After an epic week skiing at Myoko Kogen we spent a second week in Japan exploring Kyoto and Tokyo with the kids. This is one of the best things about skiing in Japan. Not only do you get to experience some of the lightest and fluffiest snow in the world. You can then add an extra week and explore so much more of what Japan has to offer. We spent three very busy days exploring Kyoto.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 1000 years until the 19th century and continues to be the cultural centre of Japan. It is hard not to be impressed.
The traditional heart of Japan is full to the brim with ancient temples, beautiful gardens, traditional Japanese architecture and 17 UNESCO world heritage sites. It offers a great contrast to the capital, Tokyo and in our opinion is a must see destination when visiting Japan.
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We visited in January, so it was cold. Average daytime temperatures hovered just under 10°C (50°F). Brrr! We were rugged up and thankfully it didn’t rain. It is really important you have the right gear to stay warm as we were outside for much of our time in Kyoto. If the kids are cold it isn’t fun for anyone!
We were glad to be well stocked with thermals, beanies, gloves and our Macpac down jackets. The great thing about visiting 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 places were busy they were not overrun with tourists.
Our trip from Myoko Kogen to Kyoto was gorgeous. We used our Japan Rail Passes and took the train and weaved through valleys surrounded by snow covered mountains, passing small villages along the way. We love travelling by train and in Japan it is so easy and comfortable. Everyone can sit back and relax and enjoy the view.
The trip did involve changes of train in Nagano and Nagoya but this is easy to do when the trains seem to always run on time. On the last section of the trip we had booked seats on the famous shinkansen. The kids were very excited to travel on the high-speed bullet train and it didn’t disappoint.
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.
If you are considering visiting more than one city while 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 (and some buses and ferries too) within a certain period 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.
Accommodation in Japan is expensive and tends to be very small, especially when travelling with kids. We were travelling on a very tight budget (trying to spend less than $100 AUD per night on accommodation for all 4 of us) and found it extremely difficult to find, even in winter. It requires a lot of patience to find good cheap accommodation, but it is possible! In Kyoto we ended up booking 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.
In order to keep costs down we searched for places with kitchens. Cooking at home saves a lot of money, particularly in countries like Japan. 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 place in Kyoto was very basic and a bit like a boarding house. 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. It was absolutely fine for three nights. We would rather spend our money on experiences and food than on a fancy hotel (well, most of the time!). Normally we would use booking.com for our accommodation and you can check prices for Kyoto here:
Our kids are not museum or gallery lovers. Or temple lovers for that matter! I am hoping this will change as they get older. So for them, many of their favourite activities won’t be found on any TripAdvisor list of things to do unless it is outside and allows them space to explore.
When we travel we try and do a mix of activities to keep everyone happy. This usually means choosing one or two of the galleries/temples/museums that Matt and I really want to see and sandwiching it between things the kids are going to have fun doing. It works for the most part. We find Klook.com offer a great range of organised activities in Asia and often have discounted offers worth checking.
On this trip we were on a pretty tight budget, so we actively sought out free activities. The great thing about Japan is there are so many everyday things that are completely different to home. Just walking down the street can be fun. Vending machines offering anything and everything for sale. Tiny little cars parked outside tiny little houses. Enormous displays of plastic food menus outside restaurants.
All these things made our days exploring Kyoto interesting and fun. We squeezed a lot in to our three days and here are 5 things the kids loved most about Kyoto:
Amelie loved observing women in traditional dress and searching for a glimpse of Kyoto’s famous Geisha. Geisha are female performers, trained in traditional Japanese arts and are typically dressed in exquisite kimonos.
There are declining numbers of Geisha in the city and they are notoriously difficult to spot as they enter and exit exclusive teahouses for private dinners and parties in Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. Unfortunately we didn’t catch a glimpse, but the walk through the beautiful old streets of Gion was still a worthwhile outing.
Apparently around dusk on the weekend is the best time to see a Geisha. Best places 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.
Visiting the Bamboo Forest and surrounding area in Arashiyama was a highlight of our visit to Kyoto. It is very easy to get to by train. We were lucky the sun was out so despite the chilly weather we were able to wander along the riverbank and up to the forest and surrounding gardens.
The Bamboo Forest was as impressive as the photos we had seen although not as big as I thought it would be. There is a single path that meanders from town up the hill through the bamboo.
The forest is difficult to photograph as the light is quite tricky, and 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 can get busy it is worthy of a visit. The other great thing is that visiting the bamboo forest is free!
While you are in the area there are some other great things to do. We visited the nearby Tenryu-ji Temple. There is a small entrance fee but 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 enjoyed it nonetheless. It was impressive in winter so I can only imagine how great it must be at other times of 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 and within the grounds is a spectacular garden and teahouse. There is an entry fee to the villa. We didn’t visit this time but would love to go if we ever make it to Japan during Spring or Summer.
As we wandered around the surrounding areas we noticed people dressed in traditional Japanese clothing. At first we assumed they were locals until we found out it is possible to rent a kimono for the day! There were plenty of people dressed in kimonos having their photos taken in front of some of the gorgeous temples and shrines – obviously a very popular activity!
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 and I imagine in summer it must be a pretty crazy place to walk through. I hate to say it but my kids loved looking through the stores selling traditional painted fans, kimonos, samurai swords and a ton of little knick-knacks that were right within their budget for purchase.
The Fushimi Inari Taisha complex houses many temples and shrines, including over 10,000 torii shrine gates. This was a great (free) outing in the south of Kyoto that was easy to reach by train. While there are many temples and shrines in the complex the stunning bright orange torii shrine gates are the main draw card.
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 really fun morning walking through them up into the hills.
We visited the shrine on the weekend and it was a VERY popular place to visit, with 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 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.
The great thing about the walk was the higher you climbed the fewer people there were! We didn’t make it to the top (it is about 5km and steep in parts), but it was a lovely walk through forested walkways with many small shrines and temples to explore along the way.
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 all different poses. When we made our way down we found an excellent little food market off to the side of the main temple. We had a tasty cheap lunch here. It was also where Amelie accosted some young women in their kimonos for a photo! Kwai!
Exploring food options in the department store food halls was a fun thing to do while in the city. 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!
As we travel on a pretty small budget, food halls are a great way to see some of the local food prepared without having to pay for a restaurant meal. They are a good place to go to pick up supplies for walks as well as lunch. We picked up many treats from the food halls during our stay in Kyoto. They were a great place to warm up too!
Last but not least was our day trip to Nara. There is a lot to see in Nara, including many gardens. Our main reason for visiting Nara was to see to 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 for the temple. 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).
Although, they were both interested in trying to crawl through the hole in the 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 enlightened children (including ours) making it through the hole!
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 we decided to eat our lunch outside. 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 and eat and have a free cup of tea. He even made Harvey a little origami animal! We loved exploring this smaller and quieter temple.
Finally the kids made their way to Nara park for what was their highlight of the day: attempting to feed the deer. Anywhere with animals is always a winner with us when we travel. There are plenty of vendors selling deer biscuits. The deer were very tame if not a little game.
We needed to stay close to the kids as they tried to feed them as some of them were a little impatient to be fed. They provided a lot of entertainment (and a fair amount of angst) as the kids tried to feed them, talk to them and video them! All in all, while Nara is very touristy, we had a great day out. We even got to sneak in a couple of temple visits too.
There are so many things to do in Kyoto! If you have a little more budget to spend, there are some unique experiences available such as dressing as a samurai, staying in a traditional ryokan and visiting many more of the shrines and temples. The possibilities are endless. Check Klook.com for some great activity ideas.
Planning a trip to Japan
Kyoto Accommodation – Our go to website for all accommodation bookings is booking.com. Check prices for Kyoto here
Getting Around – Trains are a great way to get around Japan and the Japan Rail Pass offers great value if you are wanting to see more of Japan.
Travel Insurance for Japan – we use World Nomads for all of our travel insurance needs.
Tours and activities – look for deals on Klook.com. They have a great range of tours and often have heavily discounted prices.
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