The imagery of geisha almost always springs to mind when people think of Japan—set foot in Kyoto’s Gion district and you might just bump right into one.
The original Japanese pleasure quarter, Gion is Kyoto condensed into a scene straight out of Memoirs of a Geisha. This is where you might just spot a maiko (geisha-in-training) hurrying along lantern-lit alleyways before slipping out of sight through a silent sliding door.
Filled to the matcha-bowl brim with geisha inns and historic ochaya (tea houses), this picturesque district is located within close proximity to Yasaka-jinja, the brilliantly bright orange sanctuary formerly known as Gion Shrine.
Originally constructed to appease the gods following a ravaging plague to the city, the iconic landmark has also played host for the past 1,000 years to the annual Gion Matsuri; a raucous affair that has metamorphosed from a religious ceremony to a less than holy summer block party. From people promenading in yukata robes (the festival fashion of choice) to the procession of large-scale yamahoko floats whose unparalleled craftsmanship have earned them a UNESCO nod, Gion’s tranquil streets come alive with equal parts food stalls and festival goers throughout the month of July.
With two bus routes stopping directly at Gion from Kyoto central station, you can explore the streets lined with exclusive ryotei restaurants preparing and preserving the culinary culture of Kyoto cuisine. Known throughout Japan as ‘kyo-ryori’, the subtle flavors and oh-so delicate garnishes in this seasonal cooking style make for nothing short of an ‘hallelujah’ eating experience.
Nearby is the classic cobblestone street of Hanami-koji, lined with traditional wooden townhouses that now simultaneously serve as souvenir or tea shops. Yes they’re touristy but in a charming, understated way.
Geisha hunters can secure their chances of seeing one in person with a performance at Gion Corner, a small theater located at the end of Hanami-koji that offers a reasonably-priced conclusion to their pursuit.