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For Kyoto with kids, mix fun with antiquities

Wednesday - 4/3/2013, 2:45pm  ET

This August 2012 photo shows an oarsman piloting an excursion boat down the Hozu River, just outside Kyoto, Japan, as he points out sights to his passengers. The two-hour ride down the river offers the chance to spot wildlife while threading rocks and rapids, and is an especially appealing outing for a trip with children. (AP Photo/Adam Geller)

ADAM GELLER
AP National Writer

KYOTO, Japan (AP) -- 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 in ways that you and your kids will enjoy.

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 (17-kilometer) 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.

GET FESTIVE: Kyoto hosts many festivals throughout the year. When we visited Kyoto in August, the city was celebrating the weeks around the Tanabata festival with lights, including computer-animated projections on the wall of the city's castle and the launching of thousands of lighted blue plastic balls down the Horigawa, a narrow waterway not far from downtown. In May, the Aoi Matsuri, held at a pair of shrines, features a procession of people in ancient Japanese court costumes. In October, the Jidai Matsuri centers around a parade that highlights various periods in Japanese history.

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. The temple is famous for its stage, a broad platform that juts over the hillside forest on immense wooden stilts.

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