Better Know a Neighborhood: Gion (Kyoto)

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.

A maiko in Gion
A maiko in Gion

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.

The Shirakawa area of Gion in springtime
The Shirakawa area of Gion in springtime

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!

8 thoughts on “Better Know a Neighborhood: Gion (Kyoto)

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  1. The Shimane Art Museum is currently hosting an exhibit about kabuki’s early days, including huge folding screens of Kyoto and its various entertainment quarters in the early Edo days. Those were all fun to see, especially with the juxtaposition between the Gion Matsuri some streets while theater is going on in the alleys and in further removed places, people are enjoying the tea ceremony.
    Lively though Gion is, I love the quaintness of the Shirakawa area. I haven’t seen the cherry blossoms there, but I did see a couple taking wedding pictures there in full bridal kimono when I was there last winter!

    1. Oh, that sounds like an exhibit I would love to see, Buri-chan! Do you know how long it’s running?
      It’s funny, but my first two visits to Kyoto years ago, I only ever saw the Shirakawa area … I never realized there was a whole other part to Gion! I still like Shirakawa myself because it’s quieter and you’re right – it seems there is always someone there in wedding kimono for pictures. If you get back there in the spring, absolutely check out the cherry blossoms by the canal.

      1. The exhibit is only running until Nov 4:
        But for what it’s worth, Izumo-no-Okuni’s grave near Izumo Taisha is open for visiting anytime!
        Come to think of it, I’ve never been through the southern end of Gion during its active hours–only the early hours of the day, and now I’m not even sure how much of it I’ve been through! Pontocho is a favorite spot of mine, but I think one would be hard-pressed to see geisha there now.
        I’ve seen Kyoto in every season except spring. I’ll have to try to amend that!

      2. Shimane-ken is still on my “to-go” list. I would love to see the Adachi Museum of Art as well. It’s frustrating that the area is so inconveniently linked by public transport from Kyushu and I’m not sure if I want to drive all that way. I’ll get there someday!

      3. Well, yes… there’s not really a direct train OR plane route. ^^; But when you have the time to come, let me know and I can give you all the inside information!

  2. Ah~ The lovely young lady you caught is not a Maiko, but instead a fully fledged Geiko! (The Kyoto term for Geisha) It’s a bit hard to tell just who she is from this angle, but I assure you, she is real ^^

    1. Moushifj, thanks for the clarification! I was a bit unsure, as her hairstyle seems quite severe for a maiko, but she looked only half-dressed so … I wasn’t savvy enough to make the call. 🙂 I was just amazed I caught a glimpse of her. I literally almost ran into her coming around a corner and then backpedaled to see where she went!

      1. Oh no, the geiko regalia is much more simple than that of a maiko, because at this point in their career they can rely on their skills rather than long sleeves, long beautiful obi, and lots of hair ornaments to impress their clients ^^ Plus they want to look like women, rather than girls, since Maiko regalia greatly mimics what a child would wear (Tucked shoulders and sleeves does exactly that) ^^ Unless she didn’t have her lips painted or the red tints around her eyes, that’s the normal regalia. But she does have her hikizuri tied up because of all the things she is carrying which I can understand makes her look a bit less graceful than it normally would with her carrying her kimono herself, but sometimes that happens~

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