Gion is Kyoto, Japan’s famous geisha district, located between Yasaka Shrine and the Kamo River. In this post, we’ll offer info and tips for visiting Gion, dining picks, thoughts on including Gion in a Higashiyama itinerary, and recommendations for spotting geisha.
Although Gion is a fairly small district, it packs a powerful punch. The most popular area is Hanami-koji Street from Shijo Avenue to Kennin-ji Temple, and the other main stretch of Gion is Shirakawa Minami-dori, a beautiful street that runs along the Shirakawa Canal and is particularly gorgeous during fall colors and sakura seasons. Along these streets and throughout Gion you’ll find traditional machiya homes, art galleries, antique shops, teahouses, and high-end restaurants.
For many visitors, none of these very compelling options are the draw. Memoirs of a Geisha grossed over $100 million at the United States box office, but if my conversations with people are any indication, half the U.S. population saw the movie. For Americans, that movie is why Gion is famous, and the allure of capturing an elusive photo of a geisha is the sole draw of Gion.
If that is why you plan on visiting Gion, prepare to be underwhelmed. You will probably see a geisha, but it’s not like spotting a snow leopard. More like seeing a Kyotoite who carries herself in a very prim and proper way, wearing thick white makeup and a very formal kimono. It’s cool, to be sure, but seeing a geisha is more about the mystique than anything.
You’ll capture a fleeting glimpse as they exit a taxi or glide into a teahouse, perhaps a photo or two from behind. Typically, geisha do not pose for photos in the street.
While it’s not as common in Gion, there’s a good chance the “geisha” you see in Kyoto is an imitator or tourist who goes to a studio to be made up into a geisha for a day.
I guess the good news with that is that your friends back home will never know the difference, so if all you’re after is a trophy from the hunt, what difference does it make if it’s a real geisha or imposter? The imposter photo is much more likely to be good, at least.
If you want a more substantive geisha experience but don’t want to fork over the money for a private teahouse meal (or simply don’t have access to that), Gion Corner is a good option.
You can book a performance here for around $30 per person. Alternatively, if you visit during one of the festivals, such as Higashiyama Hanatoro, you can watch geisha perform at Yasaka Shrine free of charge.
We typically go to the parts of Gion where geisha are less common or later in the evening after their pursuit has ended. Not because we have anything against geisha–their performances are beautiful–but because we have something against the herds of aimless tourists, all clutching their cameras ready for the proverbial pounce.
If you’d like to capture a photo of a geisha, that’s your prerogative. It’s not poor form or rude to do; geisha are very cognizant of the fact that they are cultural ambassadors of the arts in Kyoto, and that tourists are very interested in them. However, as with many things, there’s a right and a wrong way to go about it, and we see far too many tourists do it the “wrong way.”
Please exercise courtesy and basic human dignity while taking photos, keeping at the front of your mind that these are people and this is a working and residential neighborhood.
Don’t block storefronts or traffic, and don’t be obnoxious or loud. Also be aware that you will be part of a large group of foreign paparazzi, making this perhaps the most touristy thing you can do in Kyoto.
Nevertheless, if you are attempting to photograph geisha, the best time is going to be prior to them heading to their evening dinner appointments, which typically occurs shortly before 6 p.m., or potentially a bit later in the summer months.
The main streets in Gion where the high-priced, private ochaya are located are the best spots, but even across the river in Pontocho, you may have luck.
Again, we’ll reiterate that we don’t think geisha-stalking is the main reason to go to Gion. The first big reason to go is because it’s one of Kyoto’s beautiful historic districts, and even during busy seasons when it’s swarmed with tour groups, that’s worth seeing.
Second, it’s adjacent to Kennin-ji Temple, which is a must-do. It’s also a short walk from the Higashiyama District, Philosopher’s Path, Maruyama Park, Yasaka Shrine, and a whole host of temples that are situated along Kyoto’s eastern mountains. All of this makes it easy to slot Gion into an itinerary with minimal added effort.
Our favorite part of Gion is Shirakawa, which runs along the Shirakawa Canal. This is north of (and somewhat parallel to) Shijo Avenue and tends to draw smaller crowds. There have been nights we’ve walked this stretch along the canal and have seen no other tourists.
With that said, the area around Shirakawa Canal is immensely popular during fall foliage and spring cherry blossom seasons. During those times, it draws hordes of sightseers and locals, making it almost as popular as the other parts of Gion. This is for good reason, as it’s absolutely stunning for those brief windows in the fall and spring.
We visit Gion with some frequency, and it’s for one simple reason: food. From a dining perspective, the Gion, Pontocho, and Downtown Kyoto areas–all of which are within short walking distance of one another–are the pinnacle of the city’s culinary scene. Around 75% of Kyoto’s Michelin-starred restaurants are in this cluster, and it’s the area we’ve had by far the most success in dining.
While Gion is known for its formal teahouses and kaiseki ryori where experiences start in the hundreds of dollars range, there are also a number of fusion restaurants and Japanese restaurants with an inventive flair that don’t have the same pretense. Although this definitely is easier to find across the Kamo River, there are a few spots in Gion, too.
We are big fans of Ramen Muraji, which offers inventive and delicious bowls of ramen in an upscale setting. The prices are fair, and the special set with chicken and ice cream (shockingly good!) is highly recommended.
Right around the corner from Ramen Muraji is Gyoza Hohei, which is a Michelin Bib Gourmand pick for its inexpensive pub fare. These restaurants are both very easy to find via Google Maps, but in case you have trouble, just look for the large amorphous cluster of tourists. Both restaurants can command long lines, and those can blend together due to the proximity of the entrances.
Earlier in the day, Gion is an excellent spot for desserts. The place everyone raves about is Tsujiri Tea House on Shijo-dori, which is one of the most famous tea and sweet shops in all of Kyoto.
We’re not huge fans. The setting is chaotic, the lines are long, and the prices reflect the reputation, but not vice-a-versa. It’s not that Tsujiri is bad, it just doesn’t live up to the hype, nor does it approach the caliber of Gion’s lesser-known teahouses and bakeries.
Instead, we recommend going around the corner for Patisserie Gion Sakai. This is reminiscent of bakeries in France (hence the name), but with a distinctly Japanese style and use of ingredients. By far, this is our favorite bakery in Gion. Everything is meticulously crafted, and the upstairs seating area is lovely.
While there are no shortage of other excellent dessert options to try in this area, our other pick for something different is Gion Kinana. They’ve recently added an English menu (albeit an incomplete one as compared to the Japanese menu), making the ordering experience easier.
The one thing you absolutely must order is their signature soft scoops of dekitate ice cream. These are freshly made and have a melt in your mouth (obviously, it’s ice cream) quality that is inarticulable. The flavor for this rotates and isn’t printed on the menu, so ask staff. We’d also recommend ordering one of the parfaits.
Shopping and perusing art galleries is another enjoyable way to pass the time in Gion, and if you’re doing any shopping that’s not of the window variety, be prepared to drop some serious yen.
Our favorite art gallery–and the place we dream of buying something, someday–is Kyoto WaGlass Gallery. This two-floor gallery has friendly staff who encourage you to admire the beautiful pieces on display inside.
This shop is located along Shirakawa Canal and is worth stopping to peruse–yet another reason to head over to that photogenic stretch of Gion.
Overall, Gion is a great part of Kyoto. While we think the geisha-watching component of the experience is massively overrated, if that’s what it takes to get you here, so be it. After that, you’ll find a lovely area filled with intimate shops and exceptional food. We could spend half a day or more simply doing a ‘progressive dessert’ culminating in a dinner of delicious ramen (kind of backwards, but recommended) and a stroll through the peaceful streets at night. Gion is Kyoto gem and is not to be missed.
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Have you visited Gion? What did you think of the district? Did you spot a geisha? Did you eat in this area? Do any of the nearby shrines? Would you recommend a stroll through Gion to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting Gion interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!