beautiful old streets of Gion is one of the top things to do in Kyoto. The narrow alleyways, traditional wooden merchant buildings and paths along the canal are fantastic places to explore.
In particular, we suggest you wander through Pontocho Alleyway in the early evening when it is bustling with people out for dinner. The Kamogawa Riverbank area, Hanamikoji Street and the Shirakawa district are other great places to visit.
If you have older kids, then exploring Gion by bike is a great alternative to wandering by foot. You can easily cover more distance without any complaints!
Gion is perhaps most famous for being the destination to catch sight of a Geisha. Geisha are female performers, trained in traditional Japanese arts. They are typically dressed in exquisite kimonos, with extravagant hair and makeup. Our daughter was desperate to catch sight of one after reading about them prior to our trip.
There are declining numbers of Geisha in Kyoto and they are notoriously difficult to spot. They typically work at exclusive tea houses for private dinners and parties in Gion, Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district.
Unfortunately we didn’t come across any geisha while in Gion. If you are hoping to come across a geisha in Kyoto, around dusk on the weekend is the best time to amble through the area.
The top places in Kyoto to catch a glimpse are on the streets Hanami-koji-dori in Gion (the section between Shijo-dori and Kennin-ji Temple) and at the Shijo-dori end of Pontocho.
We did come across many tourists dressed up as Geisha when we explored Kyoto. So we kinda ticked the box.
3. Admire the Gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha
The Fushimi Inari Taisha complex houses many temples and shrines, including over 10,000 torii shrine gates. It is also free to explore.
Visiting the temple and shrines is one of the top things to do around Kyoto.
While there are many temples and shrines within the complex, we think the stunning bright orange torii shrine gates are the highlight of a trip here and one of the best things to see in Kyoto.
The gates line a meandering path to the top of Mt. Inari for views over Kyoto. The colour and the sheer number of them make for quite a spectacular sight and it was a fun morning walking through them up into the hills.
The gates are a popular place to visit but the higher you climb, the fewer people there are! Our kids loved weaving through the gates as we made our way up the hill. On the way there are many small shrines and temples to explore.
The path is about 5km (3.1 miles) long and steep in parts. We didn’t make it to the top, but regardless we enjoyed the experience and it is a fun thing to do with kids in Kyoto.
In fact the length and steepness of the path makes this one of the best places to visit in Kyoto during winter. Unlike in summer when the humidity can be unbearable, we found the cold winter air perfect for walking up the hill!
We noticed many statues of foxes as we walked and the kids made it a game to seek them out. The fox is considered to be the messenger of the god Inari. There were also many souvenir stores selling the painted foxes in many different poses.
Off to the side of the main temple there is often a small food market on weekends. There is a huge range of cheap, tasty snacks and meals at the stalls lining the street and it is a good option before heading back to Kyoto.
When to Visit
We visited the shrine on the weekend and it was a VERY popular place to be. There were hordes of both locals and foreign tourists wandering through the temple and making their way up the path.
This might not sound too inviting, but it actually gave the temple a wonderful feeling of life. These aren’t empty houses of worship. They are actively visited and valued by the local people.
If you want to experience the gates without the crowds you need to arrive early on a week day.
How to get there
The Fushimi Inari Taisha complex is located in the south of Kyoto and is easy to reach by train.
It is only around 10 minutes on the JR Nara Line and the trip is included on the JR Rail Pass.
4. Try the local delicacies at the Food Halls
Exploring the department store food halls is worth adding to your list if you are looking for free things to do in Kyoto.
In the basement of most department stores they sell fresh and cooked food as well as beautifully presented sweets and cakes.
The kids loved exploring all the counters and especially admiring the packaging on the cake boxes. I hate to think how much paper is used in Japan – each cake is individually wrapped within a box that is then wrapped too!
If you are on a tight budget, food halls are also a great way to see some of the local food prepared without having to pay for an expensive restaurant meal.
They are a good place to go to pick up supplies for walks as well as lunches. We picked up many treats from the food halls during our stay in Kyoto. If you are traveling to Kyoto in winter they are also a great place to warm up too!
5. Visit Nara
A day trip to Nara is one of the best things to do near Kyoto with kids.
There is a lot to see in Nara, including many temples and gardens. Our main reason for visiting Nara was to visit the Todai-ji Temple and the sacred semi-wild deer that inhabit the surrounding park.
The Daibatsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings containing one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha.
There is an entry fee of 1000 Yen for adults and 400 Yen for children to enter the Great Buddha Hall and museum.
To be honest the kids were not overly impressed with the temple or the Giant Budhha within the Daibutsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha).
They were, however, both very interested in trying to crawl through the hole in a pillar located at the back of the hall!
The hole is apparently the same size as the Buddha’s nostril. It is said that if you can squeeze through you are assured of enlightenment.
There was a constant stream of small people attempting to crawl through and many soon to be enlightened children, including ours, making it through the hole. It is certainly one of the more unusual things to do in Kyoto!
A short walk up the hill from the main temple is a smaller hall called Nigatsu-do Hall. You approach the hall through the park and up a pretty stone staircase. It was much more peaceful here and you can take a picnic and eat lunch outside the hall.
As we were finding a spot to sit down in the cold we were waved in by a kind old man who worked at the temple.
He directed us to a small hall on the north side where we could sit inside, eat and have a free cup of tea. He even made our son a little origami animal! We loved exploring this smaller and quieter temple.
Feeding the Deer in Nara
Finally the kids made their way to Nara Park for what was their highlight of the day: feeding the deer. Anywhere with animals is always a winner with us when we travel.
Feeding the deer is one of the most popular things to do in Nara. There are plenty of vendors selling deer biscuits in the surrounding parklands. The deer were very tame, if not a little game.
You need to stay close to the kids when they feed the deer as some of them were a little impatient to be fed.
The deer provided much entertainment (and a fair amount of angst) as the kids tried to feed them, talk to them and video them!
All in all, whilst Nara is one of the top tourist attractions in Kyoto, it was a great place to include on our itinerary in Kyoto for kids. We even got to sneak in a couple of temple visits too.
How to get to Nara
Nara is easily accessible by train from Kyoto. If you have purchased the JR Rail Pass it is included on your ticket.
The trip takes about 45 minutes on an express train on the JR Nara Line.
Other Cheap Things To Do With Kids in Kyoto
One of the great things about travel to Japan with kids is so many everyday activities are completely different to home. Just walking down the street can be an adventure.
One of the most fun things to do in Kyoto with kids is to set out, explore the small lane ways and look out for things like:
- Vending machines offering anything and everything for sale.
- Tiny little cars parked outside tiny little houses.
- Enormous displays of plastic food menus to peruse outside many restaurants.
- Sweet stores selling beautifully packaged cakes and treats.
All these novelties made our days out exploring Kyoto interesting and fun for the kids.
Other Kyoto Attractions
If you are looking for a special activity to do with the kids in Japan, there are some unique things to do with kids in Kyoto.
Cooking Class with Kids
If you want to learn more about Japanese food, Kyoto is a great place to take a cooking class. Our kids LOVE cooking classes so it is a great choice for a family activity in Kyoto.
We suggest you choose carefully as some classes are tailored more to adults. This Izakaya cooking class would be perfect with kids.
Take a Rickshaw through the City
There aren’t many places where you can hop in a rickshaw and take a tour of a city. This one takes you through the historic Higashiyama district where you will pass temples and you may even spot a Geisha!
Join a Cycling Tour
If you have older kids (12 and above) this cycling tour is a great way to explore Kyoto. We love cycling with our kids when we visit a new place as we can see more of a place without them getting too tired. A three hour tour of the alleyways of old Kyoto is a fun and unique Japanese experience for the family.
There are many options for unique experiences in Kyoto. When we travel in Asia we book tours and tickets through Klook.com. Klook offer a great range of activities in Japan and often have heavily discounted tours available.
Planning Your Trip to Kyoto with Kids
Kyoto is a stark contrast to the high tech capital, Tokyo, and in our opinion is a must see destination when visiting Japan.
The city has many fine temples to explore, but if your kids are anything like mine they will soon be templed out.
When you are planning what to do in Kyoto with kids it is worthwhile doing some research and planning your itinerary day by day.
Work out which temples you really want to visit as there are just so many options. It is easy to get distracted once you arrive.
Perhaps also give the kids a little background to the temples, garden design or history to help them engage more when they visit.
We recommend planning a mix of activities to keep everyone happy.
This usually means choosing one or two of the galleries/temples/museums the adults really want to visit and sandwiching it between things the kids want to do. This keeps everyone engaged and seems to work for us!
When to visit Kyoto
Kyoto is a great place to visit most of the year. It does get very hot in the summer months.
Many people consider spring and autumn the best time to visit Kyoto. Note that during these times accommodation and attractions will be very busy, so you will need to book ahead.
Kyoto in Winter
Average daytime temperatures hovered just under 10°C (50°F). We rugged up and thankfully it didn’t rain. We were glad to be well stocked with thermals, beanies, gloves and our down jackets.
As long as you are dressed for the weather, visiting Kyoto in winter is great. There are still loads of things to do. In fact most Kyoto attractions are open year round.
The great thing about visiting Kyoto in winter is there are hardly any queues. We found it very easy to get around, we didn’t need to book ahead and while attractions were busy they were not overrun with tourists.
Getting to Kyoto
Transport in Japan is easy. There is a huge train network, airports at all major cities and the shinkansen (fast train) makes travel between Kyoto and Tokyo (as well as other cities like Osaka and Nagano) a breeze.
The kids were very excited to travel on the high-speed bullet train. In fact all of the trains were excellent.
On time, comfortable, well designed often with small tables, charging points, pockets for your belongings. There was also plenty of food to choose from at the station and on the train too.
Japan Rail Pass
If you are considering visiting more than one city whilst in Japan, we strongly recommend you look in to purchasing the Japan Rail Pass.
Available only to foreign tourists, the pass offers unlimited travel on most Japan Rail trains within a certain period of time. They usually include some buses and ferries too and can be purchased at a significant discount to purchasing individual tickets.
We have visited Japan a number of times and have always found the Japan Rail Pass to be worth the investment when traveling out of Tokyo.
Where to Stay In Kyoto With Kids
Accommodation in Japan is expensive and tends to be very small, especially when travelling with kids.
On this particular trip we were travelling on a very tight budget, attempting to spend less than $100 AUD per night on accommodation for all 4 of us. It was extremely difficult to find, even in winter.
So it does require a lot of patience to find good cheap accommodation, but it is possible!
In Kyoto this time we booked through AirBnB. Click here for a $50 credit on your first booking. I would highly recommend booking as far in advance as possible to have more options as they tend to sell out quickly.
Apartments in Kyoto
In order to keep costs down it is a good idea to search for apartments or shared accommodation with kitchens. Cooking at home saves a lot of money, particularly in expensive countries like Japan.
Our place in Kyoto was very basic. We stayed in a single bedroom and shared the bathroom and kitchen with guests in two other rooms.
While this wasn’t ideal it ticked a lot of boxes. It was close to all the main attractions and public transport, it was within budget and there was a supermarket close by.
In Kyoto we made breakfast and dinner each day at our apartment. For lunch we ate out, which meant we could still experience the food in Japan which is such a great part of travelling too.
Our style of travel is to spend our money on experiences and food rather than on a fancy hotel (well, most of the time!). It was absolutely fine for three nights.
If you are looking for a unique Japanese experience, Kyoto is the perfect place to book a stay in a Ryokan. A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese Inn.
You sleep on futons on tatami mats, they often have a communal onsen (hot bath) and traditional meals are served in your rooms. The owners often don’t speak english, but they are a unique Japanese experience to remember.
Note that not all Ryokans are child friendly, so our best tip is to check reviews on TripAdvisor to find a suitable Ryokan. It is an expensive, but unique experience in Japan.
Plan your trip to Japan
Kyoto Accommodation – Our go to website for all accommodation bookings is booking.com. Check prices and book early for Kyoto here.
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