Gion is a district of Kyoto, Japan, originally developed in the Sengoku period, in front of Yasaka Shrine. The district was built to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine. It eventually evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan. The term Gion is related to Jetavana.
The geisha in Kyoto do not refer to themselves as geisha; instead, they use the local term geiko. While the term geisha means "artist" or "person of the arts", the more direct term geiko means essentially "a woman of art".
This neighborhood in Kyoto houses two hanamachi, or geiko districts: Gion Kobu 祇園甲部 and Gion Higashi 祇園東. The two were originally the same district but split many years ago. Gion Kobu is larger, occupying most of the district including the famous street Hanamikoji, while Gion Higashi is smaller and occupies the northeast corner, centered on its rehearsal hall. Despite the considerable decline in the number of geisha in Gion in the last one hundred years, the area is still famous for the preservation of forms of traditional architecture and entertainment.
Part of this district has been declared a national historical preservation district. Recently, the City of Kyoto completed a project to restore the streets of Gion, which included such plans as moving all overhead utilities underground as part of the ongoing effort to preserve the original beauty of Gion.
2.1. Entertainment Teahouses
Gion remains dotted with old-style Japanese houses called machiya, which roughly translated means "townhouse", some of which are ochaya or "tea houses". These are traditional establishments where the patrons of Gion - from the samurai of old to modern-day businessmen - have been entertained by geiko in an exclusive manner for centuries.
Inside the ochaya is a private and closed world where the evenings entertainment may include cocktails, conversation, and games as well as traditional Japanese music, singing and dancing. To this day, geiko and maiko geisha in training in full regalia can still be seen in the evenings as they move about through the streets of Gion to and from their various engagements at the ochaya. They dance and sing and they entertain for everyone.
2.2. Entertainment Other
There are also many modern entertainment establishments in Gion – restaurants of all types, bars, clubs, pachinko, off-track betting, and a very large number of tourist-oriented establishments, particularly along Shijō Street; the region is both a major tourist hub, and a popular nightlife spot for locals. Streets vary dramatically in character, and quiet traditional streets abut modern ones. Among the traditional streets, Hanami Lane and environs is a major preserved street. It ranges from Shijō Street at the north end, anchored by the famous Ichiriki Tei, and running south to the major temple of Kennin-ji.
The stretch of the Shirakawa River before it enters the Kamo river is also a popular preserved area. It is lined on the south side with traditional establishments which directly abut the river, and some are accessed by crossing bridges from the north side. The north side was previously also lined with buildings, but these were torn down in World War II as a fire-prevention measure, and the section is now primarily a pedestrian street, lined with cherry blossoms. These are lit up in the evening in the spring, and the area is active year-round.
3. Annual events
The geiko and maiko of Gion perform annual public dances, as do those of all five geisha districts in Kyoto. The oldest of these date to the Kyoto exhibition of 1872. The more popular of these is the Miyako Odori, literally "Dances of the Old Capital" sometimes instead referred to as "Cherry Blossom Dances", staged by the geisha of Gion Kobu, which dates to 1872. The dances run from April 1 through April 30 each year during the height of the cherry blossom sakura season. Spectators from Japan and worldwide attend the events, which range from "cheap" seats on tatami mats on the floor, to reserved seats with a small tea ceremony beforehand. Gion Higashi holds a similar dance in early November, around autumn leaves, known as Gion Odori; this is more recent and has fewer performances.
4. In popular culture
- 1953 A Geisha AKA Gion Music Festival 祇園囃子 Gion bayashi
- Gion is the setting of several films by Kenji Mizoguchi, including
- Gion is the setting of much of Arthur Goldens novel Memoirs of a Geisha.
- 1936 Sisters of the Gion 祇園の姉妹 Gion no kyōdai
- Gion Kobu was also where Mineko Iwasaki lived and conducted business as a geiko, as mentioned in her autobiography Geisha of Gion.
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