Gion is abundant with traditional wooden machiya merchant houses, and for many it is a tourist mecca, with foreigners wishing to catch a glimpse of geisha. However if you are only concerned with a red lipped lady in her kimono (be mindful when taking photographs of maiko and geiko, retain respect), you may end up missing the other beauty surrounding the district. And it is such a beautiful area to wander around, with the best time to visit in the evening.
The district of Gion is situated along the Kamogawa river. The streets are illuminated by dim lit lanterns outside the teahouses, beckoning in the evenings for customers. Vintage alleys are home to ochery (teahouses), small bars, restaurants and okashi shops. Gion Corner presents traditional shows and tea ceremonies reminiscent of the old Kyoto of the day. The building is noticeably iconic and is the perfect venue to experience a little Japanese culture.
This district is an eclectic mix of old and new with buzzing bright lights and tall buildings. Shrines are scattered about street corners and vending machines located on every second street. What adds to the beauty of Gion are the people who are going about their lives after dark. Some sing tunes to themselves as they wait for the signals to turn green so as to cross the street. Others hurry into their homes set up along river banks, and amongst a crowd you can still spot beautifully dressed girls in kimonos.
Little box cars zoom past you on cobblestone paths, and florists ride past holding bouquets of flowers, making deliveries past 7pm while other workers are busy bringing fresh produce for the next day's orders. When visiting we barely came across any tourists, but were instead swept up at traffic lights by the locals going about their evenings or returning home after a day of school.
The stone walk ways lead to traditional buildings which appear small at the front, however stretch far back and are full of treasures. Gion is also littered with modern buildings with European architecture, home to your more contemporary department stores. Another popular place to visit is the Hanami-koji Street that runs from Shijo Avenue to Kenning Temple. My favourite part of Gion is the Shirakawa Area which runs along the canal. The canal is lined with willow trees and restaurants that overlook it.
Visit on an unsuspecting day, Tuesdays or Wednesdays will provide you with the quiet and romantic atmosphere that Gion exudes. Stick to the back streets, and if you're lucky, around 6pm you may see a maiko making her way to a show.
Gion can be reached from Kyoto Station by bus - either 100 or 206, taking approximately twenty minutes. By train, take the Keihan Line and alight at Gion Shijo Station or take the Hankyu Line, get off at Kawaramachi Station and walk.