I’ve talked about day trips and places to explore in Kyoto, but where do you go after the sun sets? In a city so full of culture and life, there are many gems to enjoy even at night. The most famous of these is Gion.
When you say Kyoto, many people instantly think “geisha.” These supremely talented women with their elaborate hair and gowns, schooled in the art of entertainment, have become almost mythical in popular culture. While geisha are still active in several cities throughout Japan, the old capital remains their greatest bastion. And Gion is by far the most popular area to find them.
But geisha are not the only draw of the area. The buildings in Gion are so picturesque, with their traditional wooden frames and tile roofs. The narrow streets have been carefully restored and preserved. The lamps and lanterns bathe everything in a soft, warm glow.
There are teahouses and restaurants galore in Gion, as well as bars, clubs, and coffee shops (including a Starbucks on Shijo Street).
Your best bet to see a geisha performance without spending hundreds of dollars is an evening show at Gion Corner. It features traditional Japanese arts like flower arrangement and tea ceremony, as well as a dance by apprentice geisha known as maiko. At this time, adults must pay 3150 JPY (about 30 USD) for admission–but be warned that tickets often sell out very fast, so if you want to attend a show, definitely get your tickets as early as possible.
Spotting a geisha
Before I give you this tip, please remember: geisha are people just like you. Imagine being mobbed by cameras whenever you so much as peek out of your door… don’t be rude! Geisha are out in full regalia only on the way to or from an appointment, so please take your photos from a distance and try not to block their way.
For the most atmospheric street and best shot of seeing geisha, head down Hanamikoji Dori from Shijo Dori. Come in late afternoon/early evening. As you stroll down the road, keep an eye out for taxis waiting outside. Odds are, a geisha is being picked up for an appointment.
We were lucky enough that we not only saw a geisha, we saw a maiko come out to bid her “older sister” a good evening. And some time after the taxi left, when most of the bystanders had walked away, two maiko came striding out of the machiya at pretty much breakneck speed. Particularly impressive when you consider they were wearing those incredibly tall wooden shoes…I don’t know how they didn’t topple over. Years of practice, I guess.
Don’t be a stalker, but stay alert and observant even as you enjoy the lovely mood in Gion!
On one end of Gion, away from the water, is a pretty green space called Maruyama Park. I’m sure it’s perfectly lovely in the daytime, especially during cherry blossom season. But at night, it’s one of the best night markets around.
The centerpiece of Maruyama Park is a large weeping cherry blossom tree. It’s fenced off but beautifully lit up at night. All around it and stretching through the streets around Yasaka Shrine are food stalls and benches. Everything from fish on a stick, fresh squeezed orange juice, and noodles, to candied cherries and apples, to takoyaki and beef bowls… delicious food fills all your senses. Grab a meat skewer and sit at one of the tables under the cherry blossoms. Enjoy the evening meal outdoors with friends, locals, and fellow travelers.
Please respect Yasaka Shrine and don’t sit on the low walls or eat as you walk the grounds. It can be difficult to tell where the shrine ends and the park begins, but look out for signs and if a caretaker asks you not to do something, just follow their request.