Paul Fournier
By Paul

Gion, Kyoto: A Guide To Japan’s Best Preserved Geisha District

Many people may know Gion as Kyoto’s geisha district, but there’s more to the area beyond that. It’s also a great place for dining, shopping, and finding some of Kyoto’s most well-preserved architecture such as machiya townhouses.

On this page, I’ve written a comprehensive guide on what to do, where to stay, and where to eat in Gion. This will give you a good idea of you can expect from this popular district in Kyoto.

About The Gion District

Located in the Higashiyama area, Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. It’s the best place to be if you want to spot a glimpse of maikos and geishas scurrying between alleys or slipping out of taxis, heading to their appointments.

The district originally began in front of Yasaka Shrine, where development was done to accommodate the shrine’s many visitors. It’s one of the most scenic parts of Kyoto, due to its status as a national historical preservation district.

Some popular areas in Gion include Hanami-koji street, lined with well-preserved machiya houses which are now restaurants, and Shirakawa canal, a pleasant place for a walk lined by willow trees. The district is also home to some of Kyoto’s most notable temples, such as Kenninji Temple and Yasaka Shrine.

Aside from the more traditional attractions, Gion is also packed with bars and restaurants. I show and describe some of the best of them further down this page.

If immersing yourself in traditional Kyoto is what you’re after, Gion makes a good base. It’s close to several of the city’s best attractions and areas, and getting around is easy with the available train and bus connections.

Things To Do

Gion may be a small district, but it offers some of the best things to do in Kyoto, from temple-hopping, to simply exploring its traditional streets, to witnessing Japan’s biggest summer festival.

Here, I list 7 things to do so that you’ll have a good idea about what’s there in order to build a fun itinerary.

Go on a Geisha Hunt

If your budget doesn’t allow for dinner and performance by a geisha or maiko, going on a geisha hunt in Gion is the next best thing.

Head out around sunset and you may be lucky enough to spot a geisha or maiko heading to their appointments. The Shinbashi-dori street along the Shirakawa canal is lined with ochaya, or teahouses. If you listen closely you may hear strains of music and laughter coming from there.

Go Temple Hopping

Two of the best temple-hopping options in Gion are undoubtedly the Yasaka Shrine and the Kenninji Temple.

Yasaka is Kyoto’s most famous shrine, also hosting the Gion Matsuri festival every year. Its main highlight besides its architecture is its impressive lantern display. Kenninji Temple on the other hand is Kyoto’s oldest zen temple, and is known for a huge mural of twin dragons painted on one of its halls ceilings.

There are some smaller shrines in Gion as well, such as Yasui Kompira-gu and Ebisu-jinja. They are also worth a visit as well if you have the time.

Stroll Down the Traditional Streets

Gion’s most famous street is Hanamikoji, or Hanami Lane. It’s beautifully preserved, with a paved road lined on both sides by ochaya. Although it can be quite touristy, you can easily wander off to side streets to snap photos with a quieter atmosphere.

Another popular street is Shinbashi Dori. The famous antiques street winds along the Shirakawa canal, and is easily Kyoto’s most beautiful street, especially in cherry blossom season.

Take a Walking Tour

If you’re interested in getting to know the Gion district better, joining a short walking tour is a good way to do so.

Many Gion walking tours start in the evening, when the area comes to life. The tours take you through the scenic streets by the Shirakawa canal. And along the way, the guide will tell you all about geisha, their traditional rules, and daily life.

Rent a Kimono

Renting a Kimono is a fun way to further immerse yourself into traditional Japanese culture, and of course snap some memorable pictures while you’re at it.

There are a large variety of packages available – some are basic kimono-only packages, some come with professional hair-styling, and some even give you the option to have a photoshoot done in your kimono.

You can also opt for a kimono rental + walking tour combination package. That way you kill 2 birds with one stone, seeing the best of Gion while dressed in your Kimono.

Explore Gion at Night

As night falls, the crowds in Gion fade away, and you get to experience an entirely different side of the area compared to the daytime.

I recommend to take a stroll down Hanamikoji street, where dimly lit lanterns reflecting on the cobbled pavements create a magical atmosphere. The Shirakawa riverside also becomes more breezy in the evening.

Don’t forget to also check out some of the bars and clubs in the area. For a good quality cocktail, head to Gion Lupin. If you’re looking for a cozy bar with a mix of locals and tourists, Bar Seeks is a good choice.

Attend the Gion Matsuri Festival

Visiting Gion in the month of July is a treat, as you get to witness Japan’s most traditional celebration, Gion Matsuri. The festival runs throughout the whole month of July, and the district will be constantly alive with street vendors and party-goers.

Throughout the month, there are a few key dates to take note of. The event’s biggest float procession, Yamaboko Junko happens on July 17. But before that, street-wide parties called Yoiyama, Yoiyoiyama and Yoiyoiyoiyama also happen on 16, 15 and 14 July respectively.

The Best Restaurants & Must-Eat Foods

There’s no lack of restaurants in Kyoto and especially Gion, with everything from small neighborhood shops to fine-dining spots lining the main street of Hanamikoji and beyond.

Here, I describe 3 of the best places for food in Gion, where you can taste some of the most popular Japanese dishes – Kobe beef, ramen, and sushi.

Kobe Beef at Moriya Gion

Kobe beef comes from a breed of cattle found in Japan’s Hyōgo prefecture, where Kobe is the capital. It’s famous for its incredible flavor, tenderness, and high amount of fat which gives it its marbled appearance.

One of the best places to enjoy Kobe beef at is Kobe Beef Steak Moriya Gion, where it’s prepared teppanyaki style. As you take a seat at the bar, the chef will cook your steak in front of you, timing the portions to the pace at which you’re eating.

If you’re on a slightly tighter budget but still want to indulge, head there during lunch. You can enjoy Kobe beef as part of a set lunch for as low as 5,000 JPY (~45 USD).

Sushi at Ninenzaka Nomoto

Ninzenzaka Sushi Numoto is a cozy restaurant located down a small lane off Ninenzaka street which seats just 12. It’s run by friendly sushi chef Seiji, who has specialized in sushi for over 23 years, along with his wife.

There, you can expect fresh, flavorful sushi, sashimi and tempura at a reasonable price. Some dishes also come with egg custards made by the chef’s wife, which are quite popular with customers.

Ramen at Musoshin

Musoshin is a great choice if you’re looking for an affordable, no-frills but hearty meal. Tucked away on a quiet street near a kaburen-jo, or dance studio for maiko, it specialises in ramen noodles of all kinds.

One of the more unique dishes there is black ramen, which has a thicker broth made with a black sesame seed base. Give that a try, as well as the karaage chicken side dish!

Where to Stay, from Budget to Luxury

There are quite a number of choices for accommodation in Gion, which include both traditional ryokan and regular hotels. To help you decide where to stay, I’ve listed a few of Gion’s best ryokan based on budget.

Budget: OKI’s Inn

OKI’s Inn is a ryokan converted from a 100+ year-old machiya, which is a traditional wooden townhouse. It’s conveniently located near a quiet little canal, some restaurants and 24-hour supermarkets, a subway station and several bus stops.

Although the ryokan is basic in terms of facilities, it is well-maintained, spotless, and shines with the hospitality of its owners. Get the breakfast option to try the owner’s homemade umeboshi (pickled plum) onigiri.

Mid-range: Kinoe

Kinoe is located 3 minutes away from Yasaka Shrine. The ryokan has a number of spacious Japanese-style rooms, as well as a few Western-style rooms with beds instead of futons. The rooms come with private bathrooms, which are a plus if you’re not used to shared bathrooms.

If experiencing a traditional kaiseki dinner is on your to-do list, Kinoe is a good choice as it offers good kaiseki meals, along with other meal options like sukiyaki, beef shabu-shabu, and hotpot.

Luxury: Yuzuya

For a luxurious ryokan experience with a fun twist, Yuzuya is a good choice. It’s a small, cozy ryokan with only 8 rooms, also located near the Yasaka Shrine.

The most unique aspect about Yuzuya is its yuzu theme. The Japanese yuzu fruit can be found in many places in the hotel – around the lobby, floating in hot tubs, and even the kaiseki dinner has dishes flavored with yuzu.

How To Get To Gion

There are two main ways to get to Gion – by bus, or by train. The most convenient way is by bus. The travel time is slightly longer, but you’ll be dropped off directly at Gion. Train rides may be shorter depending on where you travel from, but getting from the train stations to Gion will take a bit of a walk.

By Bus

You can catch a bus from Kyoto Station to Gion easily. Take bus number 100 from bus stop D1, or bus number 206 from bus stop D2. Both bus routes will take you to Gion in about 20 minutes for 230 JPY. Get off at the Gion bus stop, which is right opposite the Yasaka Shrine.

By Train

You can also get to Gion by train, although it is less convenient as there are no direct train routes heading there. The closest stations are Gion-Shijo Station, and Kawaramachi Station.

To get to Gion-Shijo Station from Kyoto Station, take the JR Nara Line train to Tofukuji Station, then transfer to the Keihan Line. The journey should take around 10-15 minutes, and cost 290 JPY in total.

P.S. For info on getting to the city, see how to get to Kyoto from the 3 nearby airports.

Gion District Map

Places To Visit Near Gion

Gion is a great place to explore, but there’s also much more to see around the district. Here are a few areas nearby that are worth exploring.

Southern Higashiyama

After you’ve explored Gion, continue onwards to explore more of the Higashiyama district. Gion is located in the northern part of Highashiyama, so follow the path south and you’ll find Kiyomizu-dera, one of Kyoto’s most iconic temples, as well as more well-preserved streets lined with shops selling local food and souvenirs.

Shijo-dori

Shijo-dori is one of Kyoto’s main streets, which crosses through the Gion district. Starting in front of Yasaka Shrine, you’ll see smaller shops selling clothes and Kyoto specialty foods and souvenirs along the road.

But follow the road across the river out of Gion, and you’ll find the main shopping hotspot at the intersection of Shijo-dori and Kawaramachi-dori. There are big department stores such as Daimaru, Takashimaya, and high-end fashion brands like Louis Vuitton.

You can also check out the Teramachi and Shin Kyogoku Shopping Arcades, branching off Shijo-dori around the Kawaramachi-dori intersection.

Pontocho

Pontocho is a 10-15 minute walk across the river from Gion. It has one of Kyoto’s most atmospheric dining areas, a narrow alley lined with many restaurants, pubs and bars. From May to September, some restaurants build temporary platforms overlooking the river, so you can dine outside.

Arashiyama

Further away from Gion is Arashiyama, a popular district for viewing autumn colours and cherry blossoms, and its star attraction – the famous bamboo grove.

The best way to reach Arashiyama from Gion is to take the Hankyu train line from Kawaramachi Station to Arashiyama Station. The journey takes around 35-40 minutes.

Conclusion

Gion is the best place to be if you want to take a step back in time and experience Kyoto as it was hundreds of years ago.

Beyond walking down its beautifully preserved streets, Gion also offers many dining and accommodation options to suit all budgets. Whether you’re looking for a luxury ryokan, or a simple neighborhood ramen place, you can find it in Gion.

Hope this helps you make the most out of your visit to Gion 🙂

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