Gion & Higashiyama in Kyoto 祇園・東山
Discover traditional Japan in the most beautiful areas of Kyoto
The traditional neighborhood of Gion along with its Geisha has contributed to making Kyoto famous. Despite an urban metamorphosis, the spirit of Kyoto positively asserts itself here. Not far away is the charming Higashiyama district with its many lanes and streets. Explore the traditional districts of the city.
Geisha of the Gion District
A famous image of Kyoto, Gion continues, year after year, the tradition of geishas. It was originally built as a stopover for pilgrims visiting the Yasaka Shrine
In Kyoto geisha's are called geiko. After years of studying singing, dancing and etiquette, praise their talent by accompanying clients to ochaya, which are traditional entertainment establishments. Discrete figures, they do not offer even a passing glance at strangers. Sometimes, in their high clogs, draped in a resplendent silk kimono cinched at the waist with a wide belt (obi), the maïko, apprentice geisha, slip out of a tea house (ochaya) nestled away in an alley.
However, it is not easy to spot a maiko - let alone a geisha. To have the chance to see them, it will be necessary to locate the famous ochaya, or the okiya, a kind of boarding houses where geishas live. Then you have to know how to differentiate maikos from geisha.
A few signs are easy to see: Geishas wear wigs, while maikos comb their real hair - which is why you see the natural skin color on the back of the neck of maikos, unlike geishas. Overall, the kimono and the hair jewelry of the maikos are more ostentatious and more colorful. The obi (belt) of the maikos is also much longer than that of the geishas at the back.
Please note that maikos and geishas start working from 5 p.m., so it is unlikely to see them before then.
Gion, A Traditional Area in Kyoto
During the day, passers-by can stroll peacefully along the pedestrian streets of the district, admiring the machiyas, these traditional wooden houses which add to the charm of the district.
Gion is marked by three main areas, Shijo Avenue and its modern shops, which leads to the great Yasaka shrine, Hanami-koji, the typical street where one of the most famous ochaya is located, and finally the district of Shirakawa, north along the canal and its views of the traditional tea rooms.
At sunset, the streets are bustling. Garish neon lights assaults passersby. In front of bars, young people in suits and bleached hair call out to prospective customers. Another time, another set of etiquette; geisha no longer rush from one appointment to the next. Parking lots, hostess bars and love hotels are gaining ground at the expense of old wooden houses. Fortunately, the pedestrian street Shinbashi Dori is resisting.
What to do in Gion?
Gion is also the area of Buddhist temples like Chion-in, Kennin temple or Shoren-in. And it remains a hotbed of festivals. Yasaka Jinja, the "Gion Shrine," owes its fame to the most famous and popular festival of all, the Gion Matsuri. The Kyo Odori in the spring and the Gion Odori in the fall is when visitors can admire the dances practiced by all geiko. And without having to cross the threshold of a tea house, a delight for non Kyotoites and the uninitiated.
- Read more: The Nanzenji Zen temple in Kyoto
To the east of Gion, the charming neighborhood of Higashiyama leans towards the eastern mountains of the city. With its cobbled streets leading to the millennial temple street Kiyomizu-dera, with its platform which offers a magnificent view of the whole city. The alleys are very busy, because they are full of souvenir and craft shops, cafes, pastry shops and ryokan ... Sannenzaka and Ninnenzaka streets are the two most famous: they have an inimitable charm with their cobblestones and their traditional facades.
In addition to the Kiyomizu-dera, the sublime Zen temple Kodai-ji is a hidden gem, as is the Yasaka pagoda that can be seen on the horizon. It belongs to the Hogan-ji temple, and is one of the symbols of the city. Suffice to say that the district has many treasures and that it is advisable to spend a little time there. At night, once the tourists have left, all these small streets reveal an unsuspected charm.
Performing arts lovers shouldn't miss a performance in the Kyoto Kanze Noh Theater.