The Best Self Guided Walking Tour of Gion, Kyoto's Historical Geisha Neighbourhood
The Gion district is one of Kyoto’s oldest neighbourhoods. The streets seem to surge with history but what makes this area so unique is because it is one of the last remaining places where you can see real Geishas in Japan. Up and down these streets you can keep your eyes open and see if you can catch a glimpse of a Geisha on her way to a tea houses where exclusive guests enjoy an evening of traditional Japanese entertainment.
Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan from 794 -1869, and as a great metropolis, it required the best entertainment for their dignitaries and foreign guests. Unlike many movie portrayals or common myths, Geishas or ‘Geikos’ are not escorts or prostitutes. They are professional entertainers. Geikos and Maikos are the words for Geishas and Geishas-in-training in Kyoto. Geiko literally translates into “a woman of art”. Geikos are trained in all the different art forms of traditional Japanese art. They will be proficient in playing music, to paintings, flower arranging, singing and dancing.
Gion is located along the Kamo River and can be easily reached by public transit. The closest train station is the Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Line and Kawaramachi Station on the Hankyu Line. You can also reach the area by bus #100 or #206, and get off at the Gion bus stop. The cost for public transit is only 230 yen ($2 US). If you choose to take a taxi, you can ask for it to drop you at the first location; Maruyama Park although taxis are pretty pricey (at least $15 US and up depending on your departure location) so I’d advise taking public transit.
When To Go?
The aim of this tour is to take your around the historic area of Gion, while stopping in at the Gion Theatre to see a show in the middle of the tour. This part is totally optional and you can easily just continue on from there without attending but I think seeing a performance at the theatre is a great introduction to the art of being a Geisha and gives you an idea of what's going on behind those closed tea house doors. The performances are at 6:00 pm and at 7:00 pm, and I would aim to get a ticket for the 7:00 pm show in order to give yourself enough time to explore the north western parts of Gion.
The best time to start this tour is around 5:30 pm, just before dusk. Most of the earlier parts of the journey are best seen when it’s light out, but Gion really takes on a different shape when night falls. The red lamps are lit, and the lights reflect off the water like stars in the sky. Any sign of modernity seems to dissipate and you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Just before dusk is also when the Geishas will exit their apartments and head to the tea houses for their nightly routines, so if you want to see one, this is your best opportunity! Use this map, also located at the bottom of this post, to help navigate your way around Gion, but since it’s a small area don’t worry about getting lost!
Start your walking tour of Gion inside Maruyama Park. If you’re lucky enough to visit Maruyama Park during cherry blossom season, you’re in for a real treat. This park is the the best place to go for cherry blossom viewing in Kyoto. The most impressing sight here is the ‘shidarezakura’, a weeping cherry tree, which they light up at night. It’s truly an ethereal sight! Even during the rest of the year, the garden feels like a treasure and is even designated as a National ‘Place of Scenic Beauty’.
From the park, walk through the winding pathways over to Yasaka Shrine, which sits just at the end of Shijō Street. Yasaka is the spiritual centre of Gion and the reason everything around it even exists. In the middle ages, hundreds and thousands of people came through this area to make a pilgrimage to the shrine. The neighbourhood was built up around it to feed and house all the travellers passing through.
A shrine has stood on this site since 656, but the Yasaka Shrine was founded in 1350. It was built to honour Susanoo-no-mikoto, a Japanese god who defeated an eight-headed serpent and saved the citizens of Kyoto from many disasters. During the evening or at dusk is when this temple comes alive in a different way. The hundreds of lanterns which hang outside the temple, each one donated from a local business with their name inscribed upon it, are all lit up when the sun goes down. It is a remarkable site to see against the backdrop of the bright, vermilion painted torii gates.
After touring the temple, head down to Shijo-Dori. Shijo Dori (dori means street) is the best place to do some shopping while in Gion. Here you can find traditional sweet shops, pickles and handicrafts all along this green roofed and lantern covered street. This is the most modern area of Gion, with offices and some big name brands, but any of the roads which branch off from Shijo will take you right back in time.
A few steps down the street along Shijo-dori, turn right onto Hanamikoji. Hanamikoji is the real heart of Gion. It is where you’ll find the best-preserved aspects of the city’s architecture and culture. Along this street, it feels as though time has stopped. Hanami-koji means “blossom viewing lane” since during the cherry blossom season this street explodes with blooms and feels like they encompass the entirety of the skyline. Along this street, you’ll find some of the oldest establishments in Kyoto called ‘ochayas’, or teahouses and ‘Machiya’ or ‘townhouses’. The buildings are all designed in a similar fashion, reflecting aspects of traditional Kyoto architecture. They are mostly made of wood, with no windows on the streets to protect the identity of their customers. Each of them has a wooden lattice facade which runs halfway up the exterior of the house and topped with baked tile roofs. Most of the houses are unpainted although the ones which cater to Geishas are given a coat of red or vermilion paint to distinguish them from the rest in a subtle way. Elegantly dressed bouncers wait in from of open doorways, secretly ushering in the elite customers and elegant Geishas, away from the rabble on the street.
For those wondering how you can experience an evening with a Geisha for yourself, there aren’t many options. Most Geishas are extremely expensive, and that’s even if you can manage to get the contacts to book a dinner with them. They don’t just have a phone line or website where you can make a reservation. You need to know someone who can give you a reference to get you in. Some tourist services offer evening dinners with “geishas”, but often these aren’t the real thing. More often than not, it’s just a woman in a costume pretending to be a geisha. Remember, if it’s the real thing, it will cost a pretty penny, so if you feel like it’s too good to be true - it is. If you manage to get the right introductions to make a reservations an evenings entertainment will start at $700 US and that’s not even including dinner or drinks.
The red lanterns that hang outside humble townhouses are used to indicate these are ‘ochayas’. Inside, guests will enjoy an evening of entertainment and fine dining hosted by the Geishas and their house mother. They will sing and dance for their guests while food is served. Geishas are also incredible musicians and will often treat their guests to songs played on the Shamisen (a smaller and thinner kind of guitar), the Koto (the national instrument of Japan played like a horizontal guitar), the Shakuhachi (a bamboo flute) and the Tsuzumi (a small tribal drum). Geishas delight in playing traditional Japanese drinking games with the most excellent sake with the businessmen.
A few steps down the Hanamikoji is Ichiriki-tei or Ichiriki Tea House. This is the most famous tea house, located in a 300-year-old red-painted house. Ichiriki-tei’s reservations are by invitation only, and the people coming in and out its doors are sure to be of great importance. It has been the scene of many samurai plots over the years and where prominent governmental figures met and discussed the future of their great city. Although you might not be able to get inside, seeing this iconic building, even from the outside, is a something truly special.
Geikos and Maikos
Hanamikoji is definitely the best place to spot a Geisha, so keep your eye peeled. Geisha are more appropriately called Geikos and Maikos. You’ll also see dozens of tourist dressed up in fancy kimonos and even some fake Geishas posing for pictures. If you’re trying to spot a real Geisha, there are ways to identify them. Maikos (Geishas in training) will have decorations like flowers in their hair, while a Geiko (a fully trained Geisha) will not. Also, Maikos obis (the belt they wear around their kimono) will stretch almost to the ground, while the Geikos obi is neatly folded around her back. The ultimate way to tell the difference is the shoes. Geikos have flat shoes called ‘zoris’ while the Maikos wear the iconic mile-high platforms slipped called ‘okobos’.
The reason the Geikos have a much more subdued appearance than their trainee counterparts, is because these women have already made it and don’t need to show off. To become a real Geiko or Geisha, you need to go through years and years of rigorous training. Most girls start training at the age of 15 and attend Geisha schools where they learn all the different skills they require to entertain their guests. Since they are not making any money at this point, their schooling, training and clothing are all provided and paid for by their house mother, the ‘okasan’.
After they become a full-fledged Geikos, they must pay off their debts to the house mother who will get them their jobs and find them clients. Many girls dream of becoming Geikos despite it being a rather ancient occupation. Geikos are now becoming famous on the internet and young girls dream of becoming insta-famous too. Just like girls in North America look up to celebrities, girls in Japan look up to these elegant professional party girls. If you see a Maiko or Geiko in the streets, be respectful. They don’t mind if you take a picture, but they won’t stop and take a picture with you or stop to chat. If they’re on the street, they are on their way to work and don’t have time to dillydally. Let them go on their way and just allow yourself to be an observer of their grandiose presence.
Patisserie Gion Sakai
Past Ichiriki-tei, stop in at Patisserie Gion Sakai. Gion is famous for its sweets. Nothing was better for a Geisha to bring a samurai than a sweet treat and as such the town is filled to the brim with cute shops. Patisserie Gion Sakai, found inside a traditional wooden style townouse, is where you can get some of the most wonderfully made cakes! While there is a variety of other things to try, I’d go right for the fluffy cake rolls filled with sweet cream. Some of their more traditional flavours include plum, blood orange and matcha.
After grabbing a bite to eat to tide your over, head to Gion Corner. If you aren’t in the know, don’t have the connections or don’t have a ton of money to spend but are interested in seeing what comprises a traditional Geisha tea ceremony, this theatre puts on performances every day where you can see examples of their talents. Maikos show off their ikebana (flower arranging skills), perform bunraku (Japanese puppet theatre), and even preform a traditional Geisha dance for the guests. While the theatre is closed by this time of the night. Adult tickets cost 3,150 yen ($30 US), Students (Age 16-22) are 2,200 yen ($22 US) and children are Children (Age 7-15) are 1,900 yen ($19 US). Performances are at 6:00 pm and at 7:00 pm but I’d advise to see the later show to give yourself more time to explore Gion in the daylight.
After the show, head north along Hanamikoji. Many of the houses along the Hanamikoji north of Shijo-dori are old merchant houses. These charmingly preserved townhouses represent the architectural style of ancient Imperial Kyoto. They have been here for centuries and once would have served the ancient samurais. These days not all the shops on the street cater to knights of the empire. You can find some well priced restaurants to dine at along one of Kyoto’s famous laneways.
Along Hanamikoji north see if you can spot one of the Maiko Lesson Boards. These boards aren’t identified with large signage, so they’re a little hard to spot but can be found if you know what you’re looking for. Look for a large green board with a chart covered in vertical, white Kanji letters. This is their agenda for the day, saying which classes they need to attend with what teachers around town. Maikos will stop here throughout the day to see where to go to head to class since instead of one schoolroom, they’re classes can be found all across Gion in unassuming townhouses. The entire life of Geisha is one of secrecy and illusion and even their classes reflect this.
Gion Tatsumi Bridge
At the end of Hanamikoji, you’ll come to the Gion Tatsumi Bridge. This bridge is one of the most iconic places for a picture across the Shirakawa Canal. On either side of the canal, you’ll find willow trees whose leaves hang over the water and onto the street, creating a soft, green canopy. Truly one of the most spectacular places in Kyoto. During the day this bridge can be overrun, but at night you are likely to find it all to yourself.
Tatsumi Daimyojin Shrine
On the other side of the bridge, you’ll find the Tatsumi Daimyojin Shrine. This tiny, neighbourhood shrine, almost completely obscured in darkness at night, is frequented a lot by many local Geishas. Besides the shine is a stone inscribed with a poem by the famous poet Isamu Yoshii. It was made to honour the artists since he had a great love for Gion. The poem reads:
No matter what is said
it is Gion I love.
Even when I sleep
beneath my pillow
the water flows…
Walking along the Shirakawa Canal is a great place to wander, away from the hustle and bustle of the main street. Some of the city’s most exclusive eating establishment are located along this canal. If any celebrities are visiting the city, you’ll surely spot them here. While the canal is gorgeous to view during the day, there is something extraordinary about seeing it at night, when the trees are alight and the sparkling of the stars reflects across the water. The sound of only your footsteps on the stone sidewalk echoing across the street.
Head back down towards Shijo-Dori now that night has fallen. Turning back onto the part of this street where we haven’t yet explored, check out the Minamiza Kabuki Theater. At night this theatre is a beacon of light in the darkness. The Minamiza is the best kabuki theatre in Kyoto. It was founded in 1610 but the one you see standing here today is a reconstruction from 1929. Kyoto is the birthplace of kabuki, and there is no better place in the world to see kabuki as a first-timer or experienced veteran. Kabuki is much like European opera but with a Japanese twist which includes more drama, more colours and much more spectacle!
Temple of Chugen-ji
Near the Kabuki theatre, down the cobblestone streets next to the Kamo River, we find the tiny Temple of Chugen-ji. Inside this temple, you’ll discover ‘Jizo’, a Buddist guardian saint. But this Jizo enshrined here is extra special. During the great floods of 1228, the people of Gion prayed to Jizo to save their town from the rising waters. People claimed they saw Jizo physically saving people from the flood and saw him stop the rain. This temple is dedicated to god who saved of the town, perhaps without his intervention, it wouldn’t be standing here today.
Kamo River Bridge
Head across the Kamo River Bridge and take a moment to look across the water. The Kamo River has served over the years as a place of great importance for the people of Kyoto. The river was diverted in the 8th century to ensure the new course past the town’s new capital Heian Capital (now called Kyoto). The river was not only a place for the locals to get their drinking water but was where many of the local fabric makers would come to dye their beautiful fabrics and pottery makers would begin to get supplies for their work, two iconic symbols of Kyoto craftmanship.
Across the bridge, you’ll come to Pontocho Alley. This narrow alleyway marked with a simple wooden sign runs parallel to the Kamo river with the fancy restaurants overlooking the river bank on the right and the less pricey, more authentic restaurants off to the left. Although this street feels a bit dingy during the day, at night it comes alive, with paper lanterns, neon signage, and music pouring out of the nearby clubs. There are a few elite theatres around here where Maikos and Geikos perform so if you didn’t spot one on the other side of the river this might be your chance to see one here.
Torisei Shijo Kiyamachi
If you’re looking for somewhere to eat head to Torisei Shijo Kiyamachi, where they serve traditional yakitori. They have a great selection of different kinds of yakitori (food on skewers cooked over a charcoal grill) for reasonable prices. Plus you have a great view of the cooks at work which is like a having dinner and a show!
Making your way down the southern part of Gion, take a walk down Kiyamachi Dori. Kiyamachi Dori is another historic streets in Gion. The road is located along the embankment of the Takase River, which was actually a man-made canal made in 1586 when a wealthy merchant decided to dig it out. He wanted to create a new waterway to bring in stone and other materials from Fushimi into Kyoto. Although the canal was taken out of service in 1920, it still makes for a scenic walkway, and at night a vast stretch of the street is dazzlingly illuminated. This is the perfect and most peaceful place to end your tour in this historic area of Kyoto.
I think with this guide you can head out and explore Gion on your own, at your own pace and venture off from the large tour groups which can make what should be a quiet, relaxing stroll into a frenzied and crowded experience. Plus, when you go on your own you can follow your own instincts, if something looks interesting, go off the path and check it out! You might be surprised what you find around the next corner.