Gion is located between the Kamogawa River between Sanjo (Third Street) and Shijo (Fourth Street). It is the entertainment and pleasure quarter of Kyoto, where Geishas, Kabuki (Japanese dance-drama), and ochaya (tea houses) originated. In Pontocho, the narrow lanes offer many bars and summer riverside restaurants, while further west is the shopper’s paradise – encircled by Karasuma-dori on the west, Oike-dori on the north, the river at the east, and Shijo-dori at the south – with many department stores and speciality stores which make you lose all sense of time. Perhaps the most popular spot in Gion, though, is Yasaka-jinja.
Yasaka shrine, sometimes known as Gion-san, is a Shinto shrine built in 656 A.D., though most of the buildings today were reconstructed in 1654. This temple is dedicated to Susa-no-o, the god of prosperity and health. New born babies are brought to the temple annually for registration, mostly by their grandmothers. Three, five, and seven year-olds are brought to this temple in November for the Shichi-go-san Festival. Also in Yasaka-jinja, the Gion Matsuri is held annually; a festival which lasts for the duration of July, and is one of Japan’s most famous festivals. On July 17th, downtown Gion is crowded by a massive parade, known as the Yamaboko Junko. For three nights leading up to the 17th, downtown Kyoto is reserved for pedestrian traffic, during which some houses in the private kimono district open their doors to display their heirlooms, which is known as the Byobu Matsuri or Folding Screen Festival. Gion Matsuri was first started in 869, when omikoshi (small portable shrines) were paraded through the streets of Kyoto to ward off an epidemic. Many women go to this festival in traditional kimonos and many people buy traditional cuisines. The three most important events in Yasaka jinja are the Gion festival, New Years, and Setsubun – a festival which is celebrated on Feburary 3rd and people throw beans to ward off evil. Setsubun, which means ‘seasonal division’, symbolizes the beginning of every new season.
Yasaka jinja is entered through a gate named Ro-mon, two-stories high and painted with bright red posts and white walls. The gate is guarded by Shinto guardians who flank either side. Passing the gate, there are Korean lion-dogs (koma-inu) who guard the steps to the main temple. On your left is the Haiden, where people offer coins for good luck, and opposite that is the roofed ceremonial stage where decorative lanterns are lit up every evening. There is also a roofed water-basin for purification, and the room where they store the Mikoshi.
The Honden, or the spirit hall, is by far the most important building of the temple. It is a very sacred place for worshipers. It is a single story building with wooden shingle roof, half hipped and half gabled. Worshipers first wake the gods with a rattle of the pan-shaped bells at the front of the building, then pray before the altar. Yasaka jinja is open all day long to visitors.
Just next to Yasaka jinja is another popular visiting spot, Maruyama koen (Maruyama park). It stretches from the entrance of Yasaka shrine on the edge of Gion, across the hills and includes Mt. Maruyama. At the summit of Maruyama is a temple which can be reached after a brisk walk, but the breathtaking view of Kyoto is well worth it. During New Years, the park becomes a party ground for most New Year’s well wishers, and the best time to view it is during autumn, when the trees change color, though it is also very popular during the spring when cherry blossom viewing is at its best. The most popular entrance is through Yasaka shrine, and after a brief walk, you start to see serene ponds with koi (carp) and some swans swimming about. There are also restaurants, takeouts, and toilet facilities, so this place is the perfect spot for lunch or a picnic.
Enjoy the fascinating and beautiful sights of Gion as you walk through the temples and parks of this beautiful city….