Gion Kyoto geisha district is Japan’s most popular geisha neighborhood. In Gion you can find traditional old buildings with lantern-lit yards and upscale town-house-style restaurants that look like a scene from a fairy tale. There are currently 70 geishas and 30 maikos (apprentice geisha) working at 60 teahouses in Gion.
Most travelers go to Gion in the evening to see the geishas and have dinner in the neighboring restaurants.
Gion is walking distance from Kiyomizu Dera, Yasaka Shrine, Yasaka Pagoda, and the Pontocho Restaurants Area. So, plan on visiting these places on the same day.
Where is Gion in Kyoto?
The historic Gion Kyoto geisha district is located between the Kamo River and the famous Yasaka Shrine covering the right side and left side of the popular Shijo Street. The center of Gion is the intersection of Hanamikoji Street and Shijo Street where you can spot geishas heading to banquets in the early evening. The closest train station is Gion-Shijo (Keihan Line, Exit 6). You can go to Gion from Kyoto Station by taking bus #100 or #206.
You can get to the Gion area on foot anywhere from the downtown area.
Things to do in Gion Kyoto
In Gion, you will not only see the traditional country houses and perhaps randomly spot geishas, but also find Kenninji Temple, the oldest zen temple with relaxing zen gardens and discover Yasui Konpiragu, a historical shrine with a secret love stone. Hanamikoji Street is where all Gion visitors wander around. Unlike other streets in Kyoto, on this street, there are no electric lines above the ground and the whole area is a historic preservation site.
Gion consists of 2 areas: There are two separate areas in gion: The the Southern part of Hanamikoji Street and the Northern part. The locals call the northern side, Gion Shirakawa, as the most beautiful street in Kyoto.
Here is the list of 10 things you can do in Gion.
#1 Ichiriki Chaya Tea House
On the corner of Shijo Street and Hanamikoji Street, you will see a red-walled wooden building which is Ichiriki Ochaya, the city’s most famous and influential tea house. in 1701, the leader of the 47 samurai stayed in this house. During the Bakumatsu Period, the rebellion samurai leaders frequented this teahouse. It’s here the warriors would meet to plan their vendetta and ultimately reshape the history of Japan forever.
Ichiriki Chaya is the most elite teahouse in Japan where a night of entertainment with the geisha approximately costs around $10,000.
#2 Kenninji Temple
If you keep walking towards the end of Hanamikoji Street or just simply follow the crowds, you will see a huge black gate to a temple. This is the entrance of the Kenninji Temple. You will be suddenly in sublime peacefulness. Ken’ninji is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, which was founded by the monk Eisai in 1202, who also brought tea drinking culture from China. You can also look at “Wind and Thunder Gods” by Tawaraya Sotatsu, one of the most famous paintings in Japan as well as the twin dragon painting on the ceiling in the hatto.
My most favorite part of Kenninji Temple is the calming zen gardens. Whenever I go there, I always sit down and listen to myself in complete silence. Please remember that it closes at 5 pm and you need to pay 500 JPY (around $5) to get in.
On the outside of the temple, you can see actual green tea plants commemorating the tradition started by Eisai 820 years ago.
#3 Gion Corner
Right across from the Kenninji Temple you will see a couple of old and modern buildings. The biggest one is called Gion Corner. There you can enjoy seven types of traditional performing arts: kyo-mai (Kyoto style dance) performed by maiko, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, koto (Japanese harp) music, Gagaku (Japanese classical music), Kyogen (traditional Japanese comic theatre), and Bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theatre). Here you can watch Japanese traditional arts in ‘digest’ form all on one stage.
When I give Gion Geisha Tours, I usually bring my guests to the exit of the Gion Corner at 7:45 PM, where we sometimes catch the glimpse of geishas leaving the dance performance.
Tip: There is a public restroom in the Gion Corner area.
#4 Yasui Konpiragu Shrine & The Love Stone
If you walk towards the hill for 100 meters you will see a tiny street heading to the Yasui Konpiragu Shrine. The original Yasui Konpiragu Shrine was established more than 800 years ago for the emperor Sutoku and moved to Gion about 400 hundred years ago. Emperor shutoku and the deity of ships and sailors are enshrined in this shrine.
In the middle of the Shrine you will see a huge stone covered small pieces of white paper. That stone has the shape of EMA which you see in all shinto shrines. The legend goes that if you write your wishes on a wooden ema piece and then crawl under this huge stone, you break the bad relationship and start good relationships.
You can donate a small amount of money to the shrine and write your own wishes onto one of the wooden tablets.
#5 Yasaka-no To Pagoda
Not far from the Yasui Konpiragu Shrine there lays Kyoto’s most iconic landmark: Yasaka-no To Pagoda, a.k.a. Hokanji Temple. If there was a time-travel movie to be shot in Kyoto, no doubt this place would have been the ultimate location. The five-storied pagoda from the 1500’s will make you feel like you are back in the Edo Period. No doubt many travelers put their Yasaka-no To Pagoda picture on the cover of their Kyoto Trip album.
This is the place where locals take their wedding photos. Coincidentally, there is Kongoji Temple just nearby famous for its colorful charms where you can write your wishes and hang on the walls of the temple
#6 Miyagawacho Neighborhood
After you get out of the Kenninji Temple, If you walk to the opposite side of where all the crowds are heading towards, you would hit the Miyagawacho Geisha neighborhood in a few minutes. Even though this area is less than 500 meters away from the main street in Gion, it is considered a separate geisha district because of historic reasons. If you are a geisha fan, you must not skip this area because Miyagawacho is way quieter than Hanamikoji Street and you are more likely to see geishas walking on the street because there are a number of geisha lodging houses (okiya) and old teahouses (ochaya).
The geishas of Miyagawacho historically are associated with the Kabuki artists as the area is located right next to the historic Minamiza Kabuki Theater
#7 Shirakawa Dori
This is the hidden gem of the Gion District tucked on the other side of Shijo Street. To discover your own unique Kyoto gems, take a stroll through the Shirakawa area, a pocket of exploration and discovery, inside the Gion district. Runs parallel to Shijo Dori and the Shirakawa Canal, the latter of which’s picturesque roads, flanked by tall willow trees are a sight to behold themselves.
While sometimes it feels almost impossible to avoid the tourist crowds in Kyoto this area generally seems to miss the main crowds as it’s positioned slightly off Kyoto’s more well-worn tracks. I recommend having the matcha tea and parfait set at Gion Komori right in the center of the alley or grabbing a cold drink at the recently opened Hard Rock Cafe nearby.
Gion Tatsumi Bridge in Shirakawa Dori © Sean Pavone
A scene in the movie “Memoirs of Geisha” was shot on this bridge. Most of the movie was shot in the US as the Kyoto City Government declined to remove the electricity poles back then.
#8 Yasaka Shrine
Yasaka Shrine (previously known as Gion shrine) is one of the neighborhood’s most popular and iconic destinations. Tucked between the Gion and Higashiyama districts, it attracts countless visitors who pass through both famous areas daily, drawn to its proud lantern lined glory.
Inside Yasaka Shrine there is a small area called “Utsukushi Gozen” dedicated to the 3 famous beauty deities
Throughout spring it’s also a popular cherry blossom location, because, across the road from the shrine, you’ll find Maruyama Park a public park considered to be one of the best cherry blossom locations in the region. The history of Yasaka Shrine goes back over 1350 years and plays the role of one of the primary homes of the Gion Festival celebrations.
#9 Patisserie Gion Sakai
Before you leave Kyoto, be sure to pop by Patisserie Gion Sakai, located on Hanamikoji Dori. This charmingly historic building is home to one of the best collections of sweets in the city, including cakes, tarts, meringues, cookies, and pastries. This cozy three-table-room looks out onto the vibrant and scenic scenes of Hanamikoji Dori. It does get popular though, so be prepared to wait a little.
Patisserie Gion Sakai have access to the upstairs dining room invisible from the outside.
#10 Minamiza Kabuki Theater
Heading east on Shijo-dori Street is the magnificent Minamiza theater. The theatre hosts a range of theatre performances, but their most iconic ones are kabuki. From the early 17th century, kabuki theatre flourished here in Kyoto, and Minamiza was once one of the city’s seven kabuki theaters.
In the month of April, Japan’s largest geisha dance show, Miyako Odori, is held inside the Minamiza Theater
One unique point worth noting is that although there’s been a theater here since the early 1600s, the current building was built in 1929. Over time, the other six have disappeared.
Shijo Dori & Shopping in Gion
Shijo-dori is one of the main streets running through the city from east to west. Yasaka Shrine, located at the starting point of the east, is the total headquarters of about 2,300 shrines dedicated to Yasaka Shrine nationwide. Gion, known as Gion-sha, was once known as the Gion-sha. It is believed to be founded over 1350 years ago.
Just because Gion is a touristic area don’t presume the shops will jack up prices, so feel free to buy any gift items without worrying about price gauging.
After walking on the streets of Gion you can relax at one of the matcha cafes on Shijo Street (Shijo Dori) or check out some souvenir shops. Some most popular gifts are kimono-style hairpins, kokeshi dolls, and Kyoto’s famous yatsuhashi sweets.
Gion Walking Map
The map below shows the 6 stops you can make during your visit to Gion. The starting point is Ichiriki Teahouse. I recommend you visit both the southern and the northern sides of Hanamikoji Street. Finally, I recommend you head to the Pontocho Restaurants area which itself is a separate geisha district full of bars, izakayas and Japanese and Western-style restaurants.
Ochaya, Okiya, Restaurants and Ryotei in Gion
As you can see in the picture above, there are four types of buildings in Gion. The first one is called ryotei, which means “elite restaurant.” Ryotei usually have a garden inside and do not clearly show a menu outside the building. The second one, obviously the most typical Gion building, is a restaurant or a cafe, which always has a big menu or poster clearly visible outside of the building.
You will notice red lanterns hanging from the eaves of machiyas in Gion which display the Gion Geisha District’s logo: eight-round circles tied by a ring.
The 3rd type of building you’ll find in Gion is Okiya. Okiya means a house where maiko, the apprentice geisha lives in. There is currently 9 registered okiya in Gion. You will see the small wooden palettes hung on the right side of the entrance that clearly show the names of the geisha who live in that house. The 4th type is ochaya teahouse which usually is dark-colored wooden houses with bamboo blinds hanging from the 2nd floors with no visible menu. Although ochaya means “tea house,” the guests usually drink alcohol and enjoy delicious meals inside. The food comes from other restaurants in the Gion area. The number of ochayas in Gion is hard to know as many ochayas recently went out of business and some okiyas serve as both ochaya and okiya.
History of Gion
In 1772 the area received permission from the Tokugawa shogunate to have a special business style. In 1871 Yasaka Shrine which used to be called the Gion Shrine, was recognized as the kanpei-taisha (highest rank government-supported shrines). More teahouses near the shrine were built and many geisha served tea to visitors. In 1881 Gion was separated into two parts, Gion Kobu, and Gion Otsubu. During the Meiji period, there were over 700 teahouses and more than 3000 geiko and maiko inside Gion.
Since all Kyo Machiya (traditional Japanese townhouses) are made out of wood, most of the buildings in Gion were completely burned during the Great fire of 1864.
During the WW2 many geishas left the profession. In 1945 Yasaka Shrine was no longer recognized as the kanpei-taisha with the abolishment of State Shintoism after the WW2. In 1949 Gion Otsubu changed its name from Gion Otsubu to Higashi Shinchi. In 1955 Higashi Shinchi changed its name from Higashi Shinchi to Gion Higashi. in 1974, Kyoto City declared Gion as the special protection area. All the buildings and street plans are strictly controlled since then. In 2001, the power lines were moved underground and cobblestones were installed.
Annual Dance Events in Gion
Gion is a district of great importance in Kyoto with many historic yearly celebrations and dances that are held. Both Gion Kobu and Gion Higashi have very important annual dances. Gion Kobu has the most popular annual dance that takes place in April called Miyako Odori, which means Dances of the old capital in English. Miyako Odori is an annual event that has taken place in Gion since 1872.
Gion Higashi also has a similar annual dance that takes place in November called Gion Odori. Gion Odori is a much newer annual dance that started in 1953, and while being less popular than Miyako Odori it is still a significant and entertaining annual event to watch.
Gion Matsuri Festival
Also known as the Gion Festival (祇園祭), or the festival of Yasaka Shrine, the Gion Matsuri is one of, if not the most, famous traditional celebrations in Japan. These days the celebrations get so big that they take over the entire month of the sweltering month of July, filling the streets with music, color food, and a festive atmosphere is at an all-time high.
The Gion Festival is the largest parade in Japan which started in the 800’s when there was an epidemic similar to the recent Coronavirus pandemic.
Even though the celebrations run throughout the month, the festival does have a few highlights. Yamaboko Junko, the event’s biggest float procession, runs on July 17. Prior to this major event, there are a handful of street-wide parties called Yoiyama (July 16), Yoiyoiyama (July 15), and Yoiyoiyoiyama (July 14), which can be just as fun as the main event.
Things to do in Gion at Night
There are many restaurants and izakayas in Gion. So most people visit Gion to enjoy the traditional kaiseki meals at one of the restaurants in Gion at night. If you can afford, you may be able to arrange a special geisha meeting that includes dinner by Maikoya. Some travelers go to the Kiyomizu Temple at night as certain times of the year there is night illumination. Some of our guests prefer a rooftop bar and go to In the Moon which is my favorite. Regardless, most people end up by the riverside or the Pontocho Bars Street towards the end of the night which is less than a 10-minute walk from the Gion area.
Things to do Near Gion
There are plenty of things you can get amused by wandering across Gion. You can visit Kiyomizu Dera, Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, or get lost in Shijo-dori. The cultural choice of Gion differs much.
Sitting on the southern edge of the Gion district, Kiyomizudera is one of the city’s most sacred destinations and well worth a trip to Gion just to visit. The temple was founded in 780, and is located on the eastern Otowa Waterfall in the wooded hills, its name – which translates in English to “Pure Water Temple,” came from this waterfall. Kiyomizudera offers guests unparalleled views of the surrounding foliage transforming with the passing seasons.
Kiyomizu’s most iconic feature is a wooden stage that runs along the outside of the temple a breathtaking 13 meters above ground level. The legend goes, people used to jump down from the deck to test their leap of faith.
Kiyomizu Dera is only a 10-minute walk from the Gion area. (map) website: kiyomizudera.or.jp
Kodaiji Temple (高台寺)
If you want to see the autumn leaves of Kyoto, Kodaiji Temple is highly recommended. Kodaiji Temple is a spot where you can feel the graceful beauty of autumn foliage. It is the second most popular garden in Japan and the first place in Kyoto Prefecture for the autumn season.
People usually skip this temple because of the 600 JPY entrance fee but it is definitely worth it!
The saying goes that the appearance of the branches hanging on the white sand is reminiscent of an elegant Kyoto lady. The weeping cherry trees in the Hojo Garden are especially beautiful. Kodaiji Temple is only a 10-minute walk from the Gion area. Kodaiji temple map and website: kodaiji.com
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, which is known as “Inari-san”, is the head shrine of more than 30,000 shrines nationwide dedicated to Inari. It was built in 711, and it is said that there are benefits of business prosperity and home security, and it is full of many worshipers throughout the year.
Fushimi Inari is only a 10-minute train ride from the Gion area. Just go to the Gion Shijo Station and take the Keihan Train. (map) website: inari.jp . The area has no gates, you can visit it 24 hours a day but it gets spooky at night.
Fushimi Inari Shrine, the 10,000 gates, has been ranked number one in TripAdvisor’s ranking five years in a row!
Gion Geisha Photo Ban
As of November 25th, 2019, on many side streets of the Hanamikoji Street, photo taking has been banned.
Recently there are many incidents where tourists engage in irresponsible behavior in Gion which include
- Blocking the way of the geisha to take a photo
- Chasing and bothering the geisha
- Touching the geishas kimono, hair, accessories
- Trying to take a selfie with a geisha
- Taking the photo of a geisha when she is with a guest
- Littering on the streets of Gion
- Eating fast food while walking in Gion
- Smoking or drinking alcohol on the streets of Gion
- Sitting on the streets of Gion
The geisha are human beings, they are not objects. You have to respect the privacy of the geisha. You have to understand that you endanger yourself and the geisha on the narrow streets of Gion when you come too close. You have to understand that geishas are likely on their way to work and they should not be late. You also have to understand that the geisha may be accompanied by their private client whose privacy must be respected.
Gion in Travel Books
By turns tawdry and sublime, the Gion is Kyoto’s best-
While Gion’s true origins were in teahouses catering to weary visitors to the nearby shrine Yasaka-jinja, by the mid-18th century the area was Kyoto’s largest pleasure district.
Nevertheless, one traditional detail that can still be seen on the streets of Gion is the hustle and bustle of boys in kitchen caps transporting food by bicycle from restaurants to the ochaya. Ochaya have no kitchen.
A district established around the Shinto Yasaka-jinja shrine (also called Gion no Yashiro), where annual dance and music festivals take place, famous for its geisha and maiko.
References & Additional Readings
Martin, J. H., & Martin, P. G. (2012). Kyoto a Cultural Guide: Revised Edition. Tuttle Publishing.
Gion Manner Retrieved from https://kyoto.travel/en/info/manner.html
Downer, L. (2003). Geisha of Gion-A memoir of Mineko Iwasaki.
Coronavirus and Geisha in Kyoto Retrieved from https://mai-ko.com/travel/culture-in-japan/geisha/coronavirus-in-japan-how-kyotos-geisha-are-dealing-with-it/
Ookini Zaidan Geisha Association https://www.ookinizaidan.com/
How to get to Gion
Gion can be very easily reached from Kyoto Station via bus (bus number 100 or 206).
The journey from station to Gion takes around 20 minutes and costs 230 yen. Once you see Gion bus stop, get off.
Alternatively, the closest train stations are Gion-Shijo Station on the Keihan Line and Kyoto-Kawaramachi Station on the Hankyu Line.
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