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Gion and Higashiyama Districts in Kyoto

When people visit Japan, Kyoto is usually near the top of their go-to list, and the districts of Gion and Higashiyama always draw a lot of visitors.

Gion and Higashiyama cover a wide area constituting the heart and soul of Kyoto. The Higashiyama district consists of the hills that run along Kyoto's eastern side, while Gion is a smaller section northwest of Higashiyama.

The district of Gion and Higashiyama includes a number of UNESCO World Heritage temples, and the most iconic and pristine of Kyoto's old townscapes.

The area is also home to several of the city's kagai, or geisha districts. Geisha districts are typically older parts of the city, that were traditionally places frequented by geisha, and where today visitors can catch a glimpse of modern geisha going to their appointments.

Highlights

  • Gion is Kyoto's most famous geisha district and is also home to numerous traditional shops and restaurants.
  • The ultimate experience in Gion is being entertained by a maiko (geiko apprentice) or geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) while dining at an ochaya (teahouse).
  • Higashiyama district is one of the city's best-preserved historic areas and a great place for experiencing traditional Kyoto.
  • Visitors especially interested in geisha history and culture are more likely to find geisha shows entertaining.

Gion District

Gion is Kyoto's most famous geisha district, located between Yasaka Shrine in the east and Kamo River in the west, around the Shijo Avenue area of the city.

The area is home to numerous traditional shops and restaurants, but is best known for its many ochaya (teahouses), where geiko and maiko can be seen.

History and culture

Gion started around the Edo period (1603–1867) in Japan. In Kyoto, there were many shrines and temples, such as the Yasaka Shrine, that are still popular even today. Many teahouses opened up around Gion, and these became famous spots for resting and enjoying tea after a morning of visiting shrines and temples.

At night, these teahouses would turn into bars and many beautiful young women were hired to work as dancers and waitresses. Soon, the shops started competing with each other to see which shop had the most beautiful ladies and, as a result, Gion became a famous entertainment district in Kyoto.

In addition to its geisha districts, Gion also attracts tourists from its high concentration of traditional wooden merchant houses, beautifully illuminated by glittering neon lights. Although Gion has modernized and lost most of its old charm, efforts have been made to preserve some of the Edo period's traditional architecture.

Attractions and experiences

The most popular area of Gion is Hanami-koji, lying between Shijo Avenue and Kenninki Temple.

The street is lined with well-preserved machiya (traditional wooden townhouses), many of which now serve as restaurants that offer lip-smacking Kyoto-style kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine) food, and other types of local and international dishes. It should be noted, however, that most restaurants in the area are expensive.

Interspersed among the restaurants are a number of ochaya (teahouses) — the most exclusive and expensive of Kyoto's dining establishments — where diners are entertained by geiko and maiko.

Many tourists flock to Gion in the hope of seeing a geiko or maiko on their way to or from an engagement at an ochaya in the evenings, or while running errands during the day. Due to the sheer number of tourists in the area, however, geisha sightings are rare.

The ultimate experience is being entertained by a maiko or geiko while dining at an ochaya. As expert hostesses, maiko and geiko ensure everyone's enjoyment by engaging in light conversation, serving drinks, leading drinking games and performing traditional music and dance.

One should bear in mind, though, that geisha services and shows are usually expensive and exclusive affairs.

Higashiyama District

The Higashiyama District, lying along the lower slopes of Kyoto's eastern mountains, is one of the city's best-preserved historic areas.

It is a great place for getting a feel of traditional Kyoto (especially the area between Kiyomizudera Temple and Yasaka Shrine), where narrow lanes, wooden buildings, and traditional merchant shops invoke feelings of the old capital city charm.

History and culture

Higashiyama was created in 1929 when it was split off from Shimogyo. Between 1931 and 1976, it also covered the area of present-day Yamashina, which was an independent town until its merger into the city in 1931. The name literally means "Eastern Mountain District".

Due to restrictions on urban development, the population in Higashiyama is continually decreasing and it has the lowest population of all the wards in Kyoto today, with a disproportionate number of elderly people.

Higashiyama culture is a subset of Japanese culture originating in the 15th century, and created by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa after he retired to his villa in the eastern hills of the capital city of Kyoto.

Based largely on the ideals and aesthetics of Zen Buddhism and the concept of wabi-sabi (beauty in simplicity), Higashiyama culture centered around the development of the Japanese tea ceremony, flower arranging, and ink painting. Much of what is commonly viewed as traditional Japanese culture today originated and developed during this period.

Attractions and experiences

Higashiyama's streets are swollen with small shops, cafes, and restaurants that have been catering to tourists and pilgrims for centuries. Although many shops have been renovated over the years, most retain their traditional designs and continue to serve specialty items to customers, such as Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, crafts, and other souvenirs.

The area between Kiyomizudera Temple and the Yasaka Shrine in Higashiyama attracts hundreds of tourists every day. This stretch, however, is only two kilometers long and requires only half an hour to visit. You could easily spend the rest of the day (or more) visiting the temples, shrines, shops, and cafes along the way.

Those who enjoy walking will love Higashiyama, as the area beyond Yasaka Shrine past Chionin and Shorenin Temples to Heian Shrine, and possibly even further, via Nanzenji and the Philosophers Path to Ginkakuji Temple, provides plenty of scope for leisurely strolls.

Geisha (geiko) experience in Japan

Geisha (or geiko) are professional entertainers who attend to guests during meals, banquets, and other special occasions. They are trained in a number of traditional Japanese arts, such as dance and music, and the art of communication. Their role is to make guests feel at ease by performing dances or engaging in conversation and drinking games.

Kyoto remains the best and most prestigious place to experience geisha culture in Japan, and the former capital's Gion district is among the best-known geisha districts in the country.

Visitors especially interested in geisha history and culture are more likely to find geisha shows entertaining. Those who are not particularly interested in this aspect of Japanese culture tend to find geisha shows expensive and time-consuming. Without special interest in traditional Japanese culture, you may even find the shows a little boring.

If you would like to catch a geisha show during your time in Kyoto, Gion Corner offers visitors a chance to experience a number of traditional performing arts. Their shows include the following.

Koto performance

The koto, also known as "Japanese harp," is a Japanese stringed instrument with a rich history. Unlike western stringed instruments such as violins and guitars, the koto actually consists of 13 strings strung over 13 bridges.

During a koto performance, the koto player will be seated with the instrument in front of him or her, often wearing traditional Japanese attire such as a yukata or kimono.

Tea ceremony

Tea ceremonies sustain the old and stylized tradition of steeping and serving tea to guests. Gion Corner performs the "ryurei" style of tea ceremony. This involves being seated on stools — as opposed to tatami mats — since many foreign visitors may not be used to kneeling on tatami.

Kyo-mai dance

Kyo-mai is an elegant and dazzling dance, which originated in Kyoto during the 17th century, performed by geisha/geiko and maiko dancers dressed in beautifully decorated dresses.

Why you should visit Gion and Higashiyama

Gion and Higashiyama are historic districts in Kyoto that provide visitors an opportunity to see geishas and experience the old capital-city charm of yesteryear Kyoto.

That being said, if you're not particularly interested in traditional Japanese culture, you may not find geisha shows very entertaining. Tickets to these shows are expensive and the shows themselves are time-consuming. Visitors who are not into geisha history and culture have complained about finding the shows somewhat boring.

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