With our toddler well accustomed to the train travel, on our 7th day in Japan, we headed to Kyoto. From Takayama we first had to go back to Nagoya for 2h30 min on the Hida express train. We then changed in a hurry (consider that the Shinkansen is usually in another part of the train station compared to the local (slower) trains) and took the Shinkansen for about one hour to Kyoto. We timed the departure at lunch break so that the LO would sleep on the train. This time it worked.
Kyoto is what you would call a medium city in Japan which still puts it up there with most European capital in terms of size and public transport complexity. I choose for accomodation a hotel near Karasuma Oike metro station a bit towards the north of the city where most interesting temples are located. For the next 5 days we used the Kyoto Brighton Hotel as a basis for our criss cross of the city and one day trip to Nara. Looking back, we did spend some time getting to and from the KarasmaOike station that I would have preferred spending exploring the city. An accomodation a bit closer to the transport hub of Karasuma Oike would have been a better choice even if a free shuttle was available every 20 minutes to/from Karasumaoike Subway Station to the hotel.
While in Kyoto, we visited a series of temples, trying to space them in a way that would not leave us ‘templed out’ after a couple of days. They were all impressive and different in their own way. We skipped Kiyomizu-dera. It was at the end of a long winding pathway up and in construction for the most part. Also, being one of the most popular with tourist groups made it less attractive on my list.
Start with a visit to the inner city to get an ideea of the lay out. We spent some time in Gion admiring the classical architecture, small tea houses and couples dressed in kimonos taking photos on the narrow alleys. Gion is Kyoto‘s most famous geisha district, located around Shijo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine in the east and the Kamo River in the west. It is filled with shops, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses), where geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentices) entertain. This makes the district very popular with tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of a geiko or maiko on their way to or from an engagement at an ochaya in the evenings or while running errands during the day. If you do spot a geiko or maiko, act respectfully.
The next day we went for the Nanzen-Ji Temple. A bit outside the city but reasonable easy to reach by public transport. The great temple of Nanzen-ji was converted from a residence of the Emperor at the end of the 13th century. It has a great entrance gate followed by several shrines and Japanese gardens. You can climb on one of the gates to get a great panorama of Kyoto. Unless you have the inspiration to bring a carrier for the baby, you will probably have to take turns going up and down the stairs that are quite steep – this is what we did. Once you arrive at the first level, the view is totally worth it.
The next on our list was the Sanjusangen-do temple. The building houses 1001 wooden statues of Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy); the chief image, the 1000-armed Senjū-Kannon, was carved by the celebrated sculptor Tankei in 1254. It is flanked by 500 smaller Kannon images, neatly lined in rows. The visual effect is stunning, as you slowly walk around the statues centre piece part. We could go in with a stroller and this proved quite useful as the grounds are extensive. The gardens outside were very nice as well but a bit more difficult to navigate with a stroller, in particular the areas with pebbles.
On a full day trip, we visited Nara. This is completely accesible with the JR Pass and about 50 min away from Kyoto to JR Nara Station. However, Kintetsu Nara station is located closer to main attractions like Todaiji Temple and Nara Park. So if you’re not using the JR Pass, I recommend taking the Kintetsu Line. Kintetsu Nara Station to Nara Park where the deers are roaming free is about 10 minutes on foot. There is also a tourist bus that will take you from JR Nara station to bus stop in front of Todaiji Temple. We made use of that on our return. the bus had enough space to fit our stroller.
Our LO was particularly happy with observing the deer coming close and being fed biscuits by other people. He was getting closer and closer and even dared to pet one on the back. They are very docile. However, some caution should be exercised with little ones as the deer might bite. We have not allowed our son to feed them.
Nara Park is the oldest one in Japan and Nara used to be the old capital. The atmosphere is peaceful and nature is great. We were after the cherry blossom season ended and it was still a great experience for both adults and our toddler. One great tip is to to get there as early as possible. We managed to get there at about 11 AM and it was borderline. It is not only because of the tourists. Nara holds an important role in Japanese culture and numerous school groups are visiting at all times of the year. It can get busy during early afternoon when both tourists and schools groups schedules for visit seem to overlap.
Finally, on our last day we visited Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Temple or Pavilion) and the Nijo Castle. We reached Kinkaku-ji by bus after following directions given by our hotel. Kinkakuji can be accessed from Kyoto Station by direct Kyoto City Bus number 101 or 205 in about 40 minutes and for 230 yen.
This time we were a bit squeezed with our stroller and all the people going to the temple but all worked out fine in the end. Once there, we entered the grounds by stroller but had to quickly give it up due to the difficulty to navigate areas covered with small pebbles. The grounds are not extensive so if the toddler is ready to walk a bit, the entire visit is manageable.
No matter the time of year, expect quite a bit of touristic activity. It is one of the most popular buildings in Japan, attracting a large number of visitors annually. It is designated as a National Special Historic Site and a National Special Landscape, and it is one of 17 locations making up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto which are World Heritage Sites. This being said, it is totally worth the occasional hassle of waiting around as it is a unique architectural monument that incorporates three distinct styles of architecture which are shinden, samurai and zen specifically on each floor. And its reflection in the pond is every photographer’s dream.
Each temple visit described above carried an admission fee of about 500 yen per person. There are no fees for babies or toddlers. Be prepared to lift the stroller on a few flights of stairs. Nothing dramatic though, as most areas are extremely well organised and accessible. Do pack a carrier for peace of mind and do not forget the water.
We visited in May and it was rather hot and wet. However, together with September is one of the best times to visit to avoid the crowds (and prices) of cherry blossom and autumn foliage season. Summer (June – August) sees the start of the rainy season. The rains aren’t seen every day like in some monsoonal countries but when they come they are heavy. The temperature after the rain is generally quite high and can be uncomfortable if you are moving around. Summer also sees lots of great festivals (or Matsuri) in Japan and there are lots of spectacular firework shows going on across the country.
After 5 days in Kyoto, we sought refuge from the heat in the Kynosaky-onsen resort. The word ‘resort’ might not capture the right flavour. There are no all inclusive or fancy hotels. Kinosaki is a charming hot spring resort town on the Japan Sea coast with 1400 years of history. The town is incredibly picturesque, with beautifully preserved traditional architecture and a river lined with willows and cherry trees that runs through its centre. One of the most famous spa resorts in Japan, Kinosaki is certainly the best one within easy reach of Kyoto. From JR Kyoto station, it takes approximately 2.5 hours by Limited Express train KINOSAKI or HASHIDATE. A transfer at JR Fukuchiyama Station may be required. There is a handy shuttle leaving the train station every 15 min or so that will drop you at the accommodation.
We spent 3 nights in a great Ryokan (Tajimaya), the best accommodation of our entire stay. We had a kaiseki dinner in our room every day and, once we managed to the keep the LO still, was a comfortable and delicious experience. It is difficult to imagine we would have managed to keep him occupied in a restaurant for 2 + hours (usual duration for a kaiseki dining experience made up of 6to 7 courses of small japanese dishes). In the privacy of our room, the possibilities to fill the hours were more numerous (a few games, drawing, watching a bit of TV etc). We made sure that he had dinner first.
We took turns for the visits to the hot baths as LO was too young to be exposed to water of such high temperature. One would go in the Onsen while the other would take a stroll or have lunch. Then we exchanged. Count about 20-30 min for one onsen session. All onsens are closed one day per week (a different day for each of them). It is better to get an Onsen pass covering the number of days you want to spend there. Your accommodation will most likely provide one part of the package. They will also provide a youkata or two (formal and informal) – the traditional wear. We even got one for our LO.
The hot springs in Kinosaki Onsen contain a wealth of minerals such as sodium, calcium and chloride. These elements are said to be good for fatigue, digestive issues, nerve and muscular pain. There are 7 bath houses to visit in Kinosaki, each with its charm and facilities. The largest one is next to the train station – Satono-yu. It has sauna and an outside hot spring as well. I enjoyed the Goshono-yu in particular . It features an outside bath made of stones with a stunning waterfall backdrop. I also liked Kuono-yu, set away from the busy streets and in the back of the town. It has an outdoor bath surrounded by lush natural surroundings and fresh air.
After 3 days of onsen hopping and breathing the fresh air, we went back to Tokyo (via Kyoto). We had 4 days before our flight back that we enjoyed visiting Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku and Aoyama districts as well as taking a day trip to Kamakura, which I would strongly recommend with kids.
This time around, we were based at the Keio Hotel in Shinjuku. A work of advice on Shinjuku Metro Station -Get your exit right as there are about 500 of them! We got indications from the hotel and finally managed after going up and down a few flights of stairs with a luggage and a stroller. Sinjuku is an important junction between several Metro lines as well. Be armed with patience and leave sufficient time to negotiate this as it will be confusing the first time around. Once you make it above ground, you will land in a sea of skyscrapers and interconnecting malls. At night, the amount of light is like nothing I have seen before. NY Times Square multiplied by 20. You can probably see Sinjuku and Shibiya from the Moon.
Kamakura was the country’s political capital during the Kamakura shogunate (1185–1333) and there’s plenty to do and see here. Top of the list should be a visit to the Great Buddha of Kamakura (Kamakura Daibutsu) and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, Kamakura’s largest Shinto shrine. Kamakura is less than an hour from Tokyo via the JR Yokosuka or Shonan-Shinjuku Line from Shinjuku Station.
We had a great time in Japan and enjoyed the hospitality and kindness of our hosts everywhere. The food was amazing, not to count the best and freshest sashimi we ate so far. I would love to go back one day when our boy is older to introduce him to the culture and enjoy the electronic games mecca and amusement parks that are on offer.
Happy travels and let me know if you want more details about our Japanese adventure!