What can you do on a rainy afternoon in Kyoto? The city of course is featuring wonderful museums, a testimony of its central role in Japanese history, culture and art, which you don’t want to miss. But if you really want to dig into the atmosphere of a neighborhood of Kyoto, never mind the rain. Rain makes it even better! Grab your wellies and your umbrella and head for Gion. Famously known as the geisha district of Kyoto, Gion is not only a major tourist attraction, it is also a social hub for locals. Exclusive tea houses, expensive shops, dark alleys and badly lit staircases, a few hours of unhurried stroll without a map will make for the most enjoyable afternoon. And morning. Because you’ll want to come back in the morning, when Gion slowly wakes up.
If you are using public transportation, get off at the Kawaramachi Station on the Hankyu-Kyoto Line and head towards the Kamo River. You’ll want to take some time along the river banks to admire the amazing formation of houses perched on their stilts, it rarely gets more authentic than that.
Heading back to Shijo Dori and on your way to the 1350-year-old Yasaka Shrine, make sure to treat yourself to one of those matcha tea ice cream cones, they are pure bliss. You may also want to pay a visit to the cozy Chugen-ji Temple on your right.
Once you have reached the end of Shijo Dori, with the Yasaka shrine in sight, it’s time to fold up that map and put it in your backpack, and why not turn off your phone as well and be adventurous! Gion lies on both sides of Shijo Dori. Both Gionmachi Minamigawa (Gion Southside Town) and Gionmachi Kitagawa (Gion Northside Town) are worth exploring.
Browsing and leafing through, you are sure to come across some of the finest traditional craft and antique shops of Kyoto. Textiles, geta (sandals with a wooden base held onto the foot with a fabric thong, worn with the traditional kimono), prints, combs, furniture, ceramics. My personal favorites are the beautiful ceramic bowls and their whisks used for the tea ceremony. Many of those shops are family businesses standing for several generations, held in old wooden houses.
The “old” is obvious is Gion and it is stunning. Like most places in Japan, the “old” and the “new” are coexisting in a way that seems almost inalienable. The charm of the extravaganza of electric cables above your head, the neon lights in the same frame as thousand year old temples are a treat to the eyes and will leave you with this soothing feeling of standing in a special place indeed.
Contrasts are abounding and you will find the same patterns when it comes to food. Gion is certainly associated with delicacy, yet you will only get a glimpse of what the most exclusive restaurants might have to offer; of what is going on behind those wooden doors. And that is perfectly fine, because a few steps further away you will most certainly find a down to earth ramen shop where locals are gathering. You will have a bowl of those welcoming noodles, which was exactly what you needed. If you enjoyed his food, make sure to compliment the chef. People there are usually thrilled, and rightly so, when foreigners express their appreciation of local cuisine.
I have always believed that the best way of getting to know a neighborhood was to stroll through it without any agenda. That rainy afternoon in Gion only reinforced this feeling. The district has a lot to offer, and more than what meets the eye. But even what meets the eye only is an adventure. I hope you will enjoy exploring Gion so much that you’ll just have to come back next morning!