As evening falls in Kyoto, there’s no where else I would rather be than wandering the streets of the Gion neighborhood. This is quintessential Kyoto at its best – willows and cherry trees hang over a languid canal; light filters out the slatted windows of wooden ochaya (teahouses); maiko and geisha dart back and forth on cobbled streets to make their nightly appointments. Gion evokes reminders of the “floating world”, a world that mixed geisha, courtesans, entertainers, actors and samurai, an idealized world that was immortalized in numerous ukiyo-e (woodblock prints). It’s a scene that is the antithesis of modern Japan, with its gleaming skyscrapers and hyper-fast bullet trains.
A walk through Gion is very much a sensory experience more than anything, but there are some things you can keep an eye out for. Most visitors flock to southern Gion’s Hanamikoji-dori, where cobbled streets snake off the main thoroughfare and tea houses conceal themselves in the back alleyways. This is the prime spot to come “geisha spotting” in the evening and you’ll often catch at least one of these alluring women as they rush from their okiya (where they live) to an ochaya for an engagement.
At the end of the street, just past the Gion Corner theater, sits the Kennin-ji Temple. Most visitors to the neighborhood never realize that this was Japan’s first temple devoted to Zen Buddhism. You can sometimes catch maiko on the precincts as they cut through the area in an effort to avoid the crowds on Hanamikoji-dori. Kennin-ji’s claim to fame comes thanks to its founder, the priest Eisai, who reintroduced tea to the upper classes in the late 12th century. Tea ceremonies held here throughout the year are said to still follow the exact form and ritual as the Chinese tea ceremonies they were derived from nearly 1000 years ago.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Gion only lies south of Shijo-dori, the area’s main drag. If so, you’d miss out on my favorite section – the Shirakawa neighborhood. While smaller in area than the geisha neighborhood (known as a hanamachi) surrounding Hanamikoji-dori, Shirakawa more than makes up for it with its natural scenery. A canal cuts through the middle of the main street, lined with both willows and cherry trees. This is THE place to come after dark in late March or early April, when the sakura blossoms are tastefully illuminated.
Round out your exploration of the area with a visit to the Minamiza, Japan’s oldest kabuki theater. It was just steps from here on the banks of the Kamo River that a young shrine maiden from Shimane prefecture known as Izumo no Okuni began performing dances and plays at the dawn of the 17th century. Her popularity – and her following – grew and a new art form was born. A few short decades later, however, the repressive shogunate (military government) allegedly saw the dances as a way for prostitutes (a number of whom did indeed join Okuni’s acting troupe) to showcase themselves to potential customers and, in 1629, women were banned from performing kabuki. Even today, kabuki is still exclusively the domain of men.
If Kyoto is in your travel plans, don’t miss a visit to Gion – especially in the evening – and be sure to save lots of room on your memory card. This is Japan at its most photogenic!