Remnants of Japan's older culture remains alive and well in Kyoto. Among the many areas that comprise Kyoto, Gion has the unique history of having developed as a monzen-machi (a town built around a temple or shrine) of Yasaka Shrine in ancient times before turning into one of the leading hanamachi (entertainment district) in Kyoto. Below are some of the spots and places that you should check out when you visit Gion, a place where one can truly feel the atmosphere of old Kyoto.
1. Yasaka Shrine
Gion began as a place that flourished as a monzeki-machi of Yasaka Shrine. Serving as the origin and symbol of Gion, this shrine was built in in the year 656 and is currently known as the venue of the famous Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival), regarded as one of the three greatest festivals in Kyoto. It is the most historic shrine in Kyoto, so you definitely shouldn’t miss it during your trip to Gion. Marked by a massive gate that is painted in beautiful vermilion color, this shrine is said to help worshipers ward off evil and find success in love. The Utsukushi Gozensha Shrine, which is located to your right at the far back of the shrine if you are coming from the Honden (main shrine building), is especially famous among women. The sacred water gushing out in this shrine is called “biyosui” (beauty water), and 2-3 drops of this water on your skin will apparently make your skin and your heart beautiful! Try it! Note that there are also specialty wagashi (Japanese sweets) shops and many other stores nearby, so you will surely have fun peeping into these establishments on your way home from the shrine.
2. Gion Shinbashi Preservation District
The Gion Shinbashi Preservation District is an area designated as a Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings in Kyoto. With stone-paved roads and rows of machiya (traditional townhouse) in the form of chaya (a place where you can enjoy dining and drinking while watching the dance and other performances of geisha or maiko), this area that stretches 100m north to south and around 160m east to west is proof that the refined ambiance of Kyoto’s entertainment district is still very much alive today. Maiko (apprentice geisha) often pass through this district, so you just might encounter one.
The Gion Shinbashi Preservation District was originally a monzen-machi of Yasaka Shrine, but it transformed into an entertainment district during the Edo period (1603 – 1867), with as many as 500 chaya in operation during its heyday. This area is characterized by buildings with koshi (lattices) on the first floor and sudare (bamboo blinds) with protruding edges hanging on the second floor. The view of cobblestones and high-quality chaya standing side by side is definitely worth seeing.
There are many cafes and other establishments using old machiya in the vicinity, so how about dropping by when you want to take a break from your trip? This is a tourist spot that is recommended to those who want to fully enjoy the true vibe of old Kyoto.
Tatsumibashi is touted by tourists as a must-see when coming to Gion. This is a bridge that was built over Shirakawa River, located at the intersection of Shinbashi-dori and Shirakawa Minami-dori at the east of Gion Shirakawa. Popular as a spot that symbolizes Gion, it has often been used as a location for drama series, as well as a subject of paintings, so you should take a souvenir photo at this bridge! The willow trees planted along the river and the machiya with lattices create a classic Gion vibe. It is also fun to visit the Tatsumi Daimyojin Shrine that gives blessings for performing arts, and leisurely walk around the vicinity. When you come in spring, you will get to enjoy the rows of sakura (cherry blossom) trees by the river in bloom, as well as the magical scenery of these sakura trees all lit up at night!
4. Gion Kobu Kaburenjo
The Gion Kobu Kaburenjo is a theater that was first opened in 1872 and is famous as the venue of Miyako Odori that heralds the coming of spring in Kyoto. Miyako Odori is a dance performance wherein a great number of geisha and maiko from Gion Kobu (the largest geisha quarter in Kyoto) perform a beautiful dance, so you will be able to thoroughly admire the performance of geisha and maiko that you don’t normally see. The gorgeous clothes and performances are extremely popular with tourists! This performance is held for a limited period – for a month in April only. Tickets for the show are priced from 2,500 JPY (incl. tax), but if you are one of those who want to fully enjoy Japanese culture and traditional dance, then you must go for the special ticket that includes a tea ceremony (4,800 JPY (incl. tax)). If you buy this kind of ticket, then you will experience a geisha making tea right in front of your eyes before her performance (comes with matcha (powdered green tea) and sweets), and you will be given the opportunity to observe the stunning circuit-type garden with a chaya and a pond! Make sure to watch Miyako Odori, but make your reservation early because the tickets do get sold out!
5. Forever Museum of Contemporary Art Gion-Kyoto
Forever Museum of Contemporary Art Gion-Kyoto is an art museum that opened in Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theater in June 2017. Housed in Yasaka Club, a traditional Japanese building that was constructed in 1913, it is a place where you can enjoy a new kind of art experience by admiring contemporary art in a Japanese space that is fully fitted with tatami mats. Of the nearly 700 art pieces on display, about 60% were created by Yayoi Kusama. Some of her works from early years to recent years, especially those made in the 1990s, are on display as a permanent collection, so you can immerse yourself in her unique world. Aside from Kusama, the museum also offers a collection of works by local and foreign artists, such as Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Richard Long, Tatsuo Miyajima. and Oscar Oiwa. There is also a beautiful Japanese-style garden and a cafe inside the museum premises.
Admission fee: General: 1,500 JPY (incl. tax), Junior high school/high school students: 1,000 JPY (incl. tax)
6. Kodai-ji Temple
Located around an 8-minute walk from Yasaka Shrine, Kodai-ji is a temple that was built in 1606 by Nene, the wife of the military commander Toyotomi Hideyoshi who was active during the Warring States Period (1467 – 1576), to pray for the repose of her husband’s soul. There are many buildings in this shrine that have been designated as important cultural properties, and the Kaisan-do, Karakasa-tei and Shigure-tei have remained intact since they were constructed, so this spot is highly recommended to those who want to relax and enjoy while soaking in a fragment of culture and traditional Kyoto atmosphere from those days. There is also a vast garden and you can go on a leisurely walk there. The colorful cherry blossoms that bloom in spring, and the autumn leaves that change colors in autumn make for a stunning sight, giving you a taste of how it is like in the movies. When you go inside this temple, do not miss the elegant garden designed by the tea master Kobori Enshu that uses the Higashiyama mountains as a backdrop. The garden that is illuminated at night is also popular, so make sure to check that out. The nighttime illuminations have a limited run, so please check their homepage or other sites before you visit.
Entrance fee: Adults: 600 JPY (incl. tax), Junior high school/high school students: 250 JPY (incl. tax)
7. Yojiya Gion Branch
Yojiya is a Japanese cosmetics brand that was founded in 1904, symbolized by the logo featuring a hand mirror reflecting a Kyoto woman. Its signature product is the Aburatori-gami (oil-blotting paper) (1,630 JPY (excl. tax) for a set of 5 packs) that has the Yojiya logo on the cover of the booklet. The Japanese paper is beaten repeatedly by a gold beating machine to give it outstanding absorbing power. If you get a piece of this paper and press it against your skin, you will be able to remove the excess oil without ruining your makeup, leaving you with conditioned skin that promotes makeup adhesion. This product is also famous as a standard Kyoto souvenir in Japan. Aside from the oil-blotting paper, Yojiya offers a full lineup of products that includes skincare products, makeup items, and makeup brushes. At the nearby Yojiya Cafe, you can enjoy cappuccino with latte art inspired by the Yojiya logo and Japanese pastries.
Ichizawa Hanpu is a veteran manufacturer of canvas bags that was founded more than 100 years ago. Ki-Ichizawa was created after inheriting the Ichizawa Hanpu’s traditions in careful manufacturing. The bags that are meticulously made by hand by artisans who use carefully selected canvas, so they are sturdy and boast superb durability. The fabric is coated, so it does not get dirty and loose easily. This shop offers a wide range of products that are priced from 10,000 JPY to around 20,000 JPY, including totes, shoulder bags, and backpacks. It also manufactures and sells pouches, pen cases, coin purses and other products that are more affordable.
Tenshu is a restaurant that specializes in tendon (tempura rice bowl) for lunch and tempura served in a course for dinner. It is a popular spot where customers have to line up for lunch, even on weekdays. Its specialty dish is the Tenshu-fu Kakiage Tendon (1,600 JPY) that is limited to 10 orders per day. The kakiage (a kind of tempura that is made by mixing small pieces of ingredients in batter and then deep-frying it) that contains small shrimp and vegetables is so big that it is almost sticking out of the bowl! Eat this rice bowl by putting sweet sauce, sansho (Japanese pepper) and matcha salt on the crunchy fried batter. Another signature dish of this restaurant is the Anago Tendon (1,100 JPY) that has three pieces of anago (conger eel) tempura. It is crispy on the outside and moist and soft on the inside. Both dishes are quite filling, so there is no doubt that you will be completely satisfied!
Manzara is a restaurant that is located on the south side of Gion where maiko and geisha come and go. It is housed in a renovated machiya, with interiors that adopt a Japanese modern design while retaining a traditional Kyoto vibe. At Manzara, you can let loose and just enjoy the food and alcohol. At the counter, there is a display of large bowls of around 13 types of obanzai (dishes made in Kyoto households since ancient times) that change daily. The Obanzai Takiawase (1,200 JPY (excl. tax) that will let you try the day’s dishes in small portions is quite popular. Aside from that, there are many other creative Kyoto dishes that use fresh Kyoto vegetables. They also have about 15 brands of Japanese sake in stock for you at all times, sometimes even offering local Kyoto alcohols depending on the season and day. English menu available.
Gion is a place that thrived as a temple town in ancient times, and then blossomed into the best entertainment district in Kyoto during the Edo period. Aside from being a representative area where you can capture a feel of the real Kyoto ambience, it has also become one of the leading business districts in Kyoto today. There are many cafes housed in machiya, historic restaurants and other spots, so make sure to drop by when you visit Kyoto!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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