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 on to 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.
One of our favorite stops was the Nishiki-koji market, a short bus ride from downtown, where Kyotoites stocks their refrigerators and kitchen cupboards. Nishiki is a long, narrow street, covered by an arcade and lined with shops selling all sorts of snackable delicacies, like just-baked rice crackers, sashimi on skewers, and croquettes filled with chocolate, as well as wares like chopsticks and gourmet cutlery.
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.
Some of the streets just north of Kyoto’s train station are home to small inns, some of which offer good deals. We found a bargain at Ryokan Ginkaku, a spare but well-kept lodge popular with Japanese tour groups, where a Japanese-style room with four futons cost 8700 yen ($94) a night in August. The only catch for the rate was that you had to provide your own towel or rent one at the desk. Nearby, the Hana Hostel has small but inexpensive private rooms as well as dormitory rooms.
Japan also has seen a proliferation of budget hotels in recent years. One of the biggest chains is Toyoko Inn, which has multiple locations in Kyoto. A “twin room” (in Japan, that means a room with two small double beds) costs less than 10,000 yen ($108). The chain does not charge extra for children of elementary school age, and rates often include breakfast.
To look for deals, consider using an online search engine. One that works well in Asia is agoda.com.
A single 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. And when we were there, the city was waiving fares for kids. You can buy cards and get a route map at the bus office, immediately outside Kyoto Station.