Centuries ago, this area east of the Kamo River was nothing but a rest stop for the pilgrims on their way to Gion Shrine (modern day Yasaka Shrine). Today the Gion district of Kyoto is known for its charming, historic atmosphere and strong ties to the world of traditional Japanese arts, making a visit to this area one of the best things to do in Kyoto.
From the incomparable architecture of Hanami Lane to the bustling boutiques of Shijo Dori; from the calm serenity of Yasaka shrine and Kenninji Temple to the high-spirited celebration of Gion Festival; delve into Kyoto’s rich history by exploring 9 of our favorite destinations in Gion.
Sometimes the best way to explore a city is to just dive in head-first; no plan, no itinerary, just feet on the pavement, eyes open wide and propelled by an unquenchable curiosity. A wander through the Shirakawa area (see map) is a location for this style of exploration and discovery, and it’s ideally located within the Gion district. This historic street runs parallel to Shijo Dori (another great strolling spot, see below), along with the Shirakawa Canal. Shirakawa’s roads are flanked by tall willow trees sagging under the weight of their own leaves and dotted with fancy traditional dining establishments, this is Kyoto at its most picturesque.
A beautiful place to visit if you’re looking for a meal or tea with a view, most of the establishments here look out onto the canal, which is equally as stunning by night as it is by day. Sometimes it can feel almost impossible to avoid the tourist crowds in Kyoto, but thankfully the area of Shirakawa is slightly off the beaten track and much quieter than most main shopping and dining strips.
2. Hanami Lane
The entertainment district of Kyoto known as Gion has long been associated with geisha (or geiko, as they are known in Kyoto) and traditional Japanese arts. Hanami Lane (hanamikoji, see map) contains some of the most beautiful traditional architecture in the district. This lane stretches north and south, intersecting Kyoto’s central Shijo Dori which leads to Yasaka Shrine. Hanamikoji’s southern end is a flagstone path lined with well-preserved historic teahouses.
Gion district owes much of its historic charms to the many antique machiya which line the streets. Machiya are wooden townhouses built for city life, with the front of the home usually sectioned off for use as a shopfront. They’re often long, narrow and built up to three stories high, possibly to evade the land taxes of the day which taxed the width of a building and not the length. These days, many machiya have been converted into art galleries, antique shops, art sellers, kimono stores and other shops selling traditional crafts. You can also find many of the Best Places to Buy Ceramics in Kyoto in this area.
3. Shijo Dori
Make the journey right into the center of Kyoto, and it’s impossible to miss Shijo Dori (see map), a shopping street dedicated to the world of high-end taste. If you wander towards the east end you’ll find that it passes through the Gion district. Like jumping back through time from the modern stylish world of Japan’s luxury-centric department stores to the old world elegant charm of Gion; it’s the best of Kyoto in one place.
As you head away from the towering Takashimaya, Daimaru, and Marui department stores and cross over the Kamo River towards Yasaka Shrine, lining the paths are countless local specialty food and craft stores, perfect for a little souvenir shopping.
Of course the west end of the avenue is full of treats too. If you’re wondering what to do outside of Gion, check out our Top 5 Things to Do in Downtown Kyoto.
If there’s one style of establishment responsible for shaping Kyoto, it would without a doubt have to be the tea house. Known in Japanese as ochaya (お茶屋), tea houses have forever been places of relaxation, contemplation and cultural appreciation. You could say they have served the role that coffee shops do today, albeit with a more tranquil atmosphere and historical reverence.
There are countless teahouses in the Gion district, but Ichiriki Ochaya (see map) is arguably the most famous. It’s situated just a short stroll from Yasaka Shrine, on the corner of Shijo-Dori and Hanamikoji-Dori streets. It’s about three centuries old, and you can feel the historical importance of the place as soon as you step through the doors. During the 19th century, this was the home of Japan’s revolutionary samurai warriors known as the 47 Ronin. It’s here the warriors would meet to plan their vendetta and ultimate reshape the history of Japan forever.
5. Yasaka Shrine
Also once known as Gion Shrine, Yasaka Shrine (see map) is one of the neighborhood's most iconic destinations. Standing proudly in its lantern lined glory, it’s tucked between the Gion and Higashiyama districts, and attracts countless visitors who pass through both famous areas daily. Because it’s comprised of a number of buildings, it’s an excellent place to explore if you’re wanting to immerse yourself in the city’s spiritual history.
The legacy of Yasaka Shrine goes back over 1350 years and is still today one of the primary homes of the Gion Festival celebrations. Each July thousands upon thousands of revelers make their way to the grounds to admire the massive floats which call the shrine home. Throughout spring it’s also a popular cherry blossom location. Across the road from the shrine, you’ll find Maruyama Park and impressive public park that’s generally considered to be one of the best cherry blossom locations in Kansai.
6. Kenninji Temple
At the end of Hanami Lane is Kenninji Temple (see map). Kenninji is the largest Buddhist temple in Gion, and the oldest Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. This impressive temple is actually a complex of many different halls, interspersed with traditional gardens, monuments and even a teahouse.
Be sure to make your way to the Dharma Hall for a glimpse of the spectacular painting of two dragons on the ceiling. This was painted by Koizumi Junsaku. Originally, the painting was commissioned by a nearby elementary school, but it was moved here in 2002 to commemorate the temple’s 800th anniversary.
The art of the geiko is one that these days needs no introduction. But what is often overlooked by the typical tourist is much of Kyoto’s other performing arts, bunraku being one of them. Definitely, an experience saved for the most art-savvy traveler, bunraku which is also called Ningyo Joruri (人形浄瑠璃), is a unique style of puppet theater that began in the Kansai area in the 17th Century. Originating in the neighboring city of Osaka, it’s now an art expertly performed in select theaters throughout Kyoto, and definitely worth seeing if you find yourself in the city.
Like noh and kabuki, bunraku is now recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, making it an artform considered of significant cultural influence. Almost a theater-puppet hybrid performance, bunraku puppets are half the size of a person and are maneuvered by three puppeteers. The movements run in synch with a story that’s told by one single narrator, a person with an excellent knack for imitating many different voices. Gion Corner is the district's home of performing arts and one of the main places you can see bunraku performances. If you want to learn more about Bunraku, check out this documentary video above from Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK.
8. Gion Festival
If you can only visit one summer festival in Japan, be sure to make it this one. The Kyoto Gion Festival, also known as the Gion Matsuri (祇園祭), or the festival of Yasaka Shrine, is the nation’s most famous traditional celebration. This large-scale event is such a big deal it takes over the entire month of July when the city is at its hottest, and the festive atmosphere is at an all-time high. Although it does run throughout the month, there are a few festival highlights worth penciling in your calendar. July 17 is the date of the Yamaboko Junko, the event’s biggest float procession.
In anticipation of the big event, the nights before the main parade also host many street wide parties called Yoiyama (July 16), Yoiyoiyama (July 15) and Yoiyoiyoiyama (July 14). It’s worth noting that technically and somewhat ironically, these major events don’t take part within the confines of the Gion District, but are held on the other side of the Kamo River. That said, it’s so all-encompassing that it does pour out onto the Gion neighborhood. Beyond the main parades, the area is constantly buzzing throughout the month with demonstrations, street vendors and party-goers.
9. Lessons and Workshops in Gion
There’s no better place to learn more about traditional Japanese culture than here in the Gion district. The area not only boasts one of the richest, best-preserved histories in Japan but is also home to some cultural classes designed to educate, entertain and enlighten guests from across the globe. Whether you’re wanting to try ikebana (Japanese flower arranging), wear a kimono for the first time, or pick up some culinary skills, Gion is where to go.
We’ve previously published a guide to classes in Kyoto which you can read here. In Gion specifically, one of the most popular activities to sign up for is ceramics. If you don’t have a lot of time, pop by Ruikko Kiln for a 20-minute ceramics class. If dressing up is more your style a maiko/geiko makeover may be worth considering. One of the most highly recommended experiences is held right in the centre of Gion, you can read more about it here. And if you’re looking to buy a kimono for yourself, check out the 5 Best Places to Buy Kimono in Kyoto.
Have you visited Gion? What secret spots would you recommend? Let us know in the comments below!