We are walking through narrow alleys and brick-stone-covered streets, surrounded by old wooden teahouses in the classic Japanese style. Our walk takes us along romantic canals with charming bridges and it feels like we have stepped back in time to the Edo period (1603 – 1868). Back when Geishas and Samurais walked these streets and Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and the country’s 300 daimyō, the regional feudal lords.
This is Gion and Pontocho, Kyoto’s famous Geisha entertainment districts, filled with well-preserved tea houses, restaurants, and bars. Sometimes referred to as the “Flower Districts” as it was here that all the tea houses were located, with music and dance performances by Kyoto’s famous Geishas.
Going for a night stroll through the streets of Gion and Pontocho is a highlight of any visit to Kyoto. It is a fantastic area to explore and get an insight into the traditional architecture and Geisha culture of Japan. And if you are lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a real Geisha, or Geiko as they are called in Kyoto, or one of their Maiko understudies, as they hurry to or from work.
For more about Kyoto and what you should see and do in Kyoto see our recommended 3-day Kyoto Itinerary.
And if you still haven’t decided on a Kyoto hotel, you might want to read our article on where to stay in Kyoto.
Guide To Gion & Pontocho
In this guide, we will take you on a DIY walking tour of Kyoto’s famous Geisha district Gion, as well as the city’s best nightlife area Pontocho. We will show you the sights and points of interest in Gion and Ponto-Cho.
The whole walk can be done in less than an hour, but if you want to taste some of the food, visit some of the restaurants, cafes, and bars along the way, you can easily spend an evening exploring.
A great way to experience the Geisha neighborhoods of Kyoto is with a local guide who will explain the Geisha culture and show you the highlights of Gion and Ponto-Cho. We recommend this 3,5-hour evening tour of Gion and Pontocho, which is similar to this DIY walking path that we will guide you through in this article.
Table of Contents:
Walking Tour Of Gion & Pontocho
Map of the ultimate walking route of Kyoto’s Geisha districts Gion & Pontocho
Start your walking tour of Gion in the western outskirts of Maruyama Park in the Southern Higashiyama area of Kyoto. You start on the steps of Yasaka Shrine/ Yasaka-jinja.
1. Yasaka Shrine
The vast and colorful Yasaka Shrine, or Yasaka-jinja as it is called in Japanese, was established as early as the year 656.
Yasaka is the guardian shrine of the Gion entertainment district in Kyoto, which you are about to explore.
You find yourself standing at the steps of Yasaka Shrine, at the intersection between Shijo-dori Street and Higashioji-dori Avenue (facing west). Head straight west along Shijo-dori Street.
Follow Shijo-dori Street and turn left on the first side street (there are a Starbuck Coffee and Apa Hotel Kyoto Gion at the corner). Follow this small sidestreet for only about 150 m, then turn right and follow this street (about 100 m) until you get to the famous and atmospheric Hanamikoji Street.
2. Hanamikoji Geisha Street
Hanamikoji Street is a charming picturesque street lined with “ryotei”, posh high-class traditional Japanese restaurants. These luxurious restaurants are pricey, and many of them require an invitation and reservation and are for Japanese only. In the old days, these all had Geisha entertainment, and some still do. Inside a Ryōtei business and political meetings can take place discreetly.
If you want to experience a real Geisha performance and a traditional Japanese dinner, you should consider this tour where you visit an Ochaya, a traditional geisha restaurant. A Maiko (apprentice geisha) will do a classic dance show while you enjoy your Japanese dinner. This is an excellent opportunity to experience traditional Japanese nightlife and traditions in Gion.
Continue north on Hanamikoji Street, back to Shijo-dori Street, and admire the beautiful wooden buildings that line the streets.
Hanami-koji Street (花見小路) is the main street of the Geisha entertainment district Gion, and the most famous one. Both sides of the road are lined with beautiful old traditional wooden “Machiya” buildings.
A Machiya is a wooden row house that functioned as both the shop/ workplace and the home/ living area for Japan’s bourgeoisie – a class that was quite large during the Edo period (1603 – 1868).
You would typically find the shop in front of the building while the rooms further back were the living area for the whole family. During these times, houses were taxed according to the size of the front that was facing the street. The result was this style of buildings with their characteristic “slim” shape. They got the nickname “eel bedrooms” since they were so narrow.
Gion is one of the few places left in Japan that has a whole street with well-preserved machiya buildings, as they were often knocked down after WWII to build more modern multistorey concrete structures.
In 1990, however, Kyoto and other cities around Japan started a restoration process to preserve these old machiya houses. Today you will find cozy restaurants, cafes, and boutiques in these houses.
Soak up the cozy atmosphere along Hanamikoji Street, and if you are lucky, you might see a real Geisha like we did (see photo below).
There are strict rules when it comes to taking photos in the Gion area. There are posters everywhere with the rules (see photo below). There are restrictions against taking pictures posing in front of the houses, touching anything, kissing, using a tripod, or speaking with a loud voice. Yep, taking photos in Gion can be tricky…. 🙂
However, if you want to dress up and pose like a real maiko (apprentice geisha) then there are studios that specialize in that. Here you will have your hair styled with a wig and traditional make-up applied and then be photographed in a studio to capture this unique experience in Kyoto. You can get some beautiful and unique portrait photos to share with friends and family.
Click here for the latest prices and info on the Geisha makeover and Photoshoot
Follow Hanamikoji Street north. Once you get to the intersection Hanamikoji Street and Shijo-dori Street (the street where you started this walking route), turn left along Shijo-dori Street for only about 100 m. Cross Shijo-dori Street, and turn right onto the first street, the narrow Kiri-doshi Street. Kiri-doshi Street runs parallel to Hanami-koji Street.
Follow Kiri-doshi street, cross two sidestreets where the first one is Tominagasho-dori lined with hostess bars. Continue straight forward along Kiri-doshi Street until you reach the Gion Tatsumi Bridge.
3. Gion Tatsumi Bridge
The cute red Gion Tatsumi Bridge (called Tatsumi-bashi in Japanese) crosses the small Shirakawa canal. The canal ends up in the broader Kamo River.
Cross the bridge, and you are now in Shimbashi district of Kyoto, the most picturesque and stunning part of Gion. Here you find some of the most elegant traditional wooden houses of Kyoto housing high-class restaurants, cafes, and exclusive hostess bars, and also the small Tatsumi Shrine.
We visited the Gion Tatsumi Bridge in November, and the autumn leaves made the whole area shine with orange, red, yellow, and brown colors.
This area is also beautiful during Cherry Blossom in March/ April, when over 40 cherry trees turn into a sea of pink and white blossoms.
Once you cross the Gion Tatsumi Bridge, turn left and follow the narrow street west along the small canal Shirakawa. Look across the canal, and you will catch a sneak peek into some of the most exceptional elite restaurants in Kyoto. If you are lucky, you will spot a geisha or two entertaining the guests.
If you want to experience a unique Japanese Kaiseki cuisine (a traditional multi-course, multi-flavored Japanese dinner) yourself, then this tour of Gion and Pontocho includes a traditional Japanse dinner.
If Kaisai cuisine sounds a little too much and strange for your taste, and Kobe beef is more your thing, you should consider joining this 3-hour all-inclusive food and culture tour of Gion and Pontocho (you can choose between an English, German, French, or Spanish-speaking guide).
The Gion Tatsumi Bridge became especially popular after it was in the Hollywood movie “Memoirs Of A Geisha” from 2005, made after Arthur Golden’s novel with the same title. You can watch the trailer of “Memoirs Of A Geisha” below.
Along your way west along the canal, you will pass Kanikakuni Monument.
4. Kanikakuni Monument
As you stroll along the Shirakawa Canal, you will notice a large rock just next to the water with white markings engraved on the surface. The stone is Kanikakuni Monument, a monument to honor the famous Japanese poet Isamu Yoshii (1886 – 1960).
Isamu Yoshii loved Gion district and frequently visited the tea houses in this area when he lived in Kyoto.
The stone monument was put there in 1955, marking the 70th birthday of the poet Yoshii. “Kanikakuni” means “Oh So Deeply” and is the name of the poem that Yoshii wrote in 1910, which is engraved on the stone.
The poem “Oh So Deeply” by Isamu Yoshii engraved on the stone goes like this:
かにかくに 祇園はこいし寝るときも 枕の下を水のながるる
Translated into English:
Oh so deeply I love Gion
Even in my sleep
The stream runs beneath my pillow
Back when the poem was written, this area next to the river was famous for its popular teahouses frequently visited by poets and artists of Kyoto. The Chaya teahouses were typically built over the river. The line “The stream runs beneath my pillow” in the poem may refer to these teahouses.
There is a memorial ceremony at the Kanikakuni Monument on the 8th of November at 11:00/ 11 am every year. It only lasts for about five minutes when a geiko (a full, adult geisha) and maiko (apprentice geisha, usually teenagers) steps out from a private tea house nearby. The geishas pose and lay chrysanthemums flower at the monument.
The ceremony is a unique and rare chance to see a real geisha performing a public ceremony, and for free! To see an actual geisha performance is usually pretty expensive.
So if you happen to be in Kyoto on the 8th of November, make sure to head to the Kanikakuni Monument in Gion. The street next to the monument is also closed for cars during the ceremony, making this an excellent chance of strolling this beautiful street along the river lined by trees in fall colors.
Continue west along the canal until you reach Yamatooji-dori Street. Turn left along Yamatooji-dori street (south) and cross the canal. Follow Yamatooji-dori Street south until you reach Shijo-dori Street. Yep, the same Shijo-dori Street where you started this walking route. 🙂
On your way south along Yamatooji-dori Street, you can’t miss the fun Issen Yoshoku Restaurant.
5. Issen Yoshoku Okonomiyaki Restaurant
At the end of Yamatooji-dori Street, you will, for sure, notice the colorful Issen Yoshoku Restaurant. Just look for the comic figure of a boy being chased by a dog! 🙂
Issen Yoshoku only has one dish on their menu – the famous Japanese dish Okonomiyaki. It is mouthwateringly good, made to perfection!
If you have never tasted Okonomiyaki, you really should. It is mandatory if you visit Japan. Check out what other dishes you should try when visiting Japan.
Okonomiyaki is kind of like a pancake or thin pizza with a topping of spring onion, beef, egg, ginger, and dried shrimp.
The best part with Issen Yoshoku is that the chefs are preparing each Okonomiyaki after the orders, so you are always getting a super fresh one straight from the kitchen.
The kitchen is so cool too; it is an open one placed right by the street of the entrance to the restaurant. So you can watch your Okonomiyaki being made.
The interior of the restaurant is extraordinary and unique, and kind of crazy. You will be accompanied by a kimono-dressed mannequin doll sitting at your table. 🙂
- Address: 238 Giommachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama-ku, Gion, Kyoto
- Opening Hours: 11:00 am – Midnight
- Price: 750 Yen = US$ 7 for one Okonomiyaki
- Issen Yoshoku Restaurant’s Official Webpage
Once you reach Shijo-dori Street at the end of Yamatooji-dori Street, turn right onto Shijo-dori Street. Here you can’t miss the beautiful Kakubi theater of Kyoto – Minami-za.
6. Minamiza Kakubi Theatre
Kabuki is a traditional Japanese dance-drama and mainly performed at Kakubi Theatres, which includes music, dancing, and lots of drama. The actors wear heavy and unique make-up, making them look a bit like Geishas.
UNESCO proclaimed kabuki theatre as an intangible heritage possessing outstanding universal value in 2005.
The main Kakubi Theater in Kyoto is the grand Minamiza in Gion, founded in 1610. The magnificent building you see here today is a reconstruction from 1929.
You should check if the Minamiza theater runs Kakubi shows while you are visiting Kyoto, as this is a great way to experience a unique part of Japanese culture, although a bit bizarre. 🙂
A Kakubi show usually goes on for several hours with three or four acts, but you can leave after a couple of acts (there are long intervals and pauses between the acts).
Minamiza Theater has a cafe on the first floor selling soft drinks, beer, and liquor. Their specialty is, however, Yatsuhashi, a sweet and delicious Japanese confectionery. There is a gift shop on the 2nd floor where you can buy Kabuki-related goods, like books, DVDs, traditional Kyoto kimono accessories, incense, fans, and all sorts of Japanese souvenirs.
- Address: 605-0075 Higashiyama-ku, Gion, Kyoto
- Opening Hours: Irregularly (see their webpage for scheduled Kakubi performances)
- Price: Tickets for a Kakubi performance varies between 4200 – 27000 Yen = US$ 39 – 252 depending on the seats and performance
- Minamiza’s Official Webpage
Follow Shijo-dori Street past Minami-za Theatre and cross the Kamo River/ Kamo-gawa, and take a sharp right (north) once you are on the other side of the river. You are now stepping into the famous and legendary Pontocho Alley.
Pontocho is a narrow alley on the opposite side of the Kamo River from Gion. The Pontocho street is pedestrian-only and is super charming and atmospheric! It is lined with old wooden buildings, housing cozy cafes, bars, and restaurants.
Pontocho is not much to look at in the daytime. So make sure to visit Pontocho in the evening when it comes alive, and all the atmospheric lanterns are lit.
Some of the old charming houses in Pontocho is elite restaurants and bars where you must book a table up front. But some also cater to tourists and foreigners, look for posters and menus out on the street.
If you find these small bars and restaurants a little intimidating, then you can join a bar and food tour of Pontocho. This 3-hour food and walking tour of Pontocho starts at 16:30/ 4 pm and includes five food stops with drinks and all sorts of Japanse must-try dishes, snacks, and desserts. A great way to experience real Pontocho.
Another option is this 3-hour bar-hopping tour of the top bars of Pontocho, with some hidden gems as well, starting at 19:00/ 7 pm. You will experience the vibrant atmosphere of Pontocho together with a fun and enthusiastic local English-speaking guide.
And if you are really interested in learning about and tasting sake and other Japanese alcoholic beverages, you should check out this 3-hour sake, whiskey, and cocktail tour in Gion and Pontocho. On this night tour, you will enjoy the taste of Japanese sake, whiskey, and unique cocktails, and unique Japanese dinner.
Follow Pontocho Alley north past Pontocho Park. At the north end of Ponto-cho Alley, you reach the first intersection. Turn sharp left and then left again onto Kiyamachi-dori Street.
8. Kiyamachi-dori Street
Kiyamachi-dori Street is the parallel street to Pontocho Alley. Kiyamachi-dori Street is lined with restaurants, cafes, and bars, which are more casual and less expensive than the ones in Gion and Pontocho. This is a great place to have one last nightcap and some snacks before heading back home to your hotel to sleep it all off.
Walk south along Kiyamachi-dori Steet until you once again reach Shijo-dori Street (the street where this walking route started). Turn right along Shijo-dori Street, and you will reach the end of this walking route of Gion & Ponto-cho – Kawaramachi Station.
9. Kawaramachi Station
Time to head back to your hotel after this Gion and Pontocho pub crawl and hit the sack. Nighty night! ♥
Where To Stay In Kyoto
Century Hotel Kyoto
We highly recommend this hotel, as we loved it! The best hotel we stayed at throughout our entire Japan trip!
The rooms are big and beautiful decorated, with huge comfortable beds. Great service from the staff and excellent location just next to Kyoto Train Station (100 m walk). You will love this hotel!
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Hotel Mystays Kyoto Shijo
We stayed at Hotel Mystays in Tokyo and it was fantastic! Hotel Mystays is a business hotel chain. The rooms are not the biggest but have everything you need and more (even slippers!).
The location of Mystays Kyoto is perfect, close to Maruyama park and many shrines, and very close to a subway station (300 m) and bus stops. There is a good selection of restaurants nearby and there is a supermarket next to the hotel. It is a quiet hotel, and all rooms have good wifi. There is a laundry room with washing machines and a dryer and a coffee machine in the lobby that you can use for free.
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Karasuma Kyoto Hotel
A nice budget hotel centrally located with plenty of eating places within a short walk. It is within walking distance to the Gion area and to Nishiki market. Reasonably sized rooms (big for Japan) and have a small fridge and coffee/tea maker. The breakfast is delicious. The bathroom is fully equipped with all the necessary toiletries.
There is a Starbucks next to the hotel, and the hotel is close to a big supermarket, many restaurants, as well as bus stops and a subway station (2 stops from Kyoto Station). Take subway Karasuma Line to Shijo Station (exit 6).
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There it is, our guide to the Gion and Pontocho area of Kyoto, where you find the real soul of the nightlife of the city.
Gion and Pontocho is a part of our 3-day Kyoto Itinerary. Check it out to see what else you should not miss when visiting Kyoto.
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Do you plan on going for a night stroll through Gion and Pontocho when going to Kyoto? If you have already been to Gion and Pontocho, what do you think of it? Do you have any questions about this area of Kyoto? We would love to hear from you in the comment area below! Thanks!
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