Gion (祇園?, ぎおん[note 1]) is a district of Kyoto, Japan, originally developed in the Middle Ages, 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 geisha in the Gion district (and Kyoto generally) do not refer to themselves as geisha; instead, Gion geisha use the local term geiko. While the term geisha means "artist" or "person of the arts", the more direct term geiko means essentially "a child of the arts" or "a woman of art".
This neighborhood in Kyoto has five hanamachi (geiko communities. There are five hanamachi in Kyoto): Gion Kōbu (祇園甲部) and Gion Higashi (祇園東), which split many years ago; Kōbu is larger, occupying most of the district, while 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, it 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.
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 evening's 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.
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 (花見小路 Hanami-kōji?, "flower-viewing lane") and environs is a major preserved street. It ranges from Shijō Street at the north end, anchored by the famous Ichiriki Chaya, 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.
There is a popular misconception that Gion was a red-light district. It was a geisha district, and as geisha are entertainers, not prostitutes, Gion is not, and never was, a red-light district. Shimabara was Kyoto's red-light district.
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 Kōbu, 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.
In popular culture
- Gion is the setting of much of Arthur Golden's novel Memoirs of a Geisha.
- Gion was also where Mineko Iwasaki lived and conducted business as a geiko, as mentioned in her autobiography Geisha of Gion.
- Gion is the setting of several films by Kenji Mizoguchi, including:
- Kyoto hanamachi
- Miyagawachō, other district located just south of Gion
- Pontochō, other district on west side of Kamo river
- Kamishichiken, oldest district in Kyoto
- In traditional kana spelling spelt ぎをん. The first kanji 祇 is properly 示 + 氏, but is often written as ネ + 氏 instead, and on computers depends on the font used. Occasionally 祗 (示 + 氐) is seen, but this is a mistake (these are distinct characters).
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