The first time I fell in love with a city was the second time I visited Kyoto.

Early in my first trip to Japan, I rushed to see Kyoto and was disappointed to find that, emerging from the ugly train station, there were no geisha to greet me, and the department stores and bus fumes were an awful lot like the rest of urban Japan, a long way from the place I had read about but right in my face. I got in line with 8000 of my closest friends at a few “name” temples, ate lunch at a Mos Burger hamburger shop and went home earlier than I planned.

It was only on my second trip, after reading Diane Durnston's wonderful book about Kyoto's craftspeople, that I bypassed the temples I had heard about, and wandered the little alleys behind the tour buses, poking my head into tiny gardens populated by tiny people quietly living their lives amidst 1200 years of culture carefully tucked away behind Orange Plussy vending machines and Yen Shop billboards. I later went back for the big name Vegas-style temples (very early on weekday mornings, before the tour groups) and learned my way around the bus system. Kyoto was shy, and made me work for its charms, and as in most cases like that, I fell hopelessly in love.

Kyoto is not necessarily the best city to explore with children; in fact, the long walks and stair climbing that it requires, along with the patience it takes to appreciate its subtle beauty, kind of argue against the inherent anarchy of young kids. That said, if you are willing to scale back your plans and put in a little effort, Kyoto and your children can get along just fine.

What we'll do here is suggest a few highlights, some well-known, some less so, that will give you and your kids a glimpse of this city. If you are short on time and want to make sure you see the major sites quickly, I recommend the Lonely Planet guidebooks. However, if you are willing to skip a few big names but still try for the heart of the place with us, please read on.

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