This isn’t by any stretch an expert guide because I have 1x experience and 1x child, but an awe-inspiring trip to Japan’s ancient capital is highly recommended for families, whether you have babies or older children.
The city is very clean, efficient, and very comfortable. It’s an elegant blend of ancient and modern, minus the chaos and disorder of bigger cities like Osaka. And unless you live in some kind of Utopian paradise, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a place more enjoyable than Kyoto. It’s a city where we’ve never been, didn’t speak the language, and knew no one… but we felt like we belonged. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
1. Stay In
A Japanese-style ryokan will give you a more authentic and cultural experience, so I really recommend trying it out at least for a night or two. If you’re more of a 5-star hotel type, there is no better place than the Hyatt Regency Kyoto. It boasts of gorgeous decor, stylish rooms, unparalleled service, and needless to say, a steep price to match.
Kyomachiya Ryokan Sakura Urushitei
Yanaginobanba-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Hyatt Regency Kyoto
644-2 Sanjusangendo-mawari, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Japan
2. Must-See Spots
Kyoto has an impression of being a highbrow destination consisting of museums, temples, and shrines. If you’re worried about your toddler getting bored, the trick is to intersperse the cultural attractions with child-friendly activities. In Arashiyama, the Tenryu-ji Temple allows you to walk inside the rooms and gardens (for a small fee) and the picturesque Bamboo Path is magical, even for a child. If you’re visiting the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, stop by the Maruyama-koen Park, to have a look at the birds and carp. There are snack stalls selling drinks and ice cream! A moonlit walk in Gion district is also a must. Koko was oblivious to its cultural significance, but very happy to identify letters and numbers on the neon signs.
3. Culture Trip
Turn yourself into a geisha or maiko by booking a makeover session, kind of like a “cosplay”. It’s a photography package that includes the makeup, kimono, props, and retouched high-res photographs. There are many studios that offer this service, but Yume Koubou is one of the highest-rated. They have four studios all over Kyoto; some of which allows outdoor shoots.
4. Stroller vs Carrier
Getting around the city is a breeze, whether on foot or via subway. Taxis are also readily available and affordable. A lightweight stroller, preferably one with a one-step standing fold, will serve you best. In some religious places like Tenryu-ji Temple and Fushimi Inari shrine, we had to park the stroller outside and tackle some stairs. If your child does not walk confidently, bring a carrier.
Check out my recommended strollers here.
5. Where to Eat
I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t love Japanese food, even among the pickiest eaters I know. With that said, it’s also not best to force-feed your kids all the weird stuff (eel, sea urchin, octopus). There are many child-friendly restaurants that will serve familiar items like ramen and rice. Ootoya, Ippudo, and The Cube Food Court will satisfy your cravings for glorious Japanese cuisine, while keeping your children happy as well. The Nishiki Market is a feast for the senses too! Nicknamed “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, the five blocks-long shopping street specializes in all things food. ‘Nuff said.
6. Day Trip
The quaint and charming city of Nara can be reached via Kyoto by train, and the trip takes less than an hour. Nara is the home of some of Japan’s best temples, shrines, and gardens. From the train station, walk to Nara-koen Park to feed and pet the famous deer. The Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji temples are nearby. Further down the road are the majestic Isui-en and Yoshiki-en gardens. Take some time to stroll around both gardens and relax under the canopy of trees before heading back to the train station.