There are so many things to see in and around Kyoto that one trip does not do it justice. If you have ticked off the usual tourist sites, here are 5 great offbeat options for the whole family to enjoy!
Type of Trip: Amusement Park. The latest Legoland franchise opened its doors in Japan on 1 April this year. Everything was brand new!! It was a great time for us to go, as the boys were transitioning from Duplo to Lego, so they were really fascinated and excited. For us adults, who grew up playing Lego, it brought out the little kids in us and even we couldn’t hide our own excitement!!
There were 7 “lands” to explore: I loved the Splash Battle ride at Pirate Shores where we used water cannons in our boat to attack other boats and passerbys getting everyone nice and wet! Jayden was excited about the Submarine Adventures in the Egyptian Adventure where we boarded “submarines” and explored all the sea creatures (real and Lego ones) at bottom of the sea. Meanwhile, Joshua rode on his first roller coaster, the Dragon, in the Knight’s Kingdom – and proudly exclaimed that it was not scary at all!
Of all the lands, I think we loved Lego City the most: The boys had an amusing time at the Junior Driving School earning their own driver’s licence, and laughed their way through the 4D animation show (even though it was all in Japanese!)! The Rescue Academy was a fun family challenge – we, as a family, had to operate a fire engine to move towards a “burning” building to put out the fire with water hoses! Racing against other families, it certainly brought out the competitiveness in all of us!
What truly was nostalgic for Jeff was the famed Miniland – 10 Japanese cities reconstructed using over 10.5 million Lego pieces! The attention to detail was truly remarkable! We ended our day touring the Lego factory, learning about how Lego pieces are manufactured; and bringing home a few new Lego sets.
All in all, a wonderful day out! This Legoland is expanding and is looking to open an aquatic park and a Legoland Hotel in 2018 – so that means, we will be back!
- Go on a weekday (non-public holidays) to avoid crowds and long waiting queues!
- We received a tip that the food was so-so inside Legoland. So, we stopped at one of the highway pit stops to have lunch. We were pleasantly surprised by how awesome these pit-stops were. There were restaurants, food courts, fast food outlets, souvenir shops. The toilets were fancy, large and super clean. They even had a section just for kids, including little cubicles that were oh so cute.
- Another option is to grab a bite along the restaurant strip just before the Legoland entrance – there are plenty of options to choose from.
Where: Legoland Japan is actually located on the tiny Kinjofuto island, south-west of Nagoya. As the distance between Nagoya and Kyoto is not too far, Legoland can be done as a day trip out of Kyoto.
How to get there: From Nagoya – The easiest is of course from Nagoya itself. From Nagoya Station, it is only around 35 mins train ride on the Aonami Line to the Kinjofuto Station.
From Kyoto: 126km from Kyoto, Legoland is around a 2 – 2.5hrs drive depending on traffic. We left after breakfast, and arrived at Legoland around noon after having eaten lunch at the Highway pit stop. That meant we had a full 6 hours at the park which was just enough time! For a public transport option, the fastest is to take the Shinkansen from Kyoto station to Nagoya Station (around 36 mins) and then take the Aonami line to the Kinjofuto Station (total with walking time around 1.5 hours).
- Himeiji Castle & Kobe
Type of Trip: History, Culture & Cuisine. One of the most beautiful castles in Japan, Himeji is understandably also the most visited castle in the country. After 5 years of extensive restoration finishing in May 2015, Himeji Castle has returned, with its brilliant white exterior, as the famed “White Herron Castle”.
Upon arrival at the ticketing office, we were extremely lucky that a free English-speaking tour was about to begin. Having an experienced guide who could explain the history, secrets and intricacies of the Castle made all the difference. It brought the castle to life and gave us wonderful historical insights into the significance of the Castle and the history ever since. Our guide was especially attentive to the boys, and showed them secret passageways and corners where Ninjas could hide, and defensive loopholes where they could shoot arrows or throw rocks to the enemy below. They were raptured by the intriguing stories and legends.
The most surprising aspect of the Castle was that it contained advanced defensive systems from the feudal periods, and served as a warehouse for weapons and other items rather than being a residence for the ruler. With the guide, we spent over 2 hours admiring the ingenuity and detailed workmanship of the Japanese 400 years ago.
Our combined ticket also gained us entry in the nearby Kokoen Gardens, which comprised of 9 different Japanese styled gardens with the magnificent view of the Himeji Castle as a backdrop. It was a serene break from all the tourists at the Castle.
On the way back to Kyoto, we decided to stop by Kobe for a quick downtown tour and dinner. What a brilliant idea that was, as we feasted on special Mita wagyu beef cooked in Sukiyaki style at Kobe Watahan. Mita beef is from Tajima cows raised around Sanda City north of Kobe. The thinly sliced marbled beef melts in the mouth and is perfected by the refreshing grated yam dip. Perfection!
- Look out for a signboard near the Ticket Office of the Castle, saying “Free English-speaking guided tour Available”. This definitely enhanced our experience and knowledge of the Castle!
- The Himeji City Zoo is located just next door to the Castle. It’s tiny and can be visited within 30mins to 1 hour. It’s a good balance for the kids from Japanese history to animals!
- Kobe Watahan only has 28 seats so book ahead (they have staff that speak basic English), and order the larger set with 6 slices of beef. You will not regret it.
Where: In the city of Himeji, 128km west of Kyoto, past Kobe.
How to get there: The drive from Kyoto to Himeji Castle is around 2 – 2.5 hours depending on traffic. If taking public transport, from Kyoto Station, there is a Shinkansen to Himeji Station which takes around 1 hour. From Himeji Station, it is 2 km to the Castle. You can opt for a leisurely stroll or catch the local bus to the Castle.
- Kibune & Kurama
Type of Trip: Temples, Scenery & Hiking. One who has visited Japanese cedar forests know that being amongst these giant trees has a calming spiritual effect on the soul, and this day trip is perfect for that.
The Kibune village is tiny yet vibrant with its only road lined with local traditional inns on one side, and their restaurants serving meals on wooden platforms over the Kibune-gawa river on the other side. Having walked all the way up the mountain road from the Kibuneguchi Station, we were famished and keen to experience dining on the decks. What a treat it was! It truly was dining with all senses. As we enjoyed our vegetarian lunch bento set, we could hear the sound of the gushing water, smell the freshness of the mountain air and experience the unique tranquility around us.
After lunch, we visited the various sites of the Kifune Shrine, dedicated to the God of water. Mid-way up the village is a set of red lantern lined steps up to the main Kifune Shinto Shrine. We saw many Japanese people lining up to buy what appeared to be blank pieces of paper, but once placed onto the mountain water, their fortune in words started to appear.
Instead for us, the boys filled up their water bottles with the fresh mountain water in preparation for our 3.5km hike across to Kurama. At the bottom of the village, there is a red bridge that crosses to the other side of the river and a small hut with a lady collecting 200 yen per person for the climbing fee. That is the start of our hike.
The first part up to the small shrine was quite tough, with a few hundred meters of uphill climb, which was quite steep for our 3 year-old’s little legs. My poor husband had to climb up with both Jayden and our umbrella pram on his shoulders! My mom did amazingly well and made it to the top slowly and steadily!
From then on, the hike was much easier to manage with gradual descends and ascends. We took rest breaks, pausing near the famed cedar tree roots and mini Shinto shrines along the way.
By the time we arrived at the Kurama Temple, the inner temple grounds were closed. Nothing to despair though, the views from the Temple at the top were well worth the hike. As we descended down to the Kurama Station, we were treated with elaborate shrines, large ancient cedar trees and serene forest scenery! We were glad that even with tired legs (and shoulders), we made finally it!!
- Expect to pay for the privilege of dining on the river platforms. The menus are pricey, but on public holidays and weekends, they were still full. We ended up settling for a reasonable basic lunch set at Kifune Ugenta.
- Start the hike to Kurama before 3.30pm. As it can take 2 to 3 hrs, it apparently gets quite dark in the forest past 5pm.
- If you are tired, and don’t want to walk all the way down. The funicular from the Kurama Temple down the hill closes at 4.30pm.
- Reward yourself with some well deserved ice cream from the Seventeen Ice vending machine at the Kurama Train Station. It had never tasted so good!
Where: 16 km North of Kyoto
How to get there: From Kyoto Station, take Bus 17 (Shiokoji Takakura Bus Stop) just outside Kyoto station to Demachiyanagi Station, cross the road and take the Eizan Line to the Kibuneguchi Station (total around 1 hr).
From the Kibuneguchi Station, it is 1.6km to the start of the Kibune village. There is an infrequent bus service that goes up the hill to the last stop, the Kifune Bus Stop. From there, the Kibune Shrine Okumiya at the end of the village is another 1.2km.
- Sagano Romantic Train & Hozu-gawa River Boat Ride
Type of Trip: Scenery & Outdoors. The Sagano Romantic Train is a train ride along the Katsura River with the mountain ravine on both sides where we enjoyed unparalleled natural beauty of the scenery around us. The landscape was simply breathtaking, and even if it was only a 25 mins ride, it was well worth all the fuss and time in getting there. We had just missed the Cherry Blossom season, but surprisingly, the varying shades of green up in the mountains were so soothing and calming to the eyes and soul.
Next time we visit, we plan to take the Sagano Romantic Train upstream to Kameoka, and then take the Hozu-gawa River Boat down the river for 2 hours back to Arashiyama. The boats are not motored and rely on a few boatmen steering down the waters and rapids with traditional bamboo poles. The 16km long ride passes through some of the most amazing natural scenery in Kyoto especially during the Spring Sakura season or the autumnal changing of leaves season.
- Make sure your book and purchase your train tickets in advance; best at the JR ticketing offices, the largest one in Kyoto Station
- Book seats on the “river side” of the train for better views
- Don’t leave for Kyoto just yet, after the train (and boat) ride spend the remaining part of the day exploring Arashiyama (see my earlier article “Beloved Kyoto“)
Where: West of Arashiyama, along the Katsura River; 20km west of Kyoto
How to get there: Sagano Romantic Train downstream: JR Kyoto Station to JR Umahori Station, then a 10 mins walk to the Kameoka Torokko Station to board the Sagano Romantic Train back to Arashiyama.
Sagano Romantic Train upstream: JR Kyoto Station to JR Saga-Arashiyama Station, transit next door at the Saga Torokko Station for the Sagano Romantic Train. Alternatively, when arriving at the JR Saga-Arashiyama Station, you can opt to walk to the Arashiyama Torokko Station via the famous Bamboo Forest (around 1.5km walk), and take the Sagano Romantic Train from there. At the end of the line at Kameoka Torokko Station, you can board the Sagano Romantic Train or the normal JR train for the return journey back to Arashiyama or alternatively, take the Hozu-gawa River Boat downstream.
Type of Trip: Culture, Scenery & Outdoors. Wazuka is a tiny village which was selected for planting and production of Japanese Green tea from as early as the Kamakura period from 1192. We read that it was not only the oldest tea plantations in Japan, but the tea from this area is the best in Japan.
As we visited Wazuka on a whim, it was not the right day of the week to participate in a Japanese Tea tour or the farm tour at Obubu Tea Farm. We nevertheless grabbed a local map from the newly opened Tourist Information Centre, and drove around to admire the carefully and beautifully pruned plantations all over the mountain side.
We went in search of the “8 trunk” Cedar tree which was said to be over 1300 years old – there are no other Cedar trees in the area, and it remains a mystery as to how this old lone tree came to be planted there. Next, we hiked into the tea mountains in the Harayama district to find the unique tea fields planted in a amphitheater circular style. It was actually quite remote and somewhat difficult to find, but the kind local pickers pointed us to the right direction in the end! It was astonishing and very much like an art piece!
One cannot visit Green Tea country without trying some authentic green tea ice-cream! Before we returned to Kyoto, we stopped by Nakaoen for a tea break which conveniently had a shop next store for some tea shopping. Our cone made from freshly blended green tea matcha mixed with the soft serve was one of the best we’ve ever had!
- For a complete green tea experience, stop by the township of Uji on the way back to Kyoto. Uji, being only 25 km away from Wazuka, is the center of green tea production and there is a quaint little street with the local producers selling their green tea products and tea accessories.
- There is not a lot of restaurant options in Wazuka especially for lunch, but we found a lovely family-run diner just off Wazuka’s main traffic lights intersection, on the opposite side of the large Lawson convenience store. When we visited, the old lady who seemed to run the place all by herself, whipped up all sorts of yummy home-made meals for us (no English spoken but the menus had photos).
Where: 40km south west of Kyoto
How to get there: There is no public transport to Wazuka, so the only way to get there and to get around and into the tea fields is to drive (around 1.5 hrs from Kyoto). As for Uji, you can take the JR Nara Line to Uji Station which is only an 18 mins ride.