Places to travel – Kyoto (Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi-inari, Tofuku-ji, Nara, Nanzen-ji)

This is the last post in my short blog series on our week long holiday in Kyoto last September. It really is a beautiful place and well worth a visit if you’re able. In the first post I covered the practicalities of visiting Kyoto, and the next post outlined the things we saw and did on our first three days there. Now for the final three days!

Day 4

On this day we wanted to hit some of the main tourist attractions in Kyoto so we started with Kiyomizu-dera. We took the 207 bus from Omiya to the bottom of the hill up to the temple (I think this was the Kiyomizu-michi stop) and then followed the crowds up the hill to the temple. It’s actually quite a climb, especially when you are carrying children! We had left the stroller at home for ease, but there is a disabled route within the temple grounds so you could bring yours.

This was possibly the busiest place that we visited in Kyoto, even though the weather was not good that day. We found the crowds a bit much, although the bad weather did mean that our children got free run of the main verandah of the temple for a bit while it was raining!

Verandah at Kiyomizu-dera Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

The temple comprises a few outer buildings, the main temple, the view of the temple from the opposite path, and a few extra attractions such as a waterfall with healing water. The main view of the temple is quite nice (apparently it’s pretty spectacular in spring and autumn – imagine the trees below covered in blossom or bright red leaves) but otherwise we found the temple too busy and didn’t bother exploring much of it.

Main view of Kiyomizu-dera Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

We then walked back down the hill and caught the bus back to Gion where we had lunch (in an Indian restaurant on Shijo Dori) and had a little wander down nearby Hanamikoji Dori, a beautifully restored traditional Japanese street.

Next we took the metro south from Gion-Shijo to Fushimi-Inari and followed the signs from the station to Fushimi Inari-taisha. This is one of the most distinctive attractions in Kyoto with its thousands of orange prayer gates.

Orange prayer gates at Fushimi Inari-taisha Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

Again it was pretty busy despite the terrible weather (it rained the whole time we were there!) but we felt that this was a bit more unique than Kioymizu-dera and enjoyed it a bit more. I would say that this is a definite must-see in Kyoto. And the further you go along the path of prayer gates, the quieter it gets. We got some cute photos of my daughter running along the path :)

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N.B. Fushimi-Inari is not at all stroller friendly! There are lots of steps on the path, so I would suggest you leave the stroller at home when you go here.

After spending about an hour at Fushimi-Inari, we went back to the metro and headed a couple of stops north to Tofukuji where we walked to the temple of the same name. It was a little hard to find the temple so our offline maps app was useful here. We were glad we made the effort though because it was lovely and quiet after the previous two places we visited! We started off in the gardens but in the end we didn’t make it into the temple itself because it was closing time. The gardens were so lovely though, and because it was quiet our children could run about freely and enjoy the space.

Gardens at Tofuku-ji Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

Temple view at Tofuku-ji Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

Day 5

On this day we took a day trip to nearby Nara. After some research we found that the quickest way to get there was to take the Kintetsu Ltd. Express train from Kyoto Central Station to Kintetsunara Station, which is very close to Nara-Koen park. The first temple that you come to in the park is Kofuku-ji, which we didn’t go in because there was a lot of construction going on, due to be completed in 2018. Instead we headed to nearby Isui-En gardens (again, I’d suggest you take a map to find your way round the park as it’s a little bit hard to navigate). Given the size of the gardens, we thought it cost a little more than other attractions to enter, but the gardens are absolutely beautiful (not stroller friendly though, but you can leave your stroller outside). Just look at this view!

Isui-En gardens Nara - The Little Koo Blog

For lunch, we tried to find a restaurant called Silk Road, in Yume-Kaze Plaza (near to Todai-ji), which was recommended in our guide book as a great restaurant for children, but we failed – I’m not sure if it is still open? Anyway, whilst in Yume-Kaze Plaza we chose Ten Ten Cafe instead, and we were very glad we did! It was very child friendly, with a specific area for families, high chairs and benches with toys on. The menu was small but all three main dishes that we ordered were very yummy, and they do delicious waffles too! (which of course we also had to try…)

After lunch we headed round the corner to Todai-ji, possibly the largest wooden structure in the world (which impressed my engineer husband!), which houses a very large Buddha inside. The temple is very impressive and well worth a visit, although it doesn’t take very long to go round. It has good stroller access, but (as the guard told us) you need to go into the ticket office, buy your ticket and then come out again to the disabled entrance on the side. It was quite busy but the temple is large so the amount of people wasn’t overwhelming.

Todai-ji Nara - The Little Koo Blog

Big Buddha at Todai-ji Nara - The Little Koo Blog

An imposing sight inside Todai-ji Nara - The Little Koo Blog

After visiting the temple we wandered around Nara-koen a bit more. It is a very extensive and beautiful park and you could spend a long time exploring. Deer roam freely everywhere, and there are many people selling biscuits to feed the deer. I bought some biscuits and was immediately mobbed by some deer who were loitering nearby and keeping an eye out for people with biscuits! They were a little aggressive so it wasn’t quite the beautiful experience I hoped it would be!

Feeding the deer at Nara-koen - The Little Koo Blog

But I was very pleased to get this photo of the deer (below). They were so tame and not at all bothered by all the people walking around.

Deer in Nara-koen park - The Little Koo Blog

Day 6

On our last day we had initially planned to go to Himeji to see the castle, which only takes 45 minutes from Kyoto on the bullet train. The castle is apparently the most impressive castle in Japan, but some research suggested that it would be likely that we’d have to queue for an hour to get in (as it was a Saturday and it gets very busy at weekends) and by that point we were quite tired and the thought of travelling there and queuing with our small children was too much!

So instead we stayed in Kyoto, and took the metro from Omiya to Keage. From there it was a short, stroller-friendly walk to Nanzen-ji. We enjoyed the grounds of the temple, although we didn’t go in the temple itself. We did go up the sanmon gate instead, which has nice views over the temple complex and further afield over Kyoto.

View from the Sanmon gate at Nanzen-ji Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

Nanzen-ji from the Sanmon gate Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

From there it was a short a walk to the Philosopher’s Path. This was a very quiet and pleasant stroll along by a river (but for those of you with strollers please note that there is quite a bit of gravel which was a bit hard to push the stroller through!). A nice getaway from the busy-ness of some of the tourist attractions.

Philosophers Walk Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

For lunch, we went to Omen restaurant which was near to the end of the Philosopher’s Path. This was surprisingly busy, given how quiet the area was, but once we put our name on the list we didn’t have to wait too long for a table since the restaurant is quite large. It’s a noodle restaurant and is very delicious, a little more pricey than most but worth it in my opinion.

After lunch we took a bus to the top of Kyoto Imperial Palace Park and quickly found a children’s playground within the park. This had a sandpit filled with toys to play with and kept our children occupied for quite a long time! A nice bit of respite for those of us with young children.

Playing in the sandpit at the Imperial Palace Park Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

After that, we wandered through the rest of the park (LOTS of gravel, not good with a stroller!) and then east along Marutamachi-dori to the Kyoto Handicraft Center where we purchased some souvenirs (this is not the place for tourist tat, but a lovely place to visit if you want some beautiful handmade items) and had dinner at an Italian restaurant on the same road. All in all, a nice way to end our holiday!

As you can see, we managed to fit a fair amount into our time in Kyoto, despite being limited by what we could do with our young children. And we only scratched the surface – there were many attractions we didn’t visit! We loved the city, it was so quiet and peaceful and there was so much to see. I’d totally recommend that you head over there for a visit!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

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Places to travel – Kyoto (Nijo Castle, Arishayama, Osaka)

Last week I started a short series on our week long holiday in Kyoto last September. It really is a beautiful place and well worth a visit if you’re able. In the last post I covered the practicalities of visiting Kyoto, but this week I’ll start telling you about what we actually did and saw while we were there – this is the fun part!

Our twins were less than two years old when we went to Kyoto, which made sightseeing a little difficult. For some reason they just weren’t interested in zen gardens and temples! But having said that, they did enjoy running around lots of new places, and they did allow us to drag them around quite a lot, so we did manage to see quite a few different things.

Day 1

We wanted to break ourselves in gently so on our first morning in Kyoto we wandered over to Nijo Castle, which was about a 20 minute walk from our townhouse. As a castle, I wouldn’t say it was particularly impressive, it was actually more of a place for visiting dignitaries to stay. However, it was a great introduction to traditional Japanese architecture and beautiful gardens. There were very few people there too so it was very peaceful! One of the key attractions is an area of squeaky floorboards in the main building (to prevent unwanted visitors) which we read about in a guidebook but wasn’t even mentioned in the building itself! But they were quite squeaky :)

View over Castle Nijo in Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

One point to note for other visitors with small children is that Nijo Castle isn’t very stroller friendly. There are a few steps into the buildings and around the grounds. Also, you can’t take your stroller into the main building, but there is a place to leave it.

After Nijo Castle we headed back down the quiet streets in search of somewhere for lunch. (As an aside, these streets were so lovely to walk down, you could just do that all day – traditional style shuttered houses, narrow lanes, and so quiet!) We had spotted a restaurant with some English outside(!) on our way to the castle so we headed in that direction and managed to find it again – it was called Noodles Near Nijo (cute name!) and I think it was on Kuromon Dori. We both had udon noodles in soup and they were delicious.

After a break back at the townhouse we headed to Omiya station and took the metro to Kawaramachi. We were heading to the traditional Shinbashi area so we left the station by exit 5 (which doesn’t have a lift), went over the bridge and turned down the 3rd left turning which takes you to Shinbashi Dori. This is a very beautiful area and apparently very strongly protected so the houses here cannot be updated. The peace was slightly ruined by the presence of a large Chinese tour party but otherwise it was very quiet. It’s not very big so it won’t take you long to walk around.

Shinbashi Dori Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

We then headed east to the end of Shinbashi Dori, crossed the road and kept going until we got to the entrance of the Chion-in temple complex. Unfortunately by this time of day it was shut (we got there after 5pm) so we turned right and went into Maruyama Park instead. This is a lovely park with small winding lanes in every direction. We had a wander round and then headed back to Kawaramachi in search of dinner.

Maruyama Park Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

We had heard that there were some nice but not too pricey restaurants on the 7th floor of the Takashimaya department store so we went there. We picked an Italian restaurant (I can’t remember the name) and very much enjoyed our dinner. They had high chairs which was a real bonus for us!

Day 2

We took a very old fashioned train from Shijo-Omiya to visit Arishayama, which is at the other end of the line. It’s a nice, slow ride through the neighbourhoods of Kyoto, but it doesn’t take too long (maybe half an hour). When you come out of the station you really get a sense that you’re on the edge of Kyoto! It’s very green and quiet. It also feels quite touristy, with lots of tourist shops and restaurants. But having said that, it was pretty empty when we got there, at about 10am and it had a lovely atmosphere.

We turned right out of the station and took a very short walk to Tenryu-ji. We’ve seen a lot of temples in our time so we just bought a garden ticket. The garden was very nice to walk around, with this stunning view in particular…

Tenryu-ji Gardens Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

…although the twins were more interested in playing with the gravel!

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The garden wasn’t particularly big so it didn’t take long to explore. (N.B. the garden is not very stroller friendly!) Once we were done we went out of the North gate, which just happened to coincide with the entrance to the bamboo grove. This is a pretty awesome sight and not one to miss if you can help it. Having said that, it isn’t that huge and you can walk through it in about 5 minutes (just in case your expectations were like my husband’s, who was a bit disappointed when we came to the end!).

Arishayama Bamboo Grove  Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

At the other end of the bamboo grove is the entrance to Okochi-sanso. If you like gardens or beautiful scenery, I think you will like this, it was so beautiful. It’s the house and grounds of a film actor (although you can’t go in the house) and is landscaped in a really lovely way.

House at Okochi-sanso gardens Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

It’s a bit pricey to enter (compared to most of the other attractions we visited) but you do get tea and cake included in the price! It is very hilly so if you don’t like hills or have a stroller or a wheelchair, this isn’t for you – but otherwise I’d really recommend it.

View from Okochi-sanso gardens Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

After exiting Okochi-sanso from the same place we entered it, we went back through the bamboo grove and just kept following the path (round a few bends) until we came to the main road again. Then we turned right and went back towards the station, stopping for lunch at one of the restaurants (standard Japanese food) before catching the train home.

The train to Arishayama Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

In the evening, we went back to Kawaramachi and turned north up Kiyamachi Street (the last turning on the left before the bridge, which has many restaurants on). At the end of this street, we turned right onto Sanjo Dori and our destination, Genko Sushi, was very close by on the other side of the road. We read this article which suggested it would be quite a child friendly restaurant, and it did have a children’s menu but disappointingly no high chairs. Having said that, the food was pretty good and the children were fairly well contained in our booth. And you can’t come to Japan without having some sushi!

Day 3

We headed to Osaka for a day trip on the metro which runs from Kyoto right to the centre of the city. We got on the Hankyu line at Omiya station and stayed on until the end of the line in Osaka (Umeda station). From there we took the underground to Osakako station, and then a short walk to Osaka Aquarium. We found the underground fairly easy to navigate, although as before, it’s best to plan your journey before you go so that you know when to change.

The Aquarium was really good fun and our children loved it (actually their favourite was the otters which was the first thing they saw!). My husband was most impressed by the massive main tank with whale sharks in. It’s a large aquarium, and we spent a couple of hours inside even though we rushed through the last half as the twins were getting restless. One thing to note is that the Aquarium is fairly stroller friendly (there are lifts), but we found it easiest to check in the stroller at the entrance and just wander round on foot.

Penguins at Osaka Aquarium - The Little Koo Blog

Whale sharks at Osaka Aquarium - The Little Koo Blog

For lunch, we went to the nearby Kuma Cafe (it’s on the same road as the Aquarium, not far away). We chose this place as it’s highly recommended on Tripadvisor and whilst I would question whether it really has the best food in all of Osaka, if you’re looking for some yummy comfort western food in a very friendly, relaxed environment I’d recommend it too! The brother and sister who run the cafe were really lovely and very tolerant of our young children. They recommended that we visit the animal petting zoo in the mall opposite (which also houses Legoland Discovery Center Osaka), but we had already planned to visit somewhere else so we didn’t try it. But you might want to take a look if you have young children!

Instead, we headed back into central Osaka on the metro and went to Kid’s Plaza, which we heard about here. If you’ve got fairly young children (I think it’s mainly aimed at under 10s) then it’s a great way to pass an afternoon. When we went, it was a weekday and it was pretty quiet. The middle area is a Gaudi-inspired feature that our children loved climbing and exploring.

Tree house at Kids Plaza Osaka - The Little Koo Blog

On the two floors around the outside are various educational areas such as a street of shops to play in, one area with instruments from around the world, and another hands-on science area. Even though our children were a little young to really understand the educational areas, they had a great time trying out all the different things, and the staff were very friendly and helpful too.

Playing instruments at Kids Plaza Osaka - The Little Koo Blog

Days 4-6 follow in the next post!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

Places to travel – Kyoto (Introduction)

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!

House at Okochi-sanso gardens Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

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)!

Plastic food display in Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

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.

Street drinks vending machines in Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

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!

Konruri-An Machiya Residence Inn Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

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.

Kyoto metro line map showing the different types of trains - The Little Koo Blog

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!

Rachel