Famed as being one of the most mesmerizing districts in Kyoto, Gion is an area of stunning temples, maiko meeting places and local eateries that are perfect to while away a day in the ancient capital.
Kyoto’s magic lies in it’s ability to preserve the old and welcome the new. The Station Building is testament to this as a perfect example of modern Japan in the old capital. But for me, Kyoto’s charm lies in its pockets of preserved districts and none other than Gion offers the perfect location for exploring Old Kyoto and the ocean of cultural history from a millennium spent as the powerhouse of Japan.
Gion is part of the Higashiyama or ‘Eastern Mountain’ area of Kyoto. It’s one of the most famous geisha (‘geiko’ in Kyoto dialect) districts in the city, 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. Here’s my favourite route for exploring the area and some must-see sights along the way.
Starting at Gion Shijo station, walk east on Shijo Dori towards Yasaka Jinja. Around halfway along Shijo Dori, turn right onto Hanamikoji Dori. The street is famous in Kyoto as one of the best preserved in the city. Traditional wooden machiya house cafes and sweet shops, kaiseki restaurants and inimitable boutiques, and although it can be very touristy, it’s beauty more than makes up for that. Wander a few of the side streets to snap some pictures with a quieter atmosphere.
Follow Hanamikoji Dori to the end, where you will enter the temple grounds of Kenninji. The temple is ranked third among the five great Zen temples of Kyoto and the main feature, a huge image of twin dragons painted on the ceiling of the Dharma Hall is totally breathtaking. The zen garden is also a sight to behold. From Kenninji, head further east via Yasui Konpiragu, a small but lovely temple that is often overlooked by tourists and so offers a perfect opportunity for pictures.
From here, continuing east it’s easy to combine your day with a stroll through the wider Higashiyama area towards Kiyomizudera. Allow yourself to get lost amongst the beautifully preserved streets, lined with classic architecture boasting souvenir shops and tea houses. Perfect for buying some ‘Kyomiyage‘ (omiyage is Japanese for souvenir) Be sure not to miss ninnenzaka and sannenzaka, two wonderfully preserved streets,and the famous temples and shrines of the area; Kiyomizu-dera, Kodaiji, Chion-in and Shoren-in,all of which are easily accessible along a whimsical walking route. There’s even a Starbucks housed in an old machiya that is so sympathetically renovated it took ten years to acquire planning permission and finish construction.
Now make your way to Yasaka Jinja, from Higashiyama find Ishibekouji Dori, a quaint little side street with a mysterious feel and follow this. From Yasui Konpiragu head north towards Yasaka Jinja through the small street running parallel to Higashioji Dori. If you’re looking for souvenirs, make your way to the Malebranche Gion store, a famous chocolatier and patisserie in Kyoto famed for its Cha no Ka biscuits made with Uji matcha – a delicious present and wonderful opportunity to see inside a machiya.
When arriving at Yasaka Jinja, take a moment to look back along Shijo Dori and into the heart of the city. The view is spectacular and another great example of the juxtapositioning of old and new; the pretty lantern-lined street stretches off to meet multi-story department stores across the Kamo river. Take your time to explore the grounds of the most famous Shrine in Kyoto, walking through Maruyama Park with it’s stunning koi pond and garden of cherry blossom trees. From here you can easily reach the towering Chion-in and climb the steps to the rear for a different view of this majestic temple.
Exit Maruyama Park via Chion-in Michi, which will take you directly into north Gion via Shinbashi Dori, Kyoto’s most famous antiques street. This runs straight to the Tatsumi Bridge; a hotspot for tourists dressed in beautiful kimono to stand amidst a backdrop of the Shirakawa canal and its striking scenery. Following the canal along Shirakawa-Minami Dori, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a Kyoto from years gone by. Kawabata Dori lies at the end of this street and will lead directly back to Gion Shijo, bringing you full circle on my ideal walking tour of Gion.