Last September we went on holiday to Kyoto for a week with our young twins. I have to admit that Japan wasn’t very high on our list of places to visit for a long time, but we kept seeing friends’ photos of Kyoto and it looked so nice that we thought we’d go and see for ourselves. I’m so glad we did! It was absolutely beautiful. There is so much to see in the area and we didn’t see half of it, but we loved what we saw and really enjoyed our time there. I thought I’d share with you some of the things we saw and did and hopefully encourage you to go for yourselves!
So let me start with the time of year – we went in September as I already mentioned, which is a fairly low season in Kyoto. We chose that time because the flights were pretty reasonable from Hong Kong, and it was warm but not too hot (I hear July and August are pretty hot). However, some days were a bit wet too. If you want to see Kyoto at its best, you should go in March, April or May to see the cherry blossoms in bloom, or in October or November to see the fall (autumn) colours. I’ve seen photos of both and they are spectacular. However, it does get really busy in those periods.
One of my main concerns was that I had heard that there is very little English (spoken or written) in Japan, despite so many people going to visit. I had wondered how they managed but actually there was enough English to get around. Most people that we came across spoke a little (including, separately, two old men on trains who were very pleased to have an opportunity to practice their excellent English!), and most restaurants had English menus – or you could just point to the plastic food that you like the look of (see below)!
Whilst on the subject of restaurants, we found that most restaurants were fairly child friendly. I think all of them had plastic bowls and spoons, and our children are happy eating noodles, rice or dumplings so we could find something for them in most places. However, very few have high chairs and in fact many don’t have chairs at all (you sit on tatami mats) so if your children (like ours) are not used to the freedom of unrestrained meals they will probably want to run around a lot!
One thing that I thought was quite neat was that there were drinks vending machines everywhere on the streets – so handy if you’re out and about all day.
Japan is not so expensive at the moment because the Yen is quite weak and we were actually surprised by how affordable it was. Eating out was pretty cheap and none of the tourist attractions cost more than a few pounds to get into. I think the Yen is even weaker now than it was when we went so it makes for a fairly cheap holiday if you can get cheap flights to Japan!
Getting to Kyoto
Kyoto has no airport so we flew to Kansai (Osaka) and took a train to Kyoto. This was fairly straightforward – we just followed the signs from the airport to the train station and bought a ticket in the JR ticket office for the Haruka train to Kyoto. It takes about 75 minutes. While buying the train tickets we also bought ICOCA cards which are the equivalent of Oyster cards in London or Octopus cards in Hong Kong i.e. you use them to pay for travel. That made it very easy to get around in Kyoto and the surrounding area.
Where we stayed
We stayed in a traditional Japanese townhouse, run by a company called Machiya Residence Inn (the specific house we stayed in was Konruri-An). As a young family of four, it worked out very nicely for us. It was a small house but was very well equipped with a kitchen, living room, bathroom and two spacious bedrooms. They were able to provide two cots for us which easily fitted in one of the bedrooms. The townhouses are traditional in style with low furniture and not all are equipped with a sofa or a proper bed, which is why we picked the one we did! They are great to stay in though and (in my opinion) more fun than a hotel!
Getting around Kyoto
Our townhouse was a 10 minute walk from Omiya station, which made it very easy to get around. We mostly used the metro system but occasionally ventured onto buses as well. My tip for you if you want to use buses is to download or print a bus map before you leave so that you know which buses go where since most of the bus stops do not have any information in English. Once on the buses, the stops are announced in English so you will at least know where to get off!
We actually found that Google maps was a great way to find out how to get from A to B. It was accurate for everything we used it for and always gave a few options to choose from. We also downloaded this offline maps app of Japan, which was useful for getting around when we were out and about.
The metro is great, although a little more dated than we were expecting, given Japan’s high-tech reputation. The trains are a little confusing though, since not all of them stop at all the stations on a given line. Maps like the one below which can be found on the platform show which train types stop at which stations, so when a train comes along you have to check if it will stop at the one you want. Thankfully, the trains are colour coded so it’s pretty easy to spot which is the one you want. I think that all the metro stations we went to had information in English.
One further complication of the metro system is that it is run by multiple companies, so not all the intersecting rail lines join up. You may find that you have to exit a station, walk a few minutes down the road and go into another station to get to where you want to go! In cases like this, I felt that taking a bus would have been quicker, but we didn’t have a bus map which made it impossible for us (hence the tip for you!).
For those of you with strollers (or wheelchairs) we found Kyoto pretty accessible. All the metro stations we used had lifts, although only one exit per station had a lift so you couldn’t choose where you came out. There were lifts in buildings and ramps on most stepped areas.
What we did
I wrote about all the things we did and where we ate in these two posts:
Kyoto (Nijo Castle, Arishayama, Osaka)
Kyoto (Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi-inari, Tofuku-ji, Nara, Nanzen-ji)
Check them out if you’re looking for some inspiration!
Thanks for reading!