Traveling With Kids: Making Cultural Activities More Exciting For Kids
How We Managed To Make Kyoto Fun For The Whole Family
Visiting ancient sites can induce kid boredom almost instantaneously. But even though a culture trip can be painful at times, it is still very much worth it!
When traveling with kids, boredom is real. And it can be a real pain for parents too.
I remember one particular summer morning, growing up in the countryside of Pennsylvania. My mother used to make the most delicious strawberry jam that I can still taste if I close my eyes. One morning she decided we would go strawberry picking. But, to me, strawberry picking was the hottest and most boring part of the whole summer—and strawberry jam making.
But she insisted, so there we were driving to the strawberry patch in my mother’s new Pontiac, one with pristine white leather seats. Those seats were both a source of total pride for my parents and also very hot and sticky for a child.
About halfway thru the buggy, the dirty process of picking berries, bored as I was, my mother allowed me to go sit in the car. To pass the time, she gave me an ink pen and a notebook.
I probably don’t have to go into too many details about the outcome… She took too long, my six-year-old-self got bored and those white leather seats… Well, they didn’t make it.
Now, a mother of three, who strongly believes that children benefit from a bit of culture now and then, I get flashbacks of this incident every time I plan a cultural trip with the kids.
So when the time came for us to head down to the Ancient City of Kyoto—with all three little ones and Oma and Opa in tow—I had to be ready with Plan B, C and Z. I needed to keep all seven of us (aged from six to eighty years old) satisfied. The tricky bit with culture and kids is to sneak in the fun at the right moments, in the right ways.
Here’s what I did to make sure the kids enjoyed their “culture trip” and what I recommend you do the next time you want to keep their interest longer than the typical ten seconds.
1. Keep your plan structured—possibly with a theme
Kyoto is big. Really big. There are over 1,600 temples and 400 shrines, mixed with a ton of other attractions and sites, which are spread over a space of +800 kilometers. You need to break it down.
Due to the sheer size of the city and the scope of the sites, I thought that having a theme for our trip would help to put it all into context. Our recent trip centered around the koyo (autumnal colored foliage) and sites well known for the best colors.
A theme has the added advantage of making it exciting when traveling with kids. While the adults were taking in the scenery, I kept the children busy with games and creativity around the leaves. We collected leaves. We sketched them on paper. We took loads of pictures and videos of them. When it really got boring, we also made piles and ran thru them.
Once you have chosen your sightseeing itinerary, hire a guide to perfect your plan, add the local flare, and navigate the city. Simplification is priceless.
2. Always plan downtime
When I am sightseeing and exploring with the children, I find that planned downtime is just as important as the sites we see.
Kids get ratty when they are constantly on the go. It is boring to drive places, get in and out of the car, and to walk around old buildings. I carve out essential time for them to sleep, eat, and process in their own way.
To do that, I look for accommodations that offer an alternative to sightseeing. Whether that is an onsen, a game room, or a library, the children look forward to downtime as much as our outings.
In Kyoto, we chose a hotel with an indoor swimming pool and a wonderful big, old chessboard in the lounge. Our late afternoons were spent splashing around at the pool, followed by tea or coffee in the lounge and a family game of chess. It was the perfect balance to full-on cultural mornings and gave us all time to unwind and recharge.
3. Know when to stop
I am a big believer in saying enough is enough. Even if I am keen to see it and do it all, I set clear limits on sightseeing.
We never left the hotel before 10 o’clock in the morning and we were always back by 4 o’clock in the afternoon, giving us the chance for much-needed downtime.
We only saw three sites each day. While this is naught in comparison to all there is to see and do there, I stick to quality over quantity. Even adults tend to get a bit grouchy when too much time is spent ferrying around.
Those three sites always included a place that was especially for the children. There are so many sites that kids love in Kyoto, it is easy to add one into the mix each day. Our private guide was handy to ensure that our plan was doable and practical.
Our choices for combining traveling with kids and the gorgeous autumnal colors were:
- Eikando Temple: the picturesque landscape lends itself to some serious picture taking. From the bridge, with all of the gorgeous reflections, we all attempted to win at taking the best panorama shot. When you are thru, you can also enjoy a walk on the Philosophers Path, just a short jaunt away.
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- Gion: Kyoto’s Geisha district is the perfect setting for lunch and shopping. The children can stretch their legs and pop in and out of shops. As an added bonus, the idea of spotting a Geisha is wildly exciting, to big and small alike!
- Tofukuji Temple: this temple is not only considered to be one of Kyoto’s top sites for koyo, with its long bridge thru the trees, but it is also where children get to see the oldest toilets used by monks!
- Jojakkoji Temple: probably my favorite on this trip, the combination of bamboo, bright green moss, and over 200 bright red maple trees, is simply stunning.
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- Gioji Temple: known as the greenest temple in Kyoto, we spotted loads of different types of moss
- Sagatenryuji Susukinobabacho: there are lovely cafes, street food vendors, and shops around the Arashiyama Station. While the adults had coffee, the children happily poked around, looking at souvenirs. It is easy to find a quick bite or something to something for your sweet tooth
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A clear agenda, laced with a bit of fun and a bit of rest ensures traveling with kids in Kyoto centers around loads of red leaves and little complaining!
Tips for visiting Kyoto
Transportation: We used MK Kyoto. They have wonderful, English-speaking guides who expertly and sweetly buzz you around, giving you just the right amount of information and inside scoop to make it interesting.
If you want the ease of organized transportation, you can also organize a “driver” as opposed to a “guide.” In my experience, the drivers are also very knowledgeable, could answer our questions and give reasonable tips and tricks in English–and they are a bit less expensive!
Accommodation: We stayed at Four Seasons, which has a lovely indoor swimming pool and plans activities for the children. We experienced a scavenger hunt, an evening maiko dance, and Monaka (thin wafer cookies with a filling) decorating.
This article was originally published in 2018 and edited with the latest information on Oct. 26, 2020.