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  • Peter Scott & Monica Kong


Updated: Feb 17, 2020

A land of rich history, advanced technology, eclectic popular culture and mouth-watering food...Japan has it all, but we only had ONE WEEK to try to squeeze in as much as possible. Why stay such a short time in a country we have been itching to visit for so long? We like slow travel, yes, but we also like budget travel, and well, Japan isn't exactly a cheap destination. To experience all sides of Japanese culture, we chose to focus on two contrasting cities: the urban, mega-city of Osaka and the historic, traditional city of Kyoto.

Temple in Kyoto, Japan

It didn't take long for the kids to embrace Japan's fun and quirky pop culture. Upon arrival at Kansai Airport, we were greeted by none other than Nintendo's Mario and Luigi. We then boarded our Hello Kitty train to Kyoto. Japan doesn't have to try too hard to be kid-friendly!

Nintendo photo op, Kansai Airport, Osaka, Japan

Hello Kitty train to Kyoto, Japan, from Osaka

We spent 3 nights at RESI STAY Higashiyama Sanjo. Everything in this apartment was functionally tiny. Tiny elevators, tiny appliances, tiny tub. Unless you are splurging on your accommodation, expect kitchen and bathroom space to be similar to what you would find in an RV. Makes sense that a densely populated country like Japan excels at making effective use of small space, like having a sink on the back of the toilet, for instance (see photo below). Resi Stay was clean, surprisingly well-equipped and it was in a quiet location within a 10 min walk to all the main shops and restaurants. Perfect for families.

The weather was unexpectedly warm and humid for October, and unfortunately, it rained 2 out of the 3 days we were there, so we had to alter our plans a bit and skip out on the bamboo forest. We also only had a brief outing to the Old Geisha quarter, GION, as it started pouring. Thankfully, there are plenty of covered shopping streets and markets west of the Kamo River.

Gion district, Kyoto, Japan
Gion District, before the rain started

We spent an afternoon browsing around NISHIKI MARKET, a busy, lively shopping district that has been around for over 400 years and has over 100 stalls offering all kinds of food specialties. From dozens of mochi varieties to fresh raw seafood displayed to perfection, the culinary choices are overwhelmingly exciting. It's fun to go hungry and nibble your way past the slew of crowds from one stall to the next. That's exactly what we did!

Baby octopus on a stick, above, and brown tea soft-serve ice cream below.

A visit to the SAMURAI AND NINJA MUSEUM was another fun, rainy day activity. Though it is small, it housed an impressive collection of armour and weaponry. We had an excellent english-speaking guide who enlightened us with a history lesson of the Samurai and the Shogun Era. Shooting paper darts out of blow-guns and throwing plastic ninja stars at foam targets was a highlight, especially for Owen.

Kyoto has quite a few UNESCO World Heritage sites, temples, parks, historic districts, great restaurants and shops you can only find in Japan. Deciding what to do in our short time was not easy. We searched for a few of the top sites to see, bookmarked them on a map and a route became pretty clear, with plenty to explore that didn't require an admission fee, such as the Chionin Temple below. It was interesting for the kids to notice the difference from these Buddhist temples from the ones they saw in South Korea.

Gate of Chionin Temple, Kyoto, Japan
The massive Sanmon Gate at the Chionin Temple

Chionin Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Owen, (photo below) observing and practicing the shinto water cleansing ritual. These purification fountains are at the entrance of the temples and shrines.

water cleansing ritual, Chionin Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Water cleansing ritual, Chionin temple, Kyoto, Japan

After sitting in on a Buddhist ceremony, we walked through Maruyama Park and had a quick look at the Yasaka Shrine with its vibrant, orange buildings and gateways. We then made our way down the flag-stone streets of Kyoto's old city, the HIGASHIYAMA DISTRICT, lined with traditional wood buildings. It was fun walking past tourist shops, trying free samples of green tea and Japanese sweets along the way, and occasionally snapping photos of kimono-wearing tourists.

We are big fans of Studio Ghibli movies, especially My Neighbour Totoro. There are 2 shops dedicated to all things Totoro and beyond, right in the heart of Higashiyama. If you visit, beware of CUTENESS OVERLOAD. Travelling with carry-on only luggage really helps curtail our consumer urges. There was no way that giant cuddly Totoro stuffy was going to fit in our bags, no matter how adorable it was. We left with a few small items and perhaps a few too many photos.

It was surprising how busy it was in Kyoto, even in October. The kids got a bit claustrophobic at times with the slow pace of the packed crowds. I distinctly remember at one point, holding Molly's hand but not being able to see where she was! For a more peaceful experience, it is worth exploring this district in the evening, when the quiet, empty streets really lets you step back in time and appreciate the unique architecture.

Higashiyama district with crowds during the day
Higashiyama District during the day.

Higashiyama District without crowds at night
Higashiyama District at night.

The narrow, winding streets twisted their way up the hills to the KIYOMIZUDERA TEMPLE. The long line up to the admission deterred us from going further, but we were still rewarded with a sweeping view of Kyoto and wandered around the impressive gate and other, smaller temples and pagodas that lie just outside the main temple.

Kiyomizudera temple

Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto, Japan

A lot of ground was covered in our one day of good weather as we walked 12 km in total. The kids were exhausted but they surprised us with their stamina! There is so much to see in Kyoto, and we obviously barely scratched the surface in 3 days. However, we managed to hit a few of the main highlights, just enough to get a feel for what this ancient capital is and once was.

Kid passed out on the bed, exhausted


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