Gion Kyoto: 3 Must-See Highlights of the Geisha District
by Alicia Joy
Long 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. Delve into Kyoto’s rich history by exploring 3 of our favorite destinations in Gion.
1. 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 (hanami-koji) is one of the most picturesque areas of the district. This lane stretches north and south, intersecting Kyoto’s central Shijo Street which leads to Yasaka Shrine. Hanami-koji’s southern end is a flagstone path lined with well-preserved historic teahouses or chaya. The red-walled Ichikiri-tei, for example, has a history dating back to the 1700s. This exclusive teahouse accepts guests by invitation only, which only adds to its mystique and prestige.
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 restaurants, shops, guesthouses, which should not only help to preserve the structures but also open them up to visitors so everyone can appreciate their beauty and expert craftsmanship.
2. Art in Gion
For arts and traditional crafts, make your way to the northern end of Yamato-dori. Here, the street’s name changes to Nawate-dori. Two parallel streets join Nawate-dori from the east, Furumonzen-dori and Shin Monzen-dori. This area is home to a high number of art galleries, antique shops, art sellers, kimono stores and other shops selling traditional crafts. Many businesses are housed inside the historic machiya Kyoto is so well-known for, including the antiques dealer Yumekoubou. Yumekoubou is one of the most prominent antiques businesses in the area, dealing in everything from lacquer and metalwork to sculpture and tea ceremony utensils.
It’s not just traditional arts, the Gion district is a great place for contemporary arts too!
Y Gion is a brand new creative and entertainment space that has just opened in the area, housing a gallery space and rooftop bar with enviable views. Next year it will be adding restaurants, and live music, so check back for the latest updates, or visit their website to see what’s on now!
If you’re looking for other locations in Kyoto to enjoy its world-class crafts, check out:
3. Kenninji Temple
At the end of Hanami Lane is Kenninji. 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.
Make time to enjoy Kyoto’s historic Gion district during your next trip to the former capital!
Have you visited Gion? Where would you recommend? Let us know in the comments below!