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Gion is Kyoto and probably Kansai, or maybe even Japan's most famous and iconic neighbourhood. Famously known as the ‘Geisha district’, Gion was actually originally built to accommodate travellers visiting the Yasaka Shrine.
Here is the Kansai Local guide on what to do in Gion.
The Gion neighbourhood is on the east side of the city. And despite what you may have seen on social media or heard from various sources, there are not loads of Geisha walking around and interacting with people, taking selfies with people etc. However, Gion is indeed the ‘Geisha district’.
Geisha start young. Usually, from around the age of 13 to 14, they will be introduced to tea houses where they eventually live full time and train. They become Maiko (trainee Geiko) at around the age of 16 to 17 and then become proper Geiko (the official term for Geisha, meaning Women of art, or lady of art) at around 18 to 19 years old. Most of the tea houses or ‘Ochaya’ are based in Gion or other parts of the famous and exclusive Higashiyama neighbourhood.
The purpose of Geisha was never prostitution, but more to entertain high flying guests and clients. Indeed it is very expensive to hire Geisha, and not anyone can do it. You have to have some sort of connection with a tea house. I have had the privilege to experience the Geisha when my mother and stepfather got engaged. As a celebration, we hired several Maiko and Geiko san for a big banquet at one of the main teahouses with the family and then we watched the famous Gion Matsuri Festival. It was a fascinating experience. The Geiko and Maiko-san were so charming, very talented in the art of conversation, music, dance, and… drinking. They can put a drink away that's for sure. Thats a big part of their job - to be able to handle their drink with clients. Another part of their skill set which they must develop is the ability to basically not sweat. They have multiple thick layers of garment, loads of makeup and jewellery on that any normal person would sweat like a pig. And when we were with them it was the peak of summertime which as you may or may not know, is hotter than hell in Japan, especially in Kyoto.
Gion is a historical area but there is actually much to do in Gion besides walk around and enjoy the historic architecture. So the best thing to do is stroll around and take photos of the streets and back alleys, and indeed the architecture. However, my best advice is to go there at night time or early morning as it is horrendously crowded during the day. It’s not even worth visiting as the crowds are too much. A fun thing to do is to walk to Kennin-ji. A beautiful temple that you can walk around at night/ in the evening. It’s by the Gion Neighbourhood
Step back in time by exploring the back streets of Gion in the evening. Feels like you're in a Samurai Movie
Tsuda-rou is an old teahouse converted into a restaurant/bar. The food during the day is good (traditional Japanese, quite pricey) and in the evening it turns into a really nice fancy bar. The decor is traditional, there is usually a man playing the shamisen (traditional Japanese instrument) and the barristers are great. Perfect spot to take a date to impress him/her.
It’s on the pricey side. No need to book.
The only Michelin star Gyoza restaurant in the world. Gyoza are pan-fried dumplings. Basically fast food. So it's one of the only Michelin star-rated fast food places. This place was actually set up by our family friend. It is DEFO worth a visit but beware of huge queues. It's cheap but you can’t book in advance. So it’s going to be a turn-up-and-wait job. But I mean Gyoza, Beer, Michelin star... need I say more?
The same family friend who opened Hohei Gyoza and architects who helped my parents also opened Sowaka Hotel. Stunning historical and modern fusion architecture with simplistic decor make this hotel really interesting. Even if you are not staying here overnight, it's worth going for a quick drink or dinner there. If you’d like to go for dinner, please get in touch with us by clicking here so we can book for you.
Machiya are townhouses that are famous ‘Kyoto style’. They have a very distinct style that can only be found in Kyoto. From minimalistic and very traditional interiors to low entrance doors and tatami rooms, they are a fascinating and beautiful part of Kyoto’s cultural heritage. For a house to classify as a Machiya, it must have been built before 1920, and conform to a specific architectural style. There are many Machiya in Kyoto, especially places like Gion and Higashiyama, but they are being knocked down by developers to make way for big hotels, which is an absolute travesty. What's worse is the Kyoto mayor isn't doing anything about it. Some hotels, like Sowaka (above), keep the traditional Machiya style, which is great.