Initially built in front of Yasaka Shrine, Gion was mainly established for fulfilling the needs of the shrine visitors. Over time, the district has become one of the essentials of Kyoto, as it is the most famous entertainment district where tourists are dying for witnessing and capturing the passing geisha, or locally-called geiko, in the evening.
Not to mention the well-preserved wooden ochaya, or tea houses, high-end restaurants and bars concentrated in the area. Dining and lounging in Gion may not be the right choice for budget-oriented tourists, but fear not. There are other free things to do, especially magnificent views can be enjoyed free of charge and who knows you gonna meet a geiko.
Bring a (good quality) camera along with you is a must.
Last spring 2016, I told myself that I had to make it to Gion in the evening when I visited Kyoto. Like many other visitors, I was hoping to spot a geiko somewhere in the area, although some say that it’s not always that easy to find one.
Moreover, my friend and I read an announcement on travel tips called “Best Cherry Blossom Spots in Kyoto” placed on the wall in our hostel dining room, where Gion Shirakawa is mentioned, especially the cherry blossom trees were illuminated at night until April 4.
Although we were there after April 4, we believe that the street wouldn’t be completely dark It would be a new experience to enjoy the view of cherry blossom after the sun goes down.
From Kyoto Station, we took a train to Gion Shijo station and walked along the pedestrian lane of Shirakawa River, stretching gracefully thanks to the row of high-end restaurants and bars on the other side of the river.
Apart form that, there were a group of friends, couples sitting on the riverbanks, chitchatting to each other to release tensions from daily routines. Some would rather be alone, enjoying themselves by listening to the water streams and doing nothing else.
After a couple of hours of walking, I saw a 40-something woman in soft-coloured kimono appearing from a notable night club, talking nicely to three gentlemen in formal suits. They responded her with a few words (that I don’t understand), then smiled at her and nodded just before they left the place.
I assumed she just finished serving and entertaining them. Well, I wasn’t sure whether I just saw a geiko or just another working woman in kimono.
But for sure, spotting a geiko in full white make-up became an unattainable luxury for us since we didn’t find one. Nonetheless, we spotted several young ladies in kimono along the way. Some of them were with a group of friends, a boyfriend and a photographer. And not all of them are Japanese despite the Asian look.
The rising popularity of kimono rentals in the country makes it possible for non-Japanese people to dress up in Kimono, equipped with matching accessories from top to bottom, and even wander the city with the traditional costume for a day. The plans offered start from ¥ 3,000 and up.
If you ever wonder how it feels to be in the Japan-style film shooting location, Gion Shirakawa literally gives the answers you need. It’s neat, clean, structured, dominated by wooden architecture and during spring time, cherry blossom trees spice up romantic atmosphere, no matter whether they’re illuminated or not at night. It’s simply a perfect place for (pre-wedding) photoshoot and filming.
The canal views are my favourite spots!
Since Gion Shirakawa is not too crowded for a famous tourist attraction, walking a dog in this area could be an alternative activity. We were so happy to spot a pure Japanese breed of 9-month-old shiba inu. When her owner lifted her up for a picture, she constantly moved and couldn’t wait to put her feet back on the pathway.
There’s no doubt that spending time for a night life in Gion is fantastic. Nevertheless, remember that many cafes are closed between 7 pm to 8 pm. We were not admitted to have a seat in the cafe because it was about to close. Instead, I bought a box of green tea macaroon with red bean paste to go for ¥ 250.
Places you can go at night are mainly restaurants, bars, night clubs, ramen shops and certain souvenir shops. The latter, however, are not as many as those in the afternoon.
A building with red window grates and bicycle parking space marked the end of Gion Shirakawa area. It never failed to mesmerize us with strong elements of traditional atmosphere. Enjoying cherry blossom after sunset was a new satisfying experience for us.
Next, we headed to Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park, situated about 10 to 15 minutes walking distance. Maruyama Park is another recommended cherry blossom spot nearby, so why not?
At that time, we were not well-informed that Gion has two major areas besides Shirakawa. Therefore we didn’t think of visiting the other area in Gion, Hanami-Koji, that was actually more popular and situated not far from Shirakawa as well.
There’s nothing to regret, though. Gion Shirakawa was more than perfect for us. It was not too cramped, scenic, save and peaceful at night. I believe it’s still a pretty place to go even if there’s no cherry blossom.
Make sure that you don’t miss it when you visit Kyoto!