Blanketed by Night in Gion

May 14, 2018

By Takumi Abe



When you walk in the Gion district of Kyoto, you have time-traveled back into the olden days of Japan. You will see traditional style house alsos and people wearing kimono. You can enjoy seeing not only such scenery, but you can enjoy Japanese foods such as matcha green tea, Japanese sake or sukiyaki. A river along one street in Gion is lined with stones and many willows, giving you a feeling of exoticism. After the sun goes down, you will be fascinated by the new mood of Gion. It has a relaxed atmosphere. laughter emerges from the old-style houses. I decided to record this special night mood through photographs.


The History of Gion

Gion was created in the late 1600s and prospered as a town that had developed near the gate of Yasaka Shrine. At this time, many beautiful women stood in front of the stores to attract customers. In the Meji period, from 1868-1912, the Gion area was expanded. Furthermore, Many famous Japanese writers loved Gion in this period. Eventually, Gion changed into the amusement and nightlife district it is now. Now, the northern area of Gion sparkles with bright neon lights. In the southern part of Gion, there is soft lighting and it is very quiet.


Gion Night Scenery

  • Yasaka Shrine


Yasaka Shrine

This shrine is the symbol of Gion, which extends out west from its base. This area prospered from people who came to worship at this shrine. Now, the gate is lit up every night.


  • Northern Gion

Northern Gion

In northern Gion, there are bars, snack bars and nightclubs. Many people go there to enjoy drinking and the nightlife. On Friday night, lots of taxis are coming and going.


  • Gion-shinbashi


Gion shinbashi

In northern Gion, glittering neon signs illuminate the streets. However, if you continue to walk north out the the more lively streets, there is an old Japanese-style district that has a quiet atmosphere. This area’s streets are covered with stones. You can enjoy the atmosphere and sophisticated Japanese restaurants.


  • Shijo Boulevard



The Shijo Boulevard is the main busy street in Kyoto and in Gion. There are many people here for shopping, commuting, dining and drinking, going back home or just out walking. Shopping is the biggest reason that people come to Shijo, because there are so many different and attractive stores there.


  • Snowy Downtown


Snowy Downtown

When January arrives, it brings snow to Kyoto. The citiscape is changed by snow. People might think that temples or shrines covered with snow are beautiful, but the collaboration between snow and Gion is even more magical. You can see that old houses and streets are dressed in new snow.


  • Hanami-koji


Hanami koji

Hanami-koji is the main street of southern Gion. Red Japanese lanterns have images of dumplings printed on them. Gion was started with dumpling and green tea shops. In Japan, drinking Japanese tea while eating a dumpling is one of our favorite customs.


  • Rainy Gion


Raining in Gion

After a rain in Gion, the wet streets reflect the lights brilliantly. Those lights are white, red or brown. The pitter-patter of rain and the sound of footsteps fill the air.


  • Kennin-ji Temple


Kennin-ji temple

If you walk further south on Hanami-koji Street, you will see the traditional gate of Kennin-ji temple, Kyoto’s first Zen temple. You can experience the culture of Zen (禅) here and see beautiful fusuma and byobu paitnings and a Japanese garden.


  • The traditional pagoda



Yasaka-no-to is a three-story pagoda between Gion and Kiyomizu Temple. The presence of this pagoda is very photogenic. This is one of Kyoto’s most famous places, so many people come here and see it. At night, this area is so silent that you can hear your own footsteps and breathing.


  • Sakura



Maruyama park stetches out in back of Yasaka Shrine. This park is famous for its cherry blossoms and there is one big cherry tree at its center. Regardless of age or sex, many people are attracted by this famous tree.


  • Under the trees


Enjoy Hanami

Many people enjoy viewing cherry blossoms with good food and alcohol. When people are under the trees, they feel delight. This is one way to have fun at night in Gion..


The Atmosphere of Gion


Gion is famous as a traditional Japanese entertainment district. However, the old structures coexist with modern bars and concrete buildings. So this area looks a little bit messy, but in fact, the long history of Gion remains intact. The area that has a long history is attracting many more people these days and they enjoy the nighttime with alcohol. It is good that people can enjoy and go a little crazy even in front of the holy shrine. When night comes, most people go to sleep at their hotel or guesthouse. If you have time or are not able to sleep, I recommend you go to Gion at night. Gion then has a bustling and buzzing face in addition to quiet and calm face along the river. You can feel this original atmosphere. Gion is both loud and quiet.

Make a Wish on Ema

by Nanae Uchida and Yu Nakabayashi


Ema (絵馬) is a wooden plaque with picture or painting on the surface. People write their wishes on its backside and hang it up at a special place at the shrine. It’s believed that gods will receive their wishes and grant their prayers. Ema can be found in most shrines in Japan, as it is a Shinto (one of the Japanese religions) custom. Although people are used to making a wish in writing on ema, especially for success in their entrance examinations, there is no rule when or what kind of wish to write. Each shrine has its own design of the ema it offers visitors, some of them quite unique.


with instruction

Ema with Instructions

How ema will be dealt with depends on each shrine. After visitors hang their ema with their wish written on it, it is usually kept hanging for while and when time comes, the ema are burned in a ritual. As Ema are burned, the smoke reaches the realm of the gods so that the gods can know the wish. The ritual is sometimes different with various meanings according to the particular shrine.

How to Write a Wish

You can write only one wish on one Ema. You should write your wish on its backside with your name and address (just your country and city is OK) at the bottom. Then you should hang it up at a specific place called emakakesyo (絵馬掛所). If your wish comes true, you should visit the shrine and thank the gods for their generosity.


The term ‘ema’ consists of two kanji: 絵 which means ‘picture’ and 馬 which means ‘horse’. Traditionally, in Shinto, horses were believed to be the vehicles of the gods. People used to donate real horses to the shrines when they prayed for more serious wishes so that gods would listen more carefully to their prayers. However horses were so expensive that many people couldn’t afford to buy them. Also, it was hard for the caretakers of the shrine to deal with the horses that were donated. For these reasons, people started using a wooden plate or figure in the shape of a horse instead of a real horse. Thus, ema were born.

How Ema Have Changed


Because ema originally came from real horses, ema used to have a picture of horse on their surface in the Nara period (710-794). Since that time, however, more animals have been displayed on ema since the Muromachi period (1336-1573), like foxes, snakes, birds, cows and so on. They also seem to serve as messengers to the gods.

Over time, the size of ema has changed, too. Ema of the past used to be much bigger than the ema of today. Also, in the past, paintings were done by artists on very large ema, and they were displayed at halls at the shrine. But these days, people get ema individually and make their wishes on these small wooden plaques more conveniently.

Modern Ema

As mentioned above, ema used to be a pentagon-shaped wooden plaque with a picture of horse in the past, but today, you can see ema with all kinds of different pictures, shapes, and designs. For example, you can get ema in the shape of pink heart at Kasuga Grand Shrine, which is the most celebrated shrine in Nara and where the god of marriage is enshrined. Many people go there to write their hopes and dreams about their relationships and marriages. In a similar way, the color, shape, size, and design of ema varies from shrine to shrine throughout Japan, and it is often related to which type of god is enshrined.

Ema at Several Shrines

As you probably know, there are lots of shrines and temples in Kyoto, so you can get ema just about anywhere. For example, the two shrines below are very famous, in convenient locations, and both have ema of unique shapes and designs.

Yasaka Shrine

This shrine is famous for the god of matchmaking. So, the ema at this shrine are heart-shaped with Japanese character en (縁), which means connection, fate, or chance. Within the grounds of Yasaka shrine, there are a several different shrine buildings and each one of has different gods and different meanings, where visitors can pray for different things. So, you can also find the standard type of ema there, too. You can get heart-shaped ema at Okuninushi-sha, a prayer building that is dedicated to the god of matchmaking located southwest of main shrine building for ¥500.


It’s a 1-minute walk west from the Gion bus stop (City Bus #206)

It’s an 5-minute walk west from Gion-shijo Station on Keihan Main Line

It’s an 8-minute walk west from Kawaramachi Station on Hankyu Kyoto Line

Fushimi Inari Taisha

fox-shaped ema

fox-shaped ema

This shrine is very famous. Every day lots of people visit this shrine, not only tourists but also local residents. It is famous for good economic fortune, so people who run businesses often go there to pray for success.

Ema at this shrine are fox-shaped because foxes are said to be messengers of Inari Okami, god of agriculture. These fox-shaped ema can be found at Okusha Hohaisho, a prayer building located in the Myobu-dani valley to the east of the main shrine building, at the end of the famous Senbon Torii (Thousand Gateways).

The fox-shaped ema are sold for 500 yen, and there is a table, some pens, and some instructions on how to write your wish. It is quite easy to do for visitors.


Take Kyoto City Bus #5 to the Inari Taisha-Mae stop, and walk about 7 minutes to east

The shrine is right next to Inari Station on the JR Nara Line.

If you take the Keihan Line, get off at Fushimi-inari Station and walk about 7 minutes to east.


Junya Kitagawa and Miki Suzuki


As sushi is now well known all over the world, there are many sushi bars located in many different countries, and a lot of people have become familiar with it.  All over Japan you can find sushi bars serving many different kinds.  “Mamezushi”, which we would like to introduce here, is one type that originated in Kyoto.

“Mamezushi” is often called “Maiko zushi”, too, because its birthplace was Gion, in Kyoto, an area which is also famous for Maiko, or apprentice Geisha.  Maiko have a cute little button for a mouth, with the perfect size and shape for eating sushi.  Mamezushi means small sushi bean in English, as the shape is small and spherical.

In top-class Japanese restaurants, 15 kinds of Mamezushi are presented in a box and served to customers.  The kinds of mamezushi shown here, are from the upper left, squid sandwiched between sheets of kelp, mackerel oshizushi, bamboo shoot, pickled tuna, masuzushi, pouch of fried bean curd stuffed with vinegared rice, shrimp, butterbur, egg, pickled rape blossoms, kelp boiled in sweetened soy sauce, eel, Japanese ginger, with squid and pickled ginger to the lower right.  When the customer first removes the lid to begin to eat, they cannot help but be impressed with the beautiful colors before them, and almost always feel the urge to take pictures of it.  However they not only look elegant but also have a very refined taste.  Each one tastes different to the others, and we do not have to put on any soy sauce, which makes it a little healthier for us.









Restaurant Mametora

There is really only one place where we can eat Mamezushi in Kyoto, and this is the top-class restaurant “Mametora”.  This restaurant has a calm atmosphere and is peaceful and comfortable.  The restaurant is located on Hanami-Koji Street, which is actually quite  noisy, however, you do not notice that once inside the restaurant.  There are 3 types of seating available here:  the counter seat, where you can see the inner garden, a private room, where you can eat lunch or dinner in privacy and relaxation, and on a covered table placed over a recess in the floor of a Japanese-style room.  Of course, you can enjoy a special lunch or dinner whichever seating arrangement you choose.

The restaurant has two service times, lunch time and dinner time.  Lunch time is from 11:30 a.m. to 02:00 p.m. and dinner time is from 05:00 p.m. to 09:00 p.m.  At lunch time two options are available, one is “Mamezushi-Zen”, which consists of five courses.The main course Mamezushi, is served 4th, and before that courses containing foods in season are offered, with the final course being a dessert.  The other option is “Mamezushi-Sara Zen”, which consists of 6 courses, and offers many kinds of foods in small dishes in addition to the courses of “Mamezushi-Zen”.  At dinner time there are other options.  The first is ”Mamezushi-Kaiseki”, with different courses.  With this you can eat Mamezushi, deep-fried food, grilled fish, meat, or chicken, and 4 courses containing foods in season.  The second is “Choice Mamezushi-Kaiseki”, which offers 6 courses.  In addition to the courses offered in “Mamezushi-Kaiseki” we can eat one-pot type dish cooked at the table.  “Mamezushi-Kaiseki” costs ¥3,800 per person, “Mamezushi0-Sara Zen ” costs ¥5,800 per person, “Mamezushi-Kaiseki” costs ¥9,680 per person, and “Choice Mamezushi-Kaiseki” costs ¥13,200 per person.  As the dinner courses are so expensive, we recommend you try the lunch courses.  They are very reasonable and you can enjoy plenty of Mamezushi.  Fundamentally, the restaurant does not close on a regular day, however, on holidays, there will surely be a lot of customers and few empty seats.  Therefore, making a reservation before arrival is certainly a good idea.  You can actually now make reservations either by telephone or online.


 There are a lot of ways to access this restaurant because it is located in the heart of Kyoto city, and near some famous places, for example, Kiyomizu-Temple and Yasaka-Shrine.

・Kyoto City Bus: you can take the “Gion Express” bus from Kyoto Station to Gion Bus Station, and thereafter it is a 3 minutes   walk to the restaurant.

・Keihan-train: if you take the train, please get off at Sanjo-Keihan Station, and thereafter take a 5 minute walk to the restaurant.

・Hankyu-train: if you take this train, please get off at Kawaramachi Station, and then take an 8 minute walk to the restaurant.

・phone number:075 532 3955

Additional informationI

In addition to enjoying this great traditional cuisine, please visit the two places of interest mentioned before.  Kiyomizu-Temple is very famous, and many travelers wish to visit it.  The view from this temple is really beautiful, and will give great memories.  Yasaka-Shrine is also famous, and especially for its connection to the “Gion festival”.  If you have time, please visit these wonderful places, too.

Gion Festival

By  Namiho Nakazawa

What is “Gion Festival”?

Gion Festival is one of Japan’s biggest and most important festivals, and is held over a one-month period every year from July 1st to 31st.  There are many different events, but two in particular are very well known:  The Yamaboko Junko, a procession of floats on July 17th, and Yoiyama, the events over three evenings leading up to the procession day.  The streets are lined with night stalls selling drinks and food such as yakitori (barbecued chicken on skewers), taiyaki, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, traditional sweets, and many other great food items.  Many girls (and some guys) dress up in yukata (summer cotton kimono) and walk around, carrying traditional purses and paper fans.

The Yamaboko

Origins and history

The Gion Festival begins with ‘Goryoue’, an act of praying to ward of plagues and epidemics.  During the Heiankyo era, there were a number of recorded plagues and epidemics, and in ‘Hojouki’, written by Kamanochomei, it says the Kamogawa River was, “filled with the bodies of the dead.”  Goryoue, then, dates back to the year 869 as a religious ceremony to appease the gods during the outbreak of epidemics and pestilence.  Even in modern times, the practice of selecting a local boy to act as a divine messenger is carried on, and remains an integral part of the festival ceremonies.  This child, the messenger of the gods, is not allowed to walk on the ground from the day of the 13th until after he has been paraded through downtown Kyoto on the 17th.

The word ‘Yamaboko’ refers to the two types of float used in the procession, and there are actually 23 ‘yama’ and 9 ‘hoko’ involved in the proceedings.  In fact, it is the size and grandeur of these floats which make the Gion Festival such an amazing spectacle.  The hoko can be up to 25 meters in height, and weigh upwards of 12 tons.  In addition, the wheels are about the size of a full grown adult.  Both yama and hoko are elaborately decorated and represent unique themes.

The Yamaboko

The main event

While they are on display along Shijo street and some side roads, some of the floats can be entered by tourists, with the area becoming most exciting in the evenings.  From 18:00 until 23:00, the streets are closed to traffic and the area fills up with food stands, drink vendors, and other festival related things. These three main evenings leading up to the procession day are known as ‘Yoiyama’ (July 16), Yoiyoiyama (July 15) and Yoiyoiyoiyama (July 14).

Other key events

Gion Festival’s other events are perhaps not as impressive as the main event to some, but are really enjoyable nonetheless.  From July 10th to 14th, for example, visitors can watch the Yamaboko being erected and pulled into place.  Furthermore, the Byobu Festival, which includes the days of Yoiyama, sees local residents opening up the entrances to their homes to passersby to show off their family heirlooms and artifacts.

The procession of a ‘mikoshi’ takes place from 18.00 on the 17th, starting at Yasaka Shrine and ending at the Otabisho.  This event involves parading the shrine’s deity from the shrine environs to the downtown area in the mikoshi, a portable shrine.  It is lifted and carried exuberantly by a large group of local men dressed in traditional festival clothing, and is occasionally shaken vigorously in response to encouragement from onlookers.  The mikoshi is finally returned to the main shrine on July 24th.

My experience

In my experience, this festival is really, really hot in two ways.  One, there are a huge number of people on the road from Shijo-Horikawa to Shijo-Kawaramachi, with almost no room to move.  Second, people from all over the world come to this festival, and scenes from it are broadcast on TV globally.  It’s a real once in a lifetime experience!  I hope you have the chance to see it one day.



A Small Shrine for Beauty

by Miku Miyano

In Kyoto, many Shinto shrines give us various kinds of benefits. When we go to visit one, we usually make a wish to keep our health, pass an exam, have a good relationship with someone, and so on. In fact, each shrine has a particular benefit. Let me introduce you to one of them, Utsukushi-gozensha. It is especially of interest to women.

Shinto Gate at Utsukushi-gozensha

Shinto Gate at Utsukushi-gozensha

Utsukushi-gozensha is a subsidiary shrine of Yasaka Shrine. The name Utsukushi means beautiful, gozen means woman and sha means a shrine. The benefit of this shrine is, of course, giving people beauty. However, where did the benefit come from? It can be traced to the Nara period (710-784 AD). Kojiki, the oldest historical narrative in Japan, written in 712, tells the legend of the three goddesses: Tagirihime, Takitsuhime, and Itsukishimahime.

They were born by the ukei (holy rites) of Amaterasu Okami (the sun goddess) and Susanoumon Mikoto (the sea goddess). Kojiki says they are the sons of two gods, Izanagi and Izanami, the early couple who had created Japan’s islands. The three goddesses are collectively called Munataka, and are so famous for their beauty that they became the deities of beauty. They are also deities of the sea and are enshrined at other places such as Munataka Shrine in Fukuoka, and Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima. An old story in the Edo period (1603-1867) said that a woman came to make a wish at Utsukkushi-gozensha and recovered from her pockmarks.

Chikara-mizu (power water)

Chikara-mizu (power water)

An important feature of the Utsukushii-gozensha shrine is the chikara-mizu (power water). Near the shrine, there is a kind of tub filled with water. According to a tradition from the Heian period (794-1192), under the Yasaka shrine there is a bottomless pond, and the water springs from there. The correct way of worshiping is first to drink the water and then make a wish in front of the shrine. Different kinds of people come to wish from everywhere, for example maiko (apprentice geisha), barbers, companies dealing with beauty goods and cosmetics, and so on.

After you make a wish, there is more you can do. Next to the shrine, there is a small box from which many ema (votive picture tablets) are hanging. People can write their wishes on them. When you go there, try to read them if you have studied any Japanese! It will be interesting. Another fascinating thing is the paper fortune slips. In the Japanese custom, if you get a good fortune, you bring it with you. However, if you get a bad one, you tie it on a tree near the shrine to put your bad luck there and be able to get rid of it. For souvenirs, you can buy colorful charms. In recent years, we can find various types, such as pendants, key rings, straps used for mobile phones, etc.

There are many shrines in Kyoto. Utsukushi-gozensha is a small shrine, but it has an original history. Try to pay attention to the benefits which each shrine has. You can get more information about Japanese history by learning the origin of these benefits.

Yasaka Shrine

by Saori Shingu

If you walk east along Shijo Street to the end, you will find Yasaka Shrine.  Yasaka Shrine is commonly known as “Gion-san,” and its festival, “Gion-Matsuri,” is well-known and popular throughout Japan.

1. Sairo-mon
First, your eyes will be caught by a big, splendid, vermilion, lacquered gate.  It’s called “Sairo-mon” in Japanese; also some people call it “Goryu-mon.”  During the War of Onin (1467-77), the first gate was burned down.  This gate, the second one, was rebuilt in 1489, and now it’s recognized as an important Japanese cultural asset. This is one of the seven wonders of Yasaka Shrine.  It’s said that spiders can’t spin their webs on it, and even after a strong rain, raindrops don’t remain on it.  After you go up the stone steps behind the gate, you should look back on Shijo Street from there, for you can see a different view.

2. Honden (The main shrine)
After you pass through Sairo-mon, please walk along the stone pavement. You can’t miss the main shrine, Honden, on your left.  Its height is about 15 meters, and it extends over about 1,320 square meters.  The roof is made of Japanese cypress bark, and covers two edifices, Honden and the front shrine, which had been separate structures before. This type of structure is rare in Japan and is named “Gion-zukuri” after this shrine.  The original shrine was constructed in 656 before the capital was transferred from Nara to Kyoto.  After that in 1654, the fourth shogun (the leader of Japan) rebuilt it again.  This shrine is dedicated to three Japanese gods: Susano-no-mikoto, Kushiinada-no-mikoto, and Yahashira-no-mikogami.  Susano-no-mikoto is a hero in Japanese mythology for killing an eight-headed dragon; Kushiinada-no-mikoto is his wife; and his children are Yahashira-no-mikogami.  If you make a money offering and pray to them, they will protect you against evil and help you escape disasters.  This building is also an important Japanese cultural asset.  If you visit there on a lucky day, you might see a Japanese-style wedding ceremony being held at the shrine.

3. Utsukushi-gozensha
There is a small shrine, called Utsukushi-gozensha, to the east of the Honden.  This shrine is dedicated to the beautiful three goddesses, like the Graces in Greek mythology, so it’s popular among not only apprentice geisha in Gion but also among cosmetic firms.  Everyone, why don’t you go there and become more beautiful!

4. Shamusho (The shrine office)
Most famous shrines have a Shamusho on their grounds, and of course, Yasaka Shrine has one too.  You can buy different kinds of amulets, decorative arrows used to ward off evil, books about Yasaka Shrine, and oracles.  It’s interesting that they have two kinds of oracles: one tells the fortune for our life, while another tells the fortune for love especially.  If you visit there with your partner, both of you can check your fortune for love with your partner.

5. Ishitorii (The stone gateway at the entrance)
There is the biggest stone gateway in Kyoto, called Ishitorii, at the southern entrance to Yasaka Shrine.  First set up in 1646, it collapsed once when an earthquake hit Kyoto in 1662, and it was mended and rebuilt in 1666.  It’s also an important Japanese cultural asset.

Finally, if you go straight along the road between the Honden and Shamusho toward the mountains, you arrive at Maruyama Park.  You can eat lunch or have Japanese snacks such as takoyaki (octopus balls), dumplings, and crepes and have something to drink.  Also, Yasaka Shrine has other attractions you should see.  The shrine isn’t too large, so it won’t take long to see all of the sights.  Also, it isn’t far to other tourist attractions: Kiyomizu Temple, Chion-in, Sanjusangen-do, Koudaiji Temple, Gion and so on.  Are you interested?  Then, please come to Yasaka Shrine!