KYOTO, Japan * Rocks to the left of us, rocks to the right. With
the Hozu River rushing in between, our oarsman swung the boat hard,
threading the boulders as water splashed overboard and on to my 10-
year-old daughter's lap.
You never know how kids will react to new experiences, but not to
worry. "Daddy," my daughter said, beaming as we headed for more
rapids, "this must be the best summer ever!"
Any parent who has charted a family vacation hopes for that kind
of reaction. But when my wife and I made plans to take our son and
daughter to Kyoto, I had a few doubts. Kyoto is one of the
highlights of any trip to Japan, an ancient and fascinating city,
packed with temples and shrines, a place to savor refined culture.
But can it be kid- and family-friendly? Most definitely,
especially if you take advantage of the variety Kyoto has to offer,
hop on the city's easy-to-use bus system, and keep your eyes open
for some of its surprising travel bargains. With that in mind,
here's a checklist for enjoying Japan's ancient capital.
TOUR OF TASTES
You could spend months visiting temples and shrines in Kyoto. But
to kids, they can start to blur. So put some space in between them.
Kyoto is best explored on foot, leaving lots of opportunities for
stopping off at interesting destinations along the way to antiquity.
One of our favorite stops was the Nishiki-koji market, a short
bus ride from downtown, where Kyotoites stocks their refrigerators
and kitchen cupboards. Nishiki is a long, narrow street, covered by
an arcade and lined with shops selling all sorts of snackable
delicacies, like just-baked rice crackers, sashimi on skewers, and
croquettes filled with chocolate, as well as wares like chopsticks
and gourmet cutlery. It's as interesting to browse here as to eat,
and many places give out samples of their edible wares.
MEET A SAMURAI
Visit the Toei Uzumasa Eigamura (movie village) and you may well
see crews filming a samurai flick or television drama. But even if
the cameras aren't rolling, the "village" designed to look like the
Japan of yore is fun to wander, offering the chance to meet actors
in period costume who are happy to pose for photos. There's also a
theater on site, where live-action ninja shows are staged.
RIDE THE RAPIDS
We built a day around the 10-mile ride down the Hozu, starting
with a short train ride just outside the city and ending in the
lovely neighborhood of Arashiyama. Guides pole fiberglass boats
seating about 20 people through a deep gorge, where my 8-year-old
son spotted turtles, snakes, deer and numerous water birds. Ask your
hotel or at the excellent tourist information office inside Kyoto
station (tell them you want to go on the Hozu-gawa Kudari) to help
you call ahead for a reservation, which is recommended but not
required. Tickets cost 3,900 yen ($42) for adults and 2,500 yen
($27) for children older than 3 (credit cards not accepted).
SOAK UP CULTURE
Bathing is an almost religious ritual in Japan and can be the
centerpiece of a memorable vacation experience. Kyoto is not known
for the hot springs that dot much of Japan, but it has a few. We
stopped at Sagano Onsen Tenzan no Yu, a hot spring spa minutes from
Arashiyama on a charming one-car train. A cheaper and more plentiful
destination is one of the city's "super sentos," public baths with
multiple tubs. The tourist office can provide a sheet in English
listing these. In either, you wash thoroughly at bathing stations
before entering multiple soaking pools, both indoors and out.
MAKE A PILGRIMAGE
When you're ready to visit temples and shrines, the challenge is
choosing which ones. Kiyomizu temple should be on any itinerary.
Yes, it's choked with tourists, but worth the trip. The walk uphill
to the temple is lined with shops, many giving out samples of the
local sweet called "nama yatsuhashi," delicious pockets of glutinous
rice flour, filled with red bean paste or fruit preserves, dusted
with sugar or cinnamon. …