Kyoto with Kids

Be warned:- Fairly long post but too lazy to break the places all down by days zzz ... 

We usually do not take long breaks in June for the following reasons:-
- too much WORK to clear still
- kids did badly in mid-year exams and have to catch up
- No mood to go owing to 1st two reasons. 

However, an excited notification by a friend about $300 RETURN TICKETS ON JETSTAR TO KANSAI AIPORT, OSAKA changed our routine for travel. $300 was even cheaper than going to Bali so how could we not go?? So go we did with the excited friend's family, even though I made a trip to Kyoto and Osaka with friends, same time, the previous year. Just rehash the itinerary, so we thought. Okay, minus the hours hunting down some remote Onsens, Geisha-hunting and gawkage at Den Den Town this time. Even then, the kids proved to be challenging in their total lack of appreciation for culture and heritage and the incessant whining to go back to hotel for wifi and Minecraft .. grr ..

Oh in case anyone is interested, this was our itinerary for Kyoto and Osaka. 

So to cut to the chase, here's how the critters ranked the places of interest in Kyoto:-

1. Nara Deer Park

I had set expectations about this place already as the kids were quite taken by my previous trip's photos of the deer. They seemed so Bambi-like in photos. In truth, the deer are feral mercenaries, resorting to gangster tactics just to get at the deer senbei (biscuits). Aside from deer, the critters complained endlessly about trooping through miles of park land and looking at temple structures. So the excursion in Nara was a hasty one. Find deer, feed deer, grab supplies at JR Nara station supermarket and go back to hotel.

Don't be fooled by Bambi who is actually a gangster! 

For some transport savings, the suggestion would be to:-
- Buy a JR West 1 Day Pass allowing unlimited travel within 1 day. 
- Adults 2000 Yen and Kids 1000 Yen which will be usable for 10 lines*.
- If you cover more than 1 place in a day, this pass will already be worth it. So our route was Kansai Airport -- Kyoto Station -- Nara -- Kyoto Station so that will be considerable savings already as just going from Kyoto to Nara and back will be 1,380 Yen. Another alternative would be to stay in Nara for a night which would allow you to explore more of Nara at a leisurely pace.
*Please note that these were rates in 2013.

Notes about getting around with luggage:-
We were worried about dragging big bags on crowded trains to get to Nara and back so we deposited our luggage at the Carry On Service in the basement of Kyoto Station and had them send the bags to our hotel. Think it was something like 350 Yen or 400 Yen per bag. If you want to go to Nara directly from Kansai Airport, the JR Nara station also has large sized lockers (same floor as the supermarket) that you should be able to squeeze your luggage into. 

Other Notes:-
Onigiri-Love!
We are Singaporeans so SUPERMARKETS are a big thing with us. The JR Nara Station has a very decent supermarket with very decent prices so it was the first and last place we visited while we were there. The critters discovered the absolute oishi-ness of Onigiri there and hankered for them throughout the trip. Crispy seaweed wrapped round compact Japanese rice with delicious morsels of grilled salmon, tuna mayo or other exotic stuff like wagyu beef, BBQ chicken etc, onigiri is a great grab-and-go food. Oh for a quick tip on how to unwrap onigiri from a Japanese supermarket, please see this ;).

CRITTER RATING: 3.5 / 5 STARS

2. Kiyomizudera

As a UNESCO World Heritage site, this "Pure Water Temple" is something not to be missed should you be in Kyoto. The temple was originally built without the use of a single nail and its structure overlooking a hill is something to behold. While we did not go into the main hall, we did spend some time traipsing about the surroundings and of course, we had to queue up to get a sip of the pure water from the waterfall. The 3 streams of water are supposed to have different benefits such as longevity, success in school and a fortunate love life. Unfortunately, we did not know this at the time the critters were happily gulping down water from the first stream so we can only pray that this would be the "success in school" one .... 

Part of the fun of visiting Kiyomizudera is the old cobblestone path leading there, lined with traditional houses, selling all manner of souvenirs and delectable edibles. On our way down, although besieged by tonnes of school children on all sides, we managed to get our hands on super yummy Beard Papa-like cream puffs. They could be had with green tea ice cream, other ice cream flavours or the vanilla custard. Needless to say, all were good! 

Notes:-
Best to set off as early as possible for this place to try to avoid the madness of the crowds! We went in June so it got really hot even around 10am and the hike up the hill to the temple will take around 15 to 20 minutes so best to get there when you have more energy in the morning. 

CRITTER RATING: 3.5/ 5 STARS

3. Fushimi Inari Shrine 

I had given fair warning to the 4 critters and 3 other adults that there would be 10,000 Torii gates at this place and we would be walking UPHILL for half of the way. So with that in mind, we set out to conquer the summit. From Fushimi Inari train station exit, take a left and you will soon see the first of many Torii gates. For the full story about this place, do check out this link which will tell you what the Torii gates and the stone foxes here symbolise. 

Scenes from 'Memoirs of a Geisha" shot here

The total hike up and back down spans some 4 km and I am proud to say that we completed the course in about 1.5 hours, including vending machine pitstops and even an ice cream break! Do note that the higher you go, the more expensive the vending machine drinks become so better pack water unless you prefer to spend Yen rather than be weighed down. It was a great feat for the critters who stopped here and there to check out the occasional creepy crawlies from earthworms to caterpillars and spiders. The higher we went, the quieter the trail and after a point, the only noise came from the chatter of our critters. When I visited last year in the evening, it was even more surreal as my path was crossed by numerous cats! It was so akin to a scene out of Miyazaki's 'Spirited Away' that I expected a Fox Spirit to step out of a shrine to give me a message of sorts. 

Notes:-
No need to exhaust all the memory in your phone by snapping madly the first few metres you climb. There are many, many, many more Torii gates to take on the way down too!! 

Lunch can be had at any of the little restaurants along the way. The Inari (beancurd skin with rice) is exceptionally good here (synonymous with place name) so be sure to ingest some! There's also a little tofu ice cream store near the station which is a definite place to stop at! 

CRITTER RATING: 4.5/ 5 STARS

4. Nishiki Market

So cute! Must buy!
Okay, the critters did not seem to take to this place as much as the adults did. I guess there was only so much gawking at foodstuffs kids could do. For us aunties, the sampling of local delights from the shops along the covered walkway, was definitely appealing. It was also a great place to pick up many
epicurian edibles as souvenirs for the folks back home.

CRITTER RATING: 3/ 5 STARS

5. Arashiyama

Kyoto in June was already super hot! So the bamboo grove of Arashiyama proved a welcome respite from the heat. It was also packed with visitors so anyone hoping to attain some inner peace might be better off in a cafe with green tea latte. Crowds aside, the critters enjoyed the hike up the hills which overlooked the scenic river. While there were boat rides with oarsmen and boats you could row yourself, the blazing summer sun proved too much of a challenge so we retired to a pleasant cafe for green tea roll, iced yuzu drinks and waffles. That alone put everyone in much higher spirits.

the hordes were behind me ...
Green season 



6. Iga Ninja Museum

It took us freaking 3 hours or so to get there and another 3 hours to get back!!! But lest you be put off by this scary statement, I must add that we really liked the Iga Ninja Museum ;). It was one of the more authentic experiences and okay, we are also ninja fans, judging by our own museum of Ninjago Lego sets that we own. We also think that any movie with ninjas in them are pretty cool (the latest being The Wolverine). So, how to get there? Follow instructions outlined here

Made a beeline for Tachibana!
The critters (and their fathers) were weak and sullen by the time we got out of the Iga Ueno Shi station. Please note that this is a ninja town and ninjas are traditionally vegetarian, svelt and light. So, there are VERY FEW restaurants to be found around the immediate station area! Walking left from the station exit, we finally chanced upon 2 little cafes. Without debate, we entered the first one called Tachibana and were seated at the last 2 tables in the tiny place by a very exuberant kawaii waitress. Their specialties were Hamburger Steaks, Omu Rice and pasta and we could not be happier!

With our Health Points recharged, we were all ready to encounter the famed Iga Ninja, reputed to be the strongest clan in the country, after the Koga. The Iga Ninja Museum consisted of a performance, the ninja house and the ninja museum. Entrance fees were 700Yen for adults and 300Yen for the kids but to watch the performance, it was 200Yen more per person. Since you have come all the way, best to fork out the extra 200Yen and be entertained by the ninja action.

We were just in time for the performance and while conducted in Japanese, the prowess of the ninja guy hurling his shuriken (throwing stars) and other sharp objects was easily appreciated by all. Ninja guy also demo-ed his sword skills by chopping blocks in mid-air into small pieces. Ninja babe (yes, there is one!) also showed how to use the sword as a small step by jamming it into the ground and using the hand-guard to give the lift to scale a wall. Light-hearted elements were provided by ninja babe vanquishing fellow ninja and giving the signature kawaii victory sign.


The Art of Ninja-Do
Go, Ninja babe!


By parting with more Yen (think another 200 more if memory serves me right), the critters were given 5 shuriken to throw. The critters soon found out that it was no mean feat
as they hurled with all their might and might have hit the target twice out of the five times. So do not belittle ninja skills!

Do not fall through trapdoor ...
Next up was the Ninja house which was rigged with all sorts of hidden compartments from revolving screens to trapdoors and hidden attic-like rooms for spying on attacking foes. We then proceeded to the museum which had a comprehensive collection of weaponry and exhibits on ninja jobs and disguises. Ninja could "walk" on water by using mud shoes which were made of straw and had a large surface area. They do not actually disappear in a "poof" of smoke but do use smokescreen tactics and hey, your average candy seller or travelling monk could be a ninja on an assassination mission!

So it was great ninja strategy to place a souvenir corner at the museum exit and in case one had more cash in hand, to have another souvenir shop at the entrance/exit of the park itself so that we could pick up sword-shaped umbrellas to defend ourselves.

Notes:-
Hypnotic eyes ....
In our excitement in the Ninja abode, we of course forgot to check what time the local train ran from Iga Ueno-shi to Iga Ueno station so it was, that we had to spend an hour sitting at the train tracks waiting to connect. People, it is imperative that you check the schedule of this train if you do not wish to whittle time away snapping infinte photos of the ninja trains parked at the station or spending your remaining Yen in the vending machines at the platform. You have been warned! Oh and have fun!

CRITTER RATING: 4.5/ 5 STARS

7. Shimogamo Stepping Stones

Sometimes, the simplest things in life provide the most joy. The critters were so happy stepping across these tortoise / turtle-shaped stones at the fork of the Kamo River (鴨川) that they deemed it one of the best attractions in Kyoto! So much for World Heritage sites and sacred grounds. After that, with the energy and endless imagination of youth, they chased each other for the next 2km along the banks of the river, playing commandoes and what-nots as their parents trailed behind ...

Notes:- 
The station is Demachi-Yanagi. Upon exit, just walk towards the river and lo and behold, the stone turtles await!

CRITTER RATING: 4.5/ 5 STARS

Misshapened but still a star ;) Thank you for reading!