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Gion District Walk (Self Guided), Kyoto

Famed for being one of the most mesmerizing parts of Kyoto, Gion is the area long associated with traditional Japanese entertainment, stunning temples, geisha and local eateries ideal to while away a day in the ancient capital of Japan. The district forms part of the Higashiyama (“Eastern Mountain”) neighborhood lying north and south of Shijo Street, 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. As such, Gion is a perfect location to explore Old Kyoto and the ocean of cultural history it contains. Follow this self-guided walk to visit some of the area's must-see attractions.
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Gion District Walk Map

Guide Name: Gion District Walk
Guide Location: Japan » Kyoto (See other walking tours in Kyoto)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 11
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.8 Km or 1.7 Miles
Author: emma
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Minamiza Kabuki Theater
  • Gion Shirakawa
  • Tatsumi Bridge
  • Shinmonzen-dori Street
  • Ichiriki Chaya
  • Hanamikoji Street
  • Gion Corner
  • Kenninji Temple
  • Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine
  • Ebisu-jinja Shrine
  • SaryoTsujiri Tea House
1
Minamiza Kabuki Theater

1) Minamiza Kabuki Theater

Nestled in the southeast end of Shijo-dori street, just behind a popular noodle shop half a block away from Gion Shijo Station, is the magnificent Minamiza theater. Despite the variety of theatrical shows put on here today, including the newest forms of live entertainment, Minamiza is famous primarily for kabuki. This colorful dramatic genre of storytelling, in which both male and female parts are played by male actors, was born and has been flourished in Kyoto since the early 17th century.

Back in the day, there were in total seven kabuki theaters in the city. Over the centuries, six of them have disappeared, while Minamiza has stood the test of time. Although the theater itself has been around since the early Edo Period (1596-1615), the current building with ornate facade and dramatically gabled roof, dates back only to 1929. In the 1600s, kabuki dances (kabuki odori) attracted great audiences which turned the dry bed of the Kamo River into a bustling “theater town” filled with excitement. 400 years on, in 1996, the Minamiza Theater was designated a Registered Tangible Cultural Property, and shortly after was even registered as a Structure of Historical Design in Kyoto. In 2018, the theater underwent extensive renovation.

Tip:
To follow the performed story in English, make sure to rent audio headsets ($7 each) and prepare to sit tight for more than three hours. During intermissions, the spectators are free to eat their own food. If you want a souvenir (e.g. post cards of the actors), get them before the show or during the intermissions, as the concession stands are closed after the performance. Kabuki is immensely popular, so buy your tickets in advance and be ready to pay between $30 and $200 apiece, depending where you sit.
While the Japanese like dressing up for kabuki, wearing kimono, etc., they don’t expect foreigners to follow suit. Just save them the facepalm expression and don’t come in shorts.
2
Gion Shirakawa

2) Gion Shirakawa

Oftentimes, the best way to explore a city is just to follow your curiosity and walk down the unknown streets whilst keeping your eyes wide open along the way. The historic Shirakawa street, cutting through the Gion district in parallel with the eponymous river canal, is ideally suited for this style of exploration. Just as many other roads in the area, it is flanked by tall leafy willow trees and dotted with fancy establishments – traditional restaurants and ochaya (geisha houses) – most of which overlook the canal.

Contrary to the other touristy parts of Kyoto, Shirakawa is slightly off the beaten paths, away from the main shopping and dining strips, and as such offers some quiet respite. This is without detriment, however, to the dining options available here, which are plentiful. Here, in addition to a nice meal or tea, guests are also treated to a great view, which is particularly picturesque in spring when the cherry trees are in blossom.

During the blooming period, a stroll via cobbled Shirakawa is truly awe-inspiring, be it in day's light or night's illumination. Complete with a striking backdrop of the canal, the soothing warm light pouring from the restaurants, machiya houses, Tatsumi Daimyojin shrine, or the hotspot Tatsumi bridge, create a truly indelible impression. No wonder Shirakawa is often used as a set for films and TV dramas, for there is hardly a better place to capture the spirit of Japan – simple, historical, calming, and warming. A very special place not to be missed!
3
Tatsumi Bridge

3) Tatsumi Bridge

Prior to merging with the Kamo River, the small Shirakawa canal crosses the historic Gion district. Among the several bridges spanning the canal there is one called Tatsumi Bashi, the largest and the most picturesque, situated near the similarly named Tatsumi Shrine in a lovely neighborhood which, until recently, was tucked away from the busy streets and trodden tourist paths. This was until a scene from the Hollywood-made movie “Memoirs of a Geisha,” based on the eponymous Arthur Golden novel, brought much fame to this bridge, albeit filmed on a set near Los Angeles, and thus prompted many a people to come here and take photos.

The bridge is particularly charming at night, when illuminated with red lanterns, and, if you catch a slightly rainy day, the light becomes truly magical. The Tatsumi bridge has a moderate traffic for its size. The nearby streets are lined with shops, bars and restaurants overlooking the river. The whole area is impeccably clean and a pure joy to walk around. Considering the presence of newlywed couples, it is now safe to assume that it has become a popular place for wedding photography, too.
4
Shinmonzen-dori Street

4) Shinmonzen-dori Street

Shinmonzen-dori is a small street in Gion, Kyoto which, together with the neighboring two streets of Furumonzen-dori and Nawate-dori, form an area widely recognized as the city's antiques treasure trove. Lined with two-storied wooden townhouses, Shinmonzen street holds dozens of stores specialized in traditional arts and crafts and equally reputed, at home and abroad, as trustworthy and knowledgeable in the field of antiques, being run by the same family for generations. Among the things sold here are ancient scrolls, netsuke – small carved figurines used as part of traditional Japanese clothing, lacquer ware, bronze, wooden block prints, screens, paintings, ceramic bowls, textiles, scrolls, prints, furniture and more.

One of the best known stores at Shinmonzen is Kawasaki Fine Arts, specialized in folding screens. Available are both expensive antique and budget-friendly, modern-made screens painted by emerging artists. You can also find here hanging scrolls, Edo-period Ukiyo-e prints, ceramics, wooden block prints and lacquer ware. Another prominent store – Ezoshi – sells Ukiyo-e prints, as well as the popular 19th-century Shin Hanga prints. Kaori is the shop specialized in perfumes and incense sticks. The Old Art Kanzando store carries a vast range of period porcelain and Imari-style pottery, as well as ornamental hairpins. Also, at Shinmonzen there is the traditional Ryokan inn with a small garden and tea house where candlelight tea ceremonies are held every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Overall, this is a great area to ramble in and browse, be it for the love of antiques or simply out of curiosity.
5
Ichiriki Chaya

5) Ichiriki Chaya

Just a short stroll from the Yasaka Shrine, in the southeastern corner of Shijo-dori and Hanamikoji-dori streets, is a huge red-walled teahouse, known as Ichiriki Chaya. Established more than 300 years ago, this teahouse has been one of the most high-end establishments in Gion, offering geisha entertainment to the elite strictly by invitation.

In addition to its exclusivity, Ichiriki Chaya is also steeped in history. During the 19th century, revolutionary samurai warriors gathered here to plot the downfall of the shogun’s reign that would ultimately reshape the history of Japan. A century earlier, the Ichiriki teahouse played an important role in a legendary samurai vendetta, known as the Tale of the 47 Ronin.

This tale is one of Japan’s best known stories of loyalty which has been retold and depicted in literature, theater and movies innumerable times. The most extraordinary thing about it is that it is all true. The story started in 1701, in the Edo Castle, with a personality clash between the two hot-tempered noblemen, Kira Yoshinaka and Asano Naganori. During the clash, Yoshinaka repeatedly insulted Asano to the point that the latter “lost his head”, drew his sword and attempted to kill Kira. Although unsuccessful, that attack was considered strictly against the code of honor, and Asano was ultimately forced to commit a ritual suicide (seppuku), this time losing his head literally. 47 of his servicemen thus became “ronin” or masterless samurai, and vowed to avenge their master.

To fool the enemy, for two years the 47 cleverly pretended to have no ill intentions, whilst cunningly planning the attack. For this purpose they dispersed, found new work, and their leader, Oishi Kuranosuke, moved to Kyoto and started frequenting the Ichiriki teahouse, producing the image of a debauched, drunken man preoccupied with gambling, women and song. Eventually, the group reassembled in Edo, assaulted Kira’s residence, killed him and left his head at Asano’s grave. After that, all the 47 committed ritual suicide, but their fame and that of the Ichiriki teahouse grew and grew with each retelling of their tale ever since.
6
Hanamikoji Street

6) Hanamikoji Street (must see)

Hanamikoji (“Blossom Viewing Lane”) is one of the best preserved historic streets in Kyoto, located east of Gion Shijo Station, halfway down Shijo-dori street en route to Yasaka Shrine, and intersecting Gion. Among many other things, this street is renowned for its traditional wooden machiya townhouses, many of which today are converted into art galleries, antiques shops, art sellers, kimono stores and outlets selling traditional crafts. There is also an abundance of cafes and sweet shops, kaiseki restaurants and inimitable boutiques. Albeit very touristy, this part of the city is undeniably beautiful.

The majority of guests of Kyoto flock to Hanamikoji in a bid to snap images of the winding tiny side alleyways, pretty pagodas and, if lucky, an odd geisha (or geiko, as they are called locally) hurrying from one client to the next. A few blocks further east of Chugen-ji Temple, the street broadens out into a flagstone paved strolling area lined on both sides with well-preserved historic teahouses, called chaya.

Tip:
The area is famed for being a place to find some of the best ceramics in Kyoto.
7
Gion Corner

7) Gion Corner

The art of the geiko (or “geisha” as they are commonly known) is largely popularized these days, often eclipsing all the other performing arts practiced in Kyoto. Gion Corner is a popular night spot where tourists can enjoy an hour long evening digest of the traditional Japanese culture, featuring seven forms of entertainment in a single setting, namely: Kyoto style Dance, Flower Arrangement, Tea Ceremony, Japanese Harp, Comic Play, Court Music, and Puppet Play.

The famous geisha dance show, Miyako Odori, takes place here in April and October. Another notable form of entertainment found here, called Bunraku, otherwise known as Ningyo Joruri, is a unique style of puppet theater that originated in the neighboring city of Osaka in the 17th century and is now expertly performed in select theaters throughout Kyoto. Bunraku puppets are half the size of a normal person and take three puppeteers to handle, thus making it a sort of hybrid between a regular theater and puppet show. This experience is for the most art-savvy travelers, and is definitely worth having whilst in Kyoto. Just like kabuki, bunraku is now recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, making it an art form of significant cultural influence.
8
Kenninji Temple

8) Kenninji Temple

Kenninji temple is, in fact, a large complex of structures incorporating traditional gardens, monuments and even a teahouse, and is situated at the southern end of Hanamikoji street. Most importantly, though, this complex accommodates one of the head shrines of the Rinzai Sect of Japanese Buddhism, currently ranked top third among the five greatest Zen temples in Kyoto and the largest Buddhist temple in Gion. Established in 1202, this is the oldest Zen temple in the city, although, just like many other local wooden temples, it burned down several times, so technically speaking, the current structure dates back only 250 years.

Kenninji was founded by Myōan Eisai (Yōsai), who was an incredibly influential Buddhist priest in 12th century Japan. After visiting China, he brought back two things which are now inseparable from the Japanese culture, namely: Zen Buddhism and tea. Eisai was so ardent in promoting the health benefits of tea that most hedges within the temple have been planted with tea bushes. To commemorate Eisai’s tea effort, there's a stone monument in the southeast corner of the complex.

Also on the grounds are many beautiful works of art. Among them is a famous screen painting by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, inside the Hojo building, depicting gods of thunder and lightning. This iconic image, however, is only a replica; the original is kept at the Kyoto National Museum. Inside the Dharma Hall you can see a spectacular ceiling painting of two dragons of eternity, created by Koizumi Junsaku. Originally, this painting was commissioned by a nearby elementary school, but was moved here in 2002 to commemorate the temple’s 800th anniversary.

Tip:
Much of the temple complex is open for visits free of charge, whereas some of the smaller sub-temples are closed to the public; the main Hojo and Hatto buildings charge visitors a small fee (500 yen) payable at the reception.
Those keen on meditation, can give it a try at the rippling stone garden.
9
Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine

9) Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine

Yasui Konpira-gu is a quirky shrine at the end of Hanami-koji lane in Gion whose entrance is marked by a stone toori gate. But the true highlight of this place is, undoubtedly, the unusual large ema-shaped “power stone”, known as “enkiri” or “enmusubi”, with a hole in its center. Reputedly, this megalith helps people break bad relationships, end a disease or other harmful habits like smoking, drinking or gambling, plus initiates some good connections in return. Yasui Konpira-gu is especially popular with young women who flock here in numbers to perform a ritual of symbolical “rebirth” by crawling through the hole in the stone.

It is said that, in order to harness the stone’s power, you should first pray at the main sanctuary and then write your wish on a special white strip of paper, called “katashiro”, purchased at the shrine. With that wish in hand (as well as in mind!) you should then pass through the hole twice, back and forth, before pinning your paper onto the stone alongside thousands of others. Older paper amulets are gradually removed and burned.

The stone obviously does it work very well, given the long lines of singletons gathering here at weekends, all hoping to work some magic on their love life and more.
10
Ebisu-jinja Shrine

10) Ebisu-jinja Shrine

Ebisu-jinja is a small Shinto shrine dedicated to one of the Seven Gods of Fortune and Prosperity, known locally as Ebissan (Ebes-san or "Mr. Ebe"). This is one of the three most popular shrines in the country, and it has strong connections to the nearby Zen Buddhist temple of Kenninji. Legend has it that Kenninji’s founder, Eisai, back in the 12th century, sailed from China and was hit by a severe storm. Fearing that his ship might sink, Eisai prayed to Ebisu, who also happens to be the guardian patron of seafarers, fishermen and business people, and the storm swiftly passed. Upon his return to Japan, Eisai built the Kenninji temple and promptly gave thanks to Ebisu for his deliverance by building a shrine in his honor. It may seem odd that Eisai respected another religion in such a way, but in Japan, religions such as Shinto and Buddhism are not seen as mutually exclusive and it is quite common to see people practice the rituals of both.

Among other things, the now prosperous Ebisu shrine, whose deity's jolly figure with a telltale fishing pole is found on the grounds, is famous for hosting the Toka Ebisu Festival in January. During this festival, entrepreneurs from all over the country gather in hope that the shrine’s lucky bamboo will bring good fortune to their businesses. Prayers are made together with lavish offerings of money and there is plenty of enthusiasm. Twice bowing the head, twice clapping the hands, and then bowing again are said to be able to turn fortunes in one's favor if the claps are loud and hearty enough. October 11th is another busy day for the shrine. On this day, it plays host to an event involving actresses and maiko (apprentice) geisha, with lots of street stalls with standing bars for eating and drinking.
11
SaryoTsujiri Tea House

11) SaryoTsujiri Tea House

You can easily forget the conbini snacks whilst in Kyoto, known for its matcha and hojicha parfaits. For a real Kyoto dessert, do as the locals do and head straight to SaryoTsujiri, one of the best stops in Gion for matcha tea and desserts well-worth having at least once!

Sitting on the south side of the lively Shijo-dori, between Hanami-koji and Yamato-oji streets, this shop is so famous in Japan that everyone knows about it. The place combines a shop and a cafe, both named Tsujiri, which is actually written in different kanji characters, but the difference is only in the concept and they are both run by the same proprietor. Surrounded with many souvenir shops, SaryoTsujiri is a bit hidden but really hard to miss, given the long line of people, mostly Japanese girls and women, queuing up on top of the stairs of the store and half-way down the street, even on weekdays, in order to grab a seat inside. But the wait is all worth it, and they have more seating space than you may expect.

The first floor carries ice cream, tea samplers, and delicious sweets made of Japanese tea – ideal for souvenirs – in case you want to occupy yourself and pregame for desserts. On the second floor, you can sit and enjoy matcha tea-flavored parfaits or cakes with a large variety of toppings and fillings in a casual and homey atmosphere.

Some of the local delights include Tokusen Tsujiri and Green Tea Parfait with little Mochi balls inside along with Hojicha jelly topped with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream! From the whipped cream on top to the jelly to castellas (sponge cake), all these items use generous amounts of matcha. In summer (from April to September) you can enjoy Matcha Kakigori shaved ice. They also have other types of cold and warm desserts, so you can visit in any weather.

Tip:
The available English menu comes with pictures, so you can simply point and order.
If taken with ice cream, make sure to eat the Mochi balls quickly or they may freeze up next to the ice cream and get hard.
For ¥500+, you will get delicious Matcha flavors along with a condensed milk drizzle on top.
Alternatively, you may simply get an ice cream from the first floor and walk back to Kawabata Street to enjoy it by the river.

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