Japan? With a kid? Friends told me it was too expensive (sixty-dollar watermelons!) and crowded (had I heard about the white-gloved subway stuffers?), but I knew a trip with my husband, Chris, and our five-year-old son, Cormac, would be magical. I’d taught English in Tokyo in my 20s, and had been itching to go back to Japan ever since. Except for the flights, it’s not as costly as people think, especially if you opt for cheap Airbnb accommodations or moderate Japanese inns and eat at kid-friendly ramen shops. And while Tokyo gets all the press, the place I really wanted to show my family was Kyoto: the exquisite epicentre of traditional Japanese culture. It’s home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites and more than 2,000 stunning temples and shrines.
To sell Cormac on this trip, we needed only two words: “ninja” and “samurai.” As long as any site we visited came with a story involving nunchuks or swords, he was thrilled. And on the rare occasion when he needed extra convincing, we headed to the nearest convenience store and bought him Pokémon cards. For only 120 yen (about $1.27), we were guaranteed a happy kid.
For great snacks and international ABMs (a rarity in Japan), head to the ubiquitous 7-Eleven chain. Here the ice cream is taro flavoured, and the fridges are full of sushi, noodles, bento boxes and dumplings.
Shinbashi-dori, a cherry tree-lined street in the Gion district, is the best place to look for one of the city’s famous professional entertainers.
The Kyoto International Manga Museum is a must for comic book fans.
Nishiki Market, known as Kyoto’s Kitchen.
What To Do
Ask Cormac what he remembers most about Kyoto and it’s not the 1,000-year-old temples. It’s Eigamura (Toei Kyoto Studio Park), a working film-and-TV set that doubles as a theme park. Geishas and samurais wander sets that recreate Japan’s famous Edo period (roughly 1600 to 1868), and visitors can try their hands at ninja games or take in one of the fabulously theatrical shows. They’re all done in Japanese—one of the reasons Eigamura is often left out of English travel guides—but what’s not to understand about a ninja hurling himself from a second-storey balcony, completing three somersaults in mid-air and landing on an unsuspecting villain? Half-price admission for anyone who comes dressed in a kimono!
Before you leave buy a Japan Rail Pass (japanrailpass.net) for cheap, unlimited travel around the country (you can’t purchase it once you’re there).
DID YOU KNOW…
* Kyoto wasn’t the only Japanese city to have flourishing geisha districts, but its history is the richest because it was the capital for more than 1,000 years. Aspiring geisha train for up to five years. Before WWII, there were more than 80,000 geisha in Japan. Today, there are fewer than 2,000.