At the heart of Kyoto lies Gion, the city’s most famous entertainment district and the center of its traditional arts. Michael Lambe takes us on a daytime tour of Gion’s most famous landmarks, shops and historic sites.
Yasaka-jinja Shrine, a spiritual lodestone at the heart of Kyoto, lies at the eastern edge of the Gion district – image © Michael Lambe
Gion is a traditional entertainment district lying north and south of Shijo Street, and stretching from the Kamo-gawa River in the west, as far as Yasaka-jinja Shrine in the east. Originally, this shrine was called Gion Shrine, and the entertainment area developed here to service its many pilgrims with food and drink.
Later, as kabuki drama became popular on the Gion district’s western edges, more sophisticated forms of entertainment were developed for the theater-goers, and so today Gion is known as Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. Packed with bars, restaurants and traditional teahouses, Gion is at its most atmospheric in the early evening, when the lanterns are lit and apprentice geisha will flit about the back streets on their way to their appointments. However, there is also a lot to see here during the day. Let’s take a walk and explore the shrines, temples and historic sites of Gion’s picturesque streets.
The Minamiza Kabuki Theater
We begin our walk by heading east on Shijo-dori Street from Gion-Shijo Station. Cross Kawabata-dori Street and nestled in the southeast corner of Shijo, just behind a popular noodle shop, you will find the magnificent Minamiza theater.
The Minamiza Kabuki Theater – image © Michael Lambe
Though a variety of theatrical productions are put on here, the Minamiza is most famous for kabuki. This extraordinary and colorful dramatic genre was born and flourished here in Kyoto from the early 17th century, and the Minamiza was once one of seven such theaters. The other six have disappeared, victims of history, but you can still see kabuki performances at the Minamiza. We aren’t stopping for a show today, so let’s pick up a flyer at the box office and then move on. Before we go though, step back a minute and admire that ornate façade and that dramatically gabled roof. Though a theater has stood here since the early 1600s, the current building was built in 1929.
Keep your eyes peeled as we head further east, for the tiny little temple of Chugen-ji on our right is very easy to miss. This temple is also known as Meyami Jizo after the Jizo statue that is enshrined here.
The entrance to Chugen-ji Temple – image © Michael Lambe
Jizo is a kind of Buddhist guardian saint, or bodhisattva, and his statue, typically a small friendly looking monkish figure with a red bib, is seen in temples and on roadsides all over Japan. The Jizo enshrined at Chugen-ji Temple however, also doubles up as a legendary super-hero and faith healer.
The story goes that during severe flooding in 1228, the Kamo-gawa River burst its banks and many people’s lives and businesses were in peril. After people prayed to the Jizo for help, the rains ceased, and one local official claimed he had actually seen Jizo physically saving people from the rising waters. Whatever the truth of the story, after that the statue became known as “Ameyami Jizo” or “Rain stopping Jizo”. Later on the statue gained the reputation for miraculously curing people’s eye diseases and the name changed again to “Meyami ” or “Eye-curing” Jizo.
A friendly Jizo statue at Chugen-ji Temple – image © Michael Lambe
Take a moment to breathe here. Meyami Jizo’s quiet little road-side temple, presents a pleasant momentary refuge from the bustling crowds on Shijo.
A couple of blocks further east of Chugen-ji Temple, Hanami-koji or “blossom viewing lane” runs north to south across Shijo. This is Gion’s most famous street. South of Shijo it is beautifully preserved and broadens out into a broad flagstone paved strolling area bordered on both sides by traditional teahouses called chaya. On the southeast corner of Shijo and Hanami-koji is a huge red-walled teahouse called Ichiriki Chaya.
The famous red walls of Ichiriki Chaya – image © Michael Lambe
Ichiriki Chaya is over 300 years old and has long been one of the most high-end establishments in Gion, offering geisha entertainment to powerful business and political figures – but strictly by invitation only. This teahouse is as famous for its history as its exclusivity. During the 19th century, revolutionary samurai warriors would meet here to plot the downfall of the shogun’s government (see my article Kyoto Samurai). And in the 18th century the Ichiriki teahouse played a major part in a legendary samurai vendetta.
The Tale of the 47 Ronin
This tale of the 47 ronin is one of the Japan’s best known and most popular stories having been retold and depicted countless times in literature, kabuki theater, art and movies. What is most extraordinary about this legendary story of loyalty and subterfuge is that it is all true. It all begins in Edo Castle in 1701, with a personality clash between two hot tempered noble men: Kira Yoshinaka and Asano Naganori. Kira Yoshinaka having repeatedly insulted Asano, the latter lost his head, drew his sword and tried to kill Kira. He was unsuccessful but attacks like this were strictly against the rules at the time, so Asanori was commanded to commit ritual suicide or seppuku (and thereby literally lost his head). 47 of Asano’s followers having become “ronin” or masterless samurai, vowed to have revenge on Kira – and this is where it gets interesting.
A woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige depicts Oishi Kuranosuke at the Ichiriki Chaya – image © Public Domain
The clever ronin knew that Kira’s spies and government officials would be watching them carefully, so they dispersed and found new work. Some became monks, and others took up a trade. Their leader, Oishi Kuranosuke, moved to Kyoto and became a regular of the Ichiriki tea house. Here he seemingly gave himself up to a debauched and drunken life of gambling, women and song. In reality though it was all just a cunning ruse!
After two years of complete dissipation had thoroughly convinced his enemies that Oishi had no ill intentions – Oishi sobered up and snuck back to Edo. Here the 47 ronin reassembled, attacked Kira’s residence, slew Kira and left his head at Asano’s grave. In the aftermath the 47 ronin having broken a strict government command against vendettas, committed ritual suicide themselves, but their fame and the fame of the Ichiriki teahouse grew and grew with each retelling of their tale.
Let’s walk straight down Hanami-koji south from the Ichiriki Chaya until we reach the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater also known as Gion Corner.
Gion Kobu Kaburenjo – image © Michael Lambe
Here in April and October the geisha of this district give their famous Miyako Odori dance performance. Throughout the year, tourists can also enjoy an hour long evening digest of traditional culture, with tea ceremony, flower arrangement, geisha dances and classical Japanese music. Check the Gion Corner website for details.
Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine
At the bottom of Hanami-koji we take a left and about one block east we see a stone toori shrine gate on our right. This is the entrance to Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine.
At Yasui Kompira-gu people write their wishes on little wooden tablets called ema and tie them up before the altar – image © Michael Lambe
This shrine’s main feature is an unusual “power stone” with a hole in the center which is said to help people break the bad connections in life and make good ones. To harness the stone’s power and form better relationships, you should first pray at the main sanctuary, and then write your wish on a special strip of paper (purchased at the shrine). With your wish in your hand (and in your mind) you should then pass through the stone twice, back and forth. Having completed this symbolical “rebirth” you should then attach your wish to the stone. The stone obviously has a good reputation because there are long lines of singletons here at weekends, all hoping to work some magic on their love life. However the stone is also meant to help break connections with bad habits like smoking, drinking and gambling.
The binding and breaking relationships stone is covered in the fluttering papers of countless hopes and wishes – image © Michael Lambe
You can find out more details about this shrine at the excellent official English-language website.
Now let’s go back the way we came, to the southern end of Hanami-koji. Here we find the entrance to the large temple complex of Kennin-ji. This temple dates from 1202 and is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. It has however, like many wooden temples in Kyoto, burned down several times, so the current buildings date back just 250 years. Today, we can walk around much of this temple complex free of charge, but some of the smaller sub-temples are closed to the public, and to enter the main buildings (the Hojo and Hatto buildings) you should pay a small fee.
The Sanmon gate at the southern end of Kennin-ji’s temple grounds – image © Michael Lambe
Kennin-ji was founded by Myōan Eisai (also called Yōsai), an incredibly influential Buddhist priest. Eisai made two visits to China in the 12th century, and brought back to Japan two things which now seem integral to Japanese culture: the teachings of Zen Buddhism and tea. Eisai was especially keen to promote the health benefits of tea, which he thought would help his monks to stay awake during prolonged bouts of zazen meditation. Because of this, most of the hedges that you see around the grounds of Kennin-ji are in fact tea bushes. You can find a stone monument that honors Eisai’s importation of tea in the south-eastern corner of the temple complex.
The stone monument to tea. Tea ceremony practitioners visit here to give thanks for Eisai’s precious import! – image © Michael Lambe
Having wandered round the outer temple grounds, let’s pay our 500-yen fee at the reception building and have a look around the Hojo building.
The reception building for Kennin-ji is open from 10:00 until 16:30 – image © Michael Lambe
Probably the first thing you will see on entering the Hojo is a famous screen painting by Tawaraya Sōtatsu depicting the gods of thunder and lightning. This is an impressive and iconic image, but the one here is actually a replica. The original is now held in Kyoto National Museum. Moving on, let’s wander through the cool wooden walkways and meditate on Kenning-ji’s rippling stone gardens.
A meditative moment at Kennin-ji – image © Michael Lambe
Why not take a seat on one of the wooden decks and lose yourself here for a while?
The southern verandah of the Hojo – image © Michael Lambe
From the southern side of the Hojo, we can put on some slippers and pass through two gates to enter the Hatto building. On the ceiling of this building is a fantastic painting by Koizumi Junsaku. It was commisioned to celebrate Kenninji’s 800th anniversary in 2002. Many Zen temples have a ceiling painting which depicts a dragon (symbolizing wisdom) emerging from a circle (which represents the universe). Koizumi’s image is unique in that it depicts two dragons of eternity writhing over the entire surface of the ceiling.
Koizumi Junsaku created his twin dragons masterpiece in the gymnasium of an elementary school in Hokkaido. It took him two years – image © Michael Lambe
You can learn more about the art and history of Kennin-ji temple at the official English-language website.
Exiting the grounds of Kennin-ji from the west we come on to Yamato-Oji Street. Let’s go south here until we see the small shrine of Ebisu, the god of good fortune and prosperity.
The entrance to Ebisu Shrine – image © Michael Lambe
Though Ebisu Shrine is of the Shinto folk religion, it has strong connections with nearby Kennin-ji, a Buddhist site. Legend has it that Kenninji’s founder, Eisai, was traveling back from China, when his ship was hit by a terrific storm. Fearing that the ship would sink, Eisai prayed to Ebisu (who also happens to be the guardian deity of seafarers) and the storm swiftly passed. When Eisai constructed Kennin-ji, he also gave thanks to Ebisu for his safe return to Japan, by having a shrine built in the god’s honor. It may seem odd that Eisai respected another religion in this way, but in Japan, religions like Shinto and Buddhism are not seen as mutually exclusive and it is common for people to practice the rituals of both.
On the second toori gate of Ebisu Shrine is an image of Ebisu’s happy face. If you can toss a 5 yen coin into the basket below his face, it is considered very lucky – image © Michael Lambe
Ebisu Shrine pays hosts to two major festivals in January and October which you can read about on our Toka Ebisu page.
If we retrace our steps and go north again, just past the exit from Kennin-ji on our right we can find the entrance to Café Opal. Billing itself as “the most soulful café in world” Café Opal is certainly a pleasant spot to take a break, and after so much walking around, I think we deserve one!
Inside Café Opal – image © Michael Lambe
Inspired by London café culture, the owners of Café Opal thoroughly renovated this 80-year-old traditional wooden townhouse and decorated the interior in a bright and youthful style. With comfy chairs, giant speakers playing cool jazz, and a strict no smoking policy (except for the small garden area), this is a great place to relax. The food is also tasty, but a little pricey, so we might want to stick to drinks. You can find out more about the café on their website.
Gion Antiques and Crafts
Let’s follow Yamato-Oji Street north, cross Shijo, and keep going. North of Shijo, Yamato-Oji’s name changes to Nawate-dori Street. On this street and on Shinmonzen and Furumonzen (two streets that run off Nawate to the east) you can find Gion’s best traditional craft and antique shops. This is a great area to ramble in and browse, with shops selling textiles, scrolls, prints, and furniture. Many of the businesses are housed in traditional wooden townhouses and have been in the same family for generations.
Hirata Blinds Shop is over 200 years old. Many of the blinds and screens you see on the tea shops around Gion are made right here from reeds and bamboo. This shop is a short walk north of Shijo on Nawate-dori – image © Michael Lambe
To the south of Shinmonzen, running east to west is Shimbashi-dori Street, probably the prettiest street in all of Gion. This flagstoned strolling area bordered with traditional buildings and willow trees follows the course of the Shirakawa canal. At its best in the cherry blossom season, it is still a delightful area in any season for a daytime stroll or an evening promenade.
The Tatsumi Daimyojin Shrine: a tiny local shrine frequented by neighborhood geisha on Shimbashi – image © Michael Lambe
On a stone beside the canal is inscribed a poem by the late poet Isamu Yoshii. The monument stands where a tea house used to be built over the canal, so that people who stayed there could hear the water beneath them. Isamu Yoshii was a great lover of Gion, and once a year on November 8th a ceremony is held here in his memory and geisha lay flowers before the stone.
The stone monument to Isamu Yoshii – image © Michael Lambe
The poem reads:
No matter what is said
it is Gion I love.
Even when I sleep
beneath my pillow
the water flows…
Gion is also famous for its sweets and no trip here would be complete without trying some. Back on Hanami-koji is a popular cake shop, Patisserie Gion Sakai. This shop is just a short walk south of Shijo on the west side of Hanami-koji and easy to spot because though built in a traditional style, the wood is very new!
Patisserie Gion Sakai: exterior – image © Michael Lambe
Inside you can purchase all kinds of cakes, tarts, meringues and pastries. I particularly recommend the whisky flavored chocolate biscuits.
Patisserie Gion Sakai: Interior – image © Michael Lambe
The most famous sweet shop in Gion though is Tsujiri.
Tsujiri – note the line of people waiting to go up to the second floor – image © Michael Lambe
This matcha tea and dessert shop is on the south side of Shijo between Hanami-koji and Yamato-Oji Streets. On the second floor of the shop you can sit and enjoy matcha tea flavored parfaits or cakes. However, the shop is extremely popular and often has a line of people waiting half-way down the street. Let’s just get ice creams, to go, from the first floor instead. We can walk back to Kawabata Street from here and enjoy our ice-creams by river.
A pink and delicious “sakura” ice cream – image © Michael Lambe
Gion by Night
Today we have explored much of daytime Gion, but this district is a completely different world at night. In the more modern areas of Gion the bars and restaurants come alive as dusk falls, and in the preserved streets the lanterns are lit on the teahouses and maiko, or apprentice geisha, can be seen hurrying to their appointments. If you would like to explore this area at night, Inside Kyoto can organize a private Gion Evening Walk tour. And if you would like to meet a maiko or geisha in person, Chris Rowthorn Tours can arrange meeting a geisha.
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