Neighbourhood guides: Live like a local in Gion, Kyoto
10 Nov 2021
Gion (祇園) is Kyoto's most famous geisha district, littered with traditional Japanese culture in the form of shops, restaurants and old-school ochayas (お茶屋) — tea houses. This is where you can find geiko, the word in the Kyoto dialect for geisha, entertaining audiences come evening.
These traditional tea houses, responsible for shaping Kyoto’s history, act as long-standing destinations for relaxation, contemplation and cultural appreciation. Think specialty coffee shops with a tranquil ambiance and historical reverence, however, the neighbourhood still features spots for those in need of a stronger caffeine fix.
A stroll down Hanami Lane will conjure some of the most beautiful traditional architecture in the neighbourhood, and lead to the Kenninji Temple. Kenninji is the largest Buddhist temple in Gion, and the oldest Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. Expect to find many different halls, interspersed with traditional gardens, monuments and even its own teahouse.
For other recommendations, here are our favourites.
Walden Woods Kyoto is a coffee shop slash art space. The minimalist white-cube store takes its caffeine seriously, and also sells bits and bobs such as tea, unsurprisingly, as well as homeware goods too.
For an Insta-worthy photo moment, head to the Kyoto Gion Post Office. This quaint, baby blue, European-inspired post office stands out against the traditional Japanese-designed Gion streets. Inside, you can purchase souvenirs and postcards, as well as some insider tips on the best places to visit in the area.
The Shinmonzen is the latest addition to the area, set to open in December 2021. It’s here that you will find Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who aims to develop meaningful relationships with local farmers to offer the freshest and most seasonal ingredients to the menu, much like he does with his international restaurants.
Issen Yoshoku only has one dish on their menu – the famous Japanese dish Okonomiyaki. It was originally sold as a snack for children in the neighbourhood, which is why it conjures comforting imagery. They describe the place as such: “the name and atmosphere of the shop are the spirit of warmth, the taste and service are the spirit of wisdom, and the traditional notation is ‘Issen Yoshoku’ at the time of birth.”
For an immersive experience, head to The Minamiza theater for a Kakubi show. While there you’ll find a cafe on the first floor that sells drinks and nibbles — their specialty is Yatsuhashi, a sweet and delicious Japanese confectionery. There is also a gift shop on the second floor where you can buy Kabuki-related goods and traditional Kyoto kimono accessories.
Gion is where Pass The Baton’s third boutique is located. The eclectic second-hand shop added a small cafe-cum-bar to the space, and it's here that you’ll discover collaborative products created with some of Kyoto’s most prominent craft companies – such as small corsages made of Nishijin silk fabrics from Hosoo, or nicely patinated copper tea canisters from Kaikado. Insider tip: Japan’s charity and second-hand shops are commonly known as ’recycle shops’.
Grand Marble Gion is located on Hanamikoji street. It’s a bakery where you can try all the cakes Japan has on offer, and we recommend asking for something called Three Colors of Kyoto: a pretty little slice that blends Gion Tsujiri matcha and refreshing strawberries for a delectable sweet and savoury mix.
There are many tea houses in this part of Kyoto, however, for a traditional experience head to En. This picturesque Japanese-style tea house features tatami mat tea rooms, kimono-clad waitresses, and is a great location to try an authentic tea ceremony experience first-hand.
If you arrive in the neighbourhood by train, walk a short eight minutes from the Gion-Shijo Station to the Forever Museum of Contemporary Art (FMOCA). Home to a selection of nearly 700 works, including that of Yayoi Kusama and her playful five-metre spotted pumpkin. It’s here that you can explore work that merges time-honoured tradition and modern-day culture all in one.