Translated by Rachel Davies
Kyoto's Gion Area - A Walking Tour
Written by Shinji Takaramura
Gion, with its shrines, temples and beautiful streets is one of the places where one can immerse in the atmosphere of traditional Kyoto. Check out this walking guide to the Gion which includes must-see sightseeing spots along the way.
Famed for being one of the most mesmerizing districts in Kyoto, Gion is an area of stunning temples, maiko meeting places and local eateries that are perfect to while away a day in the ancient capital.
Kyoto’s magic lies in its ability to preserve the old and welcome the new. The Kyoto Station Building is a testament to this as a perfect example of modern Japan in the old capital.
But for me, the true beauty of Kyoto is found where cobbled streets and picturesque machiya are accompanied by the sound floating from open windows behind bamboo blinds, of geiko practicing their koto. Gion offers the perfect location for exploring Old Kyoto and the ocean of cultural history from a millennium spent as the powerhouse of Japan.
Gion Shijo - The Route Begins
Gion is part of the Higashiyama or ‘Eastern Mountain’ area of Kyoto. It’s one of the famous geisha (called ‘geiko’ in Kyoto) districts in the city, stretching from Yasaka Shrine in the east to the Kamo River in the west, and from the Shirakawa Canal in the north to Kenninji Temple in the south. Here’s my favorite route for exploring the area and some must-see sights along the way.
Hanamikoji Street - A Step Back in Time
Starting at Gion Shijo Station, walk east on the street called Shijo-dori towards Yasaka Shrine. Around halfway along Shijo-dori, turn right onto Hanamikoji. This street is famous in Kyoto as one of the best preserved in the city. Traditional wooden machiya house cafes and sweet shops, kaiseki restaurants and inimitable boutiques, and although it can be very touristy, its beauty more than makes up for that.
Wander a few of the side streets to snap some pictures with a quieter atmosphere. This is what the majority of visitors to Kyoto come to experience - tiny winding streets, pretty pagodas and maybe even the odd maiko hurrying from one appointment to the next.
Kenninji Temple - Sacred Dragons in a Serene Setting
Follow Hanamikoji-dori to the end, where you will enter the temple grounds of Kenninji Temple. It serves as one of the head temples of the Rinzai Sect of Japanese Buddhism, and is ranked third among the five great Zen temples of Kyoto.
The main feature of this temple is a huge image of twin dragons painted on the ceiling of the Dharma Hall. Many other beautiful works of Japanese art are displayed inside the temple.
From Kenninji, head further east via Yasui Konpiragu, a small but lovely shrine that is often overlooked by tourists and so offers a perfect opportunity for pictures.
Higashiyama - The Epitome of Old Kyoto
From here, continuing east it is easy to combine your day with a stroll through the wider Higashiyama area towards Kiyomizudera Temple.
Allow yourself to get lost amongst the beautifully preserved streets, awash with classic architecture boasting souvenir shops and tea houses. Be sure not to miss the charming Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka streets and the famous temples and shrines of the area - Kiyomizudera, Kodaiji, Chion'in and Shoren'in, all of which are easily accessible along a whimsical walking route.
There’s even a Starbucks housed in an old machiya in Ninenzaka that is so sympathetically renovated it took ten years to acquire planning permission and finish construction.
To make your way to Yasaka Shrine, from Higashiyama find Ishibekoji-dori, a quaint little side street with a mysterious feel and follow it. From Yasui Konpiragu Shrine head north towards Yasaka Shrine through the small street running parallel to Higashioji-dori.
If you’re looking for souvenirs, make your way to the Malebranche Gion store, a famous chocolatier and patisserie in Kyoto famed for its Cha no Ka biscuits made with Uji matcha, a type of green tea made near Kyoto. Dropping by this store to get a delicious present is also a wonderful opportunity to see inside a traditional machiya house.
Yasaka Jinja - Also Known as Gion Shrine
When arriving at Yasaka Shrine, take a moment to look back along Shijo-dori and into the heart of the city. The view is spectacular and another great example of the juxtapositioning of old and new, as the pretty lantern-lined street stretches off to meet multi-story department stores across the Kamo River.
Take your time to explore the grounds of the most famous shrine in Kyoto, walking through Maruyama Park with its stunning koi fish pond and garden of cherry blossom trees. From here you can easily reach the towering Chion'in Temple and climb the steps to the rear for a different view of this majestic temple.
Shirakawa Canal - Gion’s Most Picturesque Stream
Exit Maruyama Park via Chion'in Michi, which will take you directly into north Gion via Shinbashi-dori, Kyoto’s most famous antiques street. This runs straight to the Tatsumi Bridge that is a hotspot for Kyoto visitors dressed in beautiful kimono to stand amidst a backdrop of the Shirakawa Canal and its striking scenery.
Following the canal along Shirakawa-Minami-dori, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a Kyoto from years gone by. Kawabata-dori lies at the end of this street and will lead directly back to Gion Shijo, bring you full circle on my ideal walking tour of Gion.
Mind Your Manners and Enjoy Your Walk in Gion
Picture from A Dreamlike Townscape: Come Walk The Streets Of Gion At Night
This is just a taster of what glorious Gion has to offer. My best advice... Get lost. Take turnings that aren’t signposted to fully immerse yourself in the traditional atmosphere.
But be courteous, don’t trespass into private property and if you happen to see a maiko making her way to or from an appointment, do not try to touch or stop her and only take photos from a distance without impeding her progress.
Enjoy your walk through Gion, where you can fully immerse in the charm of traditional Kyoto.