Here’s my video of Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto. A great area to explore and see lots of traditional Japanese wooden houses (machiya) and old streets.
I loved exploring Gion and soaking up the atmosphere. If you want to see beautiful historic Japanese streets, this is the place to go! The houses are so private and closed-off, with all the bamboo blinds and wooden slats. The place has an air of mystery and secrets! It’s probably just my imagination, knowing that this is where geisha operate – in reality the buildings are probably perfectly everyday and mundane inside, but it was fun to explore, and really was like nowhere else.
In Gion I found the old streets I’d been looking for in Kyoto. I much preferred it to the Sannenzakka / Ninnenzakka area near Kiyomizu-dera Temple (in my Southern Higashiyama video). It was less crowded and touristy and had so much more atmosphere. They’re fairly close together so you could easily visit both areas in one day.
Perhaps it was the time of day – a lot of guidebooks recommend strolling through Gion in the evening. I’m sure it would be amazing at night-time, with the lights reflected in the canals and a real magical atmosphere. If I ever visit Kyoto again, I’d definitely come here again as it’s getting dark (my favourite time of day when we’re away!).
We had planned to visit the evening before, but it was raining so much. It was actually the edge of a typhoon that tore up Okinawa in the past couple of days. It was due to pass near Kyoto, but luckily for us it diverted and we just caught the edge of it, which was a lot of rain.
Where to See Geisha in Kyoto
If you want to spot geisha in Kyoto, Gion is where they live and work. There are lots of high-end restaurants and tea houses. In the video you can see Gion Corner, the famous, grand theatre where you can watch maiko (trainee geisha) perform. The ticket prices for foreigners are actually pretty reasonable.
There are signs around Gion telling tourists not to touch geisha and to treat them with respect. I can’t believe that they have to tell you not to tug on their sleeves – like anyone else, geisha are busy at work and it seems natural to respect their privacy. I would have loved to spot one but we weren’t in luck. Later on in the day and in the evening is probably when you’re more likely to catch a glimpse.
Apparently a lot of geisha you see are actually tourists dressed up! You can pay to wear a kimono, wig and have your make-up done if you fancy being transformed into a geisha yourself. Unlike the numerous kimono rental shops, I didn’t chance upon any of these places, so if that’s something you want to do, I’d recommend researching beforehand and maybe even pre-booking if you can.
My guidebook (Lonely Planet) mentioned that “the loveliest street in the whole of Asia” can be found in Gion. Of course, reading something like that, I was intrigued and we had to set out to find it!
The street is Shirakawa-Minami Dori. We came across it from the east, where it meets Shinbashi Dori on a bridge. At the fork in the road is the small shrine you can see in the video. On one side is a street with trees and a canal, and the other is a small street with old wooden houses and iconic Japanese blinds. There are several restaurants – I didn’t try any of them but have heard that, as you’d expect, restaurants in this area are fairly high-end and pricey.
It really is very lovely and very picturesque, with lots of people dressed in yukata posing for photos!
How to Get to Gion
The closest station to Gion is Gion-Shijo, and everything’s easily walkable from there. As I mentioned, you could combine Gion with the rest of Southern Higashiyama, as they’re close together.
We walked to Gion from our hotel near Kyoto Station. It’s not a quick walk, about 2 miles depending on how many detours you take! But you can take a route along the bank of the Kamogawa River, which is very pleasant on a sunny day.
My guidebook (Lonely Planet) recommended a route through Gion to see all the most picturesque spots, called “Night Walk Through the Floating World” (you can see it on Google Books). We didn’t follow it exactly, but it was a useful guide for where the main areas are. I’d recommend exploring the backstreets – it’s fun to get lost and find yourself alone in quiet streets where people live!
We started at Gion Corner, the famous theatre. The main road in the video is Hanami-Koji Dori, and you easily find all the backstreets from there. The “loveliest street in Asia” (Shirakawa-Minami Dori) is the other side of Shijo Dori, which is a fairly major road with shops and restaurants. I’d expected the whole of Kyoto to be old streets like this – but it does function as an everyday city as well; the old and lovely areas tend to be in pockets.
More Kyoto Videos
There are lots more ideas for things to do in Kyoto in my other videos on YouTube – I hope you enjoy them and find them useful. There’ll also be videos from Tokyo coming up next. Subscribe and hit the notifications bell so you don’t miss them!
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