Gion (and how to spot a Geisha)

We began our journey at 7:30am. Georgia very kindly made me breakfast and coffee whilst I devised a scenic route for us to take around the internationally known Geisha paradise of Gion, Kyoto. 

Our route starts at our Air Bnb, centrally located in the Shoshinjicho area of Kyoto. However if anybody plans on doing this route whilst in Kyoto I suggest you start at Shijo Ohashi Bridge.

AirBnb to Shijo Ohashi Bridge

After a 17 minute walk along the Kamo River taking in the morning sun, watching the fisherman cast their hooks hoping for a decent catch we arrived at Shijo Ohashi Bridge.

Shijo Ohashi Bridge from below

Stage 1: Shijo Ohashi Bridge is famous for being the bridge that in 1142Ad (thanks to generous donations) was constructed out of wood so that worshippers could easily access the Gion Yakasa shrine. However, today the bridge is made from an arch style, reinforced concrete architectural design that was finished in 1913.

Stage 2 Shijo Ohashi Bridge to Yakasa Shrine

Shijo Ohashi Bridge to Yasaka Shrine

As you cross the Bridge you will begin to notice the architecture in the neighbourhood becomes significantly more traditional. 

Welcome to Gion

Either side of Shijo Dori, tea, sweets and kimono shops line the road as morning commuters begin their journey to work. An abundance of red lanterns, wooden houses and dusty alleyways takes you back to the Edo period of Japan’s History. If any of you have read Memoirs of a Geisha, this is how you should picture Kyoto in this equilibrium of time. Before you have a chance to take enough pictures to last a lifetime you have reached the entrance to the Yasaka Shrine.

Main Entrance

Yasaka shrine
is a Shinto shrine where Susanoono-mikoto, Kushiinada himeno mikoto and Yahashirano Mikogami are deified.  The very first foundations of this shrine dates back to 656AD when Susanoono-mikoto was enshrined here. In 869AD the plague took over the area, so to appease the Gods the residents of Kyoto erected 66 halberds (a sword like weapon). The Gion Festival originates from the expelling of evil spirits during this time of mass destruction of human life and is celebrated here annually, and has been since 970AD.

Shrine
The Yasaka Shrine
Shrine

The Yasaka shrine is located in Maruyama Park. This area of Kyoto used to be a swamp until about 300 years ago. It wasn’t until 1886 it was officially known as a park and in 1913 a landscape gardener called Jihei Ogawa transformed the area into a traditional Japanese garden. 

In the spring the Cherry trees on the right will blossom into a beautiful pink colour

Stage 3: Yasaka Shrine to Ishibei Alley

Yasaka Shrine to Ishibei Alley

Ishibei Alley is one of Kyotos most famous streets. It’s narrow alleyway along with its stone walls is a fabulous representation of the Taisho period of Japan. Historically it was used as a location for luxury rooms to rent.

At the entrance to Ishibei Alley
Luxury

The time was now about 9:30am. Reluctantly myself and Georgia were admitted that we had probably missed our chance to see a Geisha in the morning. They are so rare to see as there are only a 1000 or so in existence. The chance of seeing one as a tourist I considered pure pot luck. We decided to try a different area of Gion in the evening as they make their way to the tea houses. Then, suddenly Georgia with her acute hawk eyes spotted a Geisha get out of a taxi and get escorted up a pathway. Like a ghost she appeared and dissapeared in a flash, so fast that I could not get a clear picture. I will never forget seeing her solemn but slightly smiling face as she exited the taxi and walked towards the path.

The best photos i got

Stage 4: Ishibei Alley to Ryozen Kannon

Ishibei Alley to Ryozen Kannon

Ryozen Kwannon (entry ¥300) is a tribute to unknown soldiers who perished in World War 2 on Japanese Territory. The striking feature within the compound is the concrete statue of Bodhisattva Avolokitesvara (Kwannon) that is a commemoration of the Japanese soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the establishment of a peaceful Japan.

Kwannon

Also within the site is a monument in the memorial hall that was erected to the memory of over 48,000 allied soldiers who perished on Japanese territory.

Individual names of every individual soldier. Most are from the USA, England, Holland and Australia
Sand from military cemeteries from all over the world including Pakistan, Israel and Ethiopia

Stage 5: Ryozen Kwannon to Sannenzaka (via Ninenzaka)

Ryozen Kannon to Sannenzaka
Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka are two extremely beautiful roads that lead to and from Kiyomizu Dera. The paths include traditional shops, pastry outlets and souvenir hubs on either side of the street as you walk up and a down a series of steps and walkways. Although this is one of the more expensive places to eat at a restaurant or shop for local goods it is by far the prettiest.

Arrived in Ninenzaka before the shops opened
Walking along Ninenzaka
The steps towards Sannenzaka

Stage 6: Sannenzaka to Kiyomizu Gera

Sannenzaka to Kiyomizu Gera

Kiyomizu Gera Temple originated in 778AD when the monk Enchin enshrined an image of Kannon on the mountain overlooking the town. A later general built a Buddha Hall there and forever made it a pilgrimage for Buddhists all over.

Three storied Pagoda
Kiyomizu Gera

Stage 7: Kiyomizu Gera to Jishu shrine

Kiyomizu Gera to Jishu Shrine

Jishu Shrine is dedicated to the 5 tutelary Gods and predates the Nara period of Japan’s diverse history.

Jishu Shrine

Stage 8: Jishu Shrine back home!

Jishu Shrine back home

5 hours passed from when we left our AirBnb to returning. On our circular journey we saw temples, shrines, delicious local food, architectural masterpieces and even a Geisha. I am writing this after lunch during our ‘siesta’ period where the temperature is 37 degrees outside. Tonight we go out at around 5pm and head back to Gion to see what it has to offer at night.

….

Okay so I’ve just got back from dinner and a night stroll around Gion, and we didn’t see any Geishas (noooo!!) The Geisha hunt was unsuccessful. Thank god we saw one this morning!

However, we did have a great time walking around the Shimbashi and Hanamikoji street areas.

Half Crescent moon
Dusk In Gion

We went to an awesome place for dinner in Gion called Issen Yoshuku. They only have one thing on the menu and its a Kyoto style Okonomiyaki, which essentially is a filled fried omelette.

I went full out fatty and ordered 2 for myself!

The ingredients needed in this dish are; green onion, egg, dried shrimp, fish paste, flour, dried bonito, beef, ginger, tempura,konjak jelly, seaweed and Japanese sauce…wow!
I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog post on my day in Gion, I thought I would write a 10 bullet point finish on my tips on seeing Geishas in Kyoto.

1. Go to one of the 5 Geiko districts in Kyoto. They are; Gion Kobu, Pontocho, Kamischicken, Gion Higashi and Miyagawacho. I saw my Geisha in Gion Higashi (East)
2. Go to an event. An example is Kyotos annual beer garden event where 4 Geiko appear on a stage and perform a spectacular performance on stage, but beware the prices for this privilege are astronomical.
3. Hang Around. We didn’t actually do this but staying in one place that a Geisha is usually seen in for an extended amount of time is a sure way of eventually seeing one (even if it takes a day or two).
4. Pay attention to your surroundings. Areas like Pontocho and Ishibei Alley are tangled together with small alleyways and little paths. Be on high alert constantly and keep your ears peeled for soft conversation if it is quiet.
5. Prioritise your timing for early morning or late evening. We saw our Geisha early in the morning. In fact because it was so quiet it was only us and one other western bloke who saw her. Due to their fame around the world they don’t usually come out during the day.
6. Go to the smallest shrines and temples. It has been known that the Geishas go to the smaller temples and shrines before work to pray to avoid crowds. Worth a shot.
7. A lot of Geishas start work from 7pm onwards so being in an area before this time is a good idea. 
8. Look in Taxis! We saw our Geisha come out of a taxi which is what I have heard how a lot of people see them. 
9. Cover as much ground as you can. As well as lingering around in one spot, if it’s really not working for you, walk in an area back and forth sideways and backwards, eventually you might catch a glimpse.
10. Be in the right place at the right time, good luck!

That’s it folks. Having an early night tonight. My alarm is set for 5:00am for a mountain climbing expedition in the morning! 

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