cherry blossoms in kyoto
Pink cherry blossoms on Togetsukyo Bridge overlooking river.

You have to see Kyoto in a day with kids, what to do? Luckily, most of the major tourist spots in Kyoto are close to each other, and fun for kids, too. You can pack a lot of fun in one day in Kyoto and with a small budget. Visit monkeys, take a boat ride, wander in a bamboo forest and eat at riverside restaurants.  There is a lot to be done.

We had spent the previous day in Kyoto getting settled in our room and then having an amazing tour at the evening Cherry Blossom Festival in Nijo Castle. We had this one day to tour the rest of Kyoto before we headed to Tokyo. Of course, when you only spend two nights in a location, you really are only going to fit in the major tourist sites, unless you want to bypass those altogether for something off the beaten path.

Jared and I had toured Kyoto in one day in 2008, so we knew what it would be like and decided that the main sites were things the kids would be interested in. Namely, the Iwatayama Monkey Park, because both of the kids are animal lovers, but monkeys are Kai’s favorite animal.

ladies in kimono
Lots of people dress in kimono for viewing cherry blossoms.

River Stroll

Once you get to the Arashiyama area of Kyoto, you’ll be by the Hozu River. This is a great starting place and is especially lovely during sakura season. If you are looking for a relaxing time, you can spend a while by the river, eating from the vendors and just people watching. The river’s main icon is the Togetsukyo Bridge (Moon Crossing Bridge).

I was glad that we had time to linger and enjoy some ice cream and watch girls and couples dressed up in traditional kimono for the cherry blossoms. We even saw a man walking his cute little pet bunny. Because we were there at the height of the sakura, the area was bustling with tourists and people were lined up by the best trees for their turn to snap a photo.

Iwatayama Monkey Park
Kai is very excited to see his favorite animal at the monkey park.

Iwatayama Monkey Park

The walk from the Hankyu Arashiyama local train station to the base of the monkey park is only a quick 10 minute walk. From there you pay a small entry fee and begin the walk up to the top. It’s not particularly strenuous, but it is uphill the entire way. It’s going to take around 45 min to an hour with kids for the walk up, but it is mostly shaded and it is an enjoyable forest trail. If you have young kids that need a stroller, you’ll probably want to ditch it and use a baby wrap or other wearable carrier.

Iwatayama Monkey Park
Map of the monkey park trail.

The park houses snow monkeys, or Japanese macaque. Most of them hang out at the top where there are areas to feed them. However, you may spot some along the trail. When Jared and I had visited in 2008, I made the mistake of getting a snack from a crinkly food bag and one of the monkeys started to stalk us.  The rather large monkey didn’t seem entirely friendly. So I’d advise against eating while in the park.

Japanese macaque in Kyoto
You can safely feed the monkeys through the caged windows.

Once at the top, it’s a pretty unique environment, and very captivating for kids. Of course, Jared and I really enjoyed the expansive view of Kyoto from the mountaintop. We’re suckers for a great view. The distinct feature of the monkey park is that the monkeys roam free so there is no barrier between humans and monkeys. They do have a building where you can go behind a barred window to feed them. This is the only place safe to feed the monkeys and you can purchase some fruit to give them through the bars.  The kids had a great time interacting with the monkeys and were careful to follow the rules of the park, including not to look the monkeys in the eyes!

boats lining kyoto river
Taking a boat ride is perfect for Kyoto in a day with kids.

Boating on the River

It’s an easy walk to the bamboo forest from the river, but we got distracted along the way. We spotted people on the river, boating on the glassy water. So of course we had to go do it ourselves! It was two people to a boat, so I teamed up with Kai and Jared sailed off with Aria.

Traveling during cherry blossom season brings treats for the eye at every setting. The river was lined with delicate blossoms and we felt so lucky to have arrived with such perfect timing. Later in the day we ended up at a train station where they had a video advertising a train ride along the river (Sagano Romantic Train) throughout the year with different backdrops – fall leaves, winter snow, pink blossoms, and summer greenery. All of it looked lovely, and we wished we had more time to take a ride. Again, the view!

Boating on river in Kyoto
Grabbing a quick snack on the water.

Our boat ride included the fun highlight of ‘paddle-thru’ snack stands. Something you don’t see every day! We paddled up and got some little treats and then paddled to the far side of the river, which was where we needed to be for our walk to the bamboo forest.

Bamboo forest in Kyoto
Sagano bamboo grove in Kyoto.

Bamboo Grove

You may have seen photos of a path through a densely filled bamboo grove, and they were probably taken in the Sagano bamboo grove in Kyoto. It’s a very popular tourist destination, so if you are hoping to snag photos that don’t include the massive crowds that walk the path, you’ll need to get there early in the morning for the best chance. Even if you don’t escape the crowds, it’s a great place to visit because it is so striking.

Kyoto Shrine Prayers
Putting up a prayer at the shrine by the bamboo forest. It had started to rain, but we were ready!

I’d like to think that the bamboo grove will stick out in the kids’ memories when they are older simply because the visual experience is so rich. The bamboo towers to either side of the path and as you look around your eyes are seeped in a deep and luscious green. The light has a golden green color, and it is rare to be in a place where you look around and mainly see one color. The only things I’ve seen that are comparable are white wintry landscapes and the red rocks of the southwestern U.S.

Kamo river
Dining along the Kamo river.

Riverside Dining

At this point in our ‘Kyoto in a Day with Kids’, we had walked a lot. These sights are all relatively nearby, but still, you’re on foot. We had wanted to go back to an area we had visited previously that was along another river and densely lined with restaurants. It’s a two hour walk from the bamboo forest area, so we hopped on the train instead.

pontocho restaurant district
Pontocho restaurant district in Kyoto.

The Pontocho restaurant district has two desirable features, it is filled with history and has lots of riverside patio dining. A long narrow street parallels the Kamo river. The street is filled with red lanterns and old style architecture (the district is about 500 years old!), and it is especially scenic at night. It is filled with restaurants on both sides, and the backs of the restaurants on the eastern side overlook the river. When Jared and I traveled along, we had dined earlier in the evening and managed to get a seat on the patio. I’m not sure if the patio dining was even open on our trip with the kids, it may have been too chilly once the sun had set.

Like most of the tourist attractions in Kyoto, Pontocho is pretty crowded. Navigating the narrow street full of people is a challenge, but also part of the fun. The first restaurant we chose was full, so we picked a another one – really there are so many to choose from. We had a nice meal with the traditional seating on cushions on the floor and shoes left in the entryway.

Cherry tree in Kyoto
Taking our turn at a popular photo spot by a beautiful cherry tree.

Kyoto in a Day with Kids

We got back to our ryokan quite late and worn out from all the walking, but we fit in so many sights! I’m sure there are many impressive temples and other less touristy spots that we would have enjoyed, but the things we fit in were really enjoyable for the kids and we got to spend a lot of time outside in the refreshing spring weather. If you have to do Kyoto in a day with kids, don’t write it off, it will be a great day!

Sakura in Kyoto
So many beautiful blossoms!
prayers at Kyoto shrine
Lots of prayers with good wishes.
kyoto ryokan
Backpack explosion! This is how a fast-paced day leaves a room.
Pontocho restaurant district
Narrow streets of Pontocho restaurant district.
Snow monkeys in Japan
These are some pretty pampered snow monkeys!