Shijō-dōri runs west through the heart of Gion and across the Kamo-gawa into Kyoto’s main downtown district. One of the most distinctive buildings along here, on the corner overlooking the river, is the Minami-za (南座). This famous kabuki theatre was established in the early seventeenth century, though last rebuilt in 1929; each December it is the venue for a major kabuki festival featuring Japan’s most celebrated actors. Kabuki has been an integral part of Gion life since the late sixteenth century when a female troupe started performing religious dances on the river banks. Eventually this evolved into an equally popular, all-male theatre, and, patronized by an increasingly wealthy merchant class, kabuki joined geisha and the teahouses in Kyoto’s vibrant pleasure quarters. Of these, Gion was perhaps the most famous, and you can still get a flavour of this “floating world”, as these districts were referred to during the eighteenth century, if you walk south along Hanamikōji-dōri, where many of the lovely wooden buildings still function as exclusive teahouses where geisha hold court. It’s best after dark when red lanterns hang outside each secretive doorway, allowing the occasional glimpse down a stone-flagged entranceway; early evening is also a good time to spot geisha and trainee maiko arriving at the teahouses for an appointment.
During April’s Miyako Odori (都をどり), local geisha give performances of traditional dance at the Gion Kōbu Kaburenjō (祇園甲部歌舞練場), a theatre near the south end of Hanamikoji-dōri. This is also the venue for a touristy display of traditional arts known as Gion Corner (ギオンコーナー). Though it’s far better to spend a little extra to see the real thing, this is an opportunity to see brief extracts of court dance, bunraku puppet theatre and the slapstick kyōgen.
Gion north of Shijō-dōri consists mainly of high-rise blocks packed with clubs, bars and restaurants. But walk up Kiritoshi, one block west of Hanamikoji-dōri, and you eventually emerge into another area of teahouses, known as Shinbashi (新橋). Although it only comprises two short streets, the row of slatted facades reflected in the willow-lined Shirakawa Canal makes a delightful scene, day or night.