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Two geisha walking down the street in Gion.
Two geisha walking down the street in Gion.

Geisha Gion District: Why Is Kyoto Banning Tourists?

Anna AyvazyanAnna Ayvazyan
Published Time
Posted on June 28, 2024
Modified Time
Updated last June 28, 2024

Known for its historical and traditional sites, Kyoto City is one of the most must-visit cities when traveling to Japan. The city has plenty of areas to visit, and certain roads can get pretty busy during peak tourist periods, especially in the geisha districts.

In addition to busy roads, there have been reports of tourists approaching geisha, making locals uncomfortable. The local government has banned tourists from entering certain roads to get around this.

What is the history of Gion?

Kyoto was once the capital of Japan, home to the emperor’s residence from 794 until 1868. Within Kyoto, Gion was the entertainment district. The district is named after Yasaka Shrine, previously called Gion Shrine. Various types of entertainment were available within Gion, from Kabuki and Noh to geisha performances. Many buildings or sites where performances were held still function today.

Gion at night.
Gion covers most of Hanami-koji Street Image via Shutterstock

What is Gion known for?

Gion is known for its traditional buildings, historical streets, and famous Gion festival, held in July every year. In particular, Hanami-koji Street is considered a symbolic location in Gion. The street is between Shijo Avenue and Kennin-ji Temple and has numerous tea houses, restaurants, and shops. Some of these shops also sell Japanese snacks or Japanese candy. 

A maiko (apprentice geisha) wearing a face full of makeup.
Geisha are traditional performance artists. Image via Shutterstock

Occasionally, you may also see some geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) walking along the street as they attend their work duties. For many, seeing them on Hanami-koji is a highlight of visiting Kyoto. However, when visiting this street, it is important to follow the rules so that locals do not feel uncomfortable or annoyed. 

What are the geisha like in Gion?

Before World War II, it was estimated that around 80,000 geisha were working in Kyoto. Only around 250 are working within the five geisha districts in Kyoto today. Geisha are professional performers who showcase various aspects of traditional Japanese culture. They are skilled in dancing, performing with the shamisen, and hosting tea ceremonies. Tourists can enjoy these performances by pre-booking restaurants, experiencing them, or signing up with a tour group.

Why is Kyoto restricting tourists?

Over the last 10 years, Japan has become more popular with international tourists as a must-visit destination. The increase in tourists has led to many problems for local residents. These problems include tourists entering private properties, leaving rubbish on the ground, and following geisha workers on the road.

A bunch of tourists taking photos in the geisha Gion district.
Recently, the Gion district has been prone to overtourism. Image via Shutterstock

Previously, fines were given to tourists who broke the rules; however, locals complained that it didn’t help. So, the local government decided to restrict some streets in the Gion area to ensure locals didn’t feel uncomfortable. 

What is the social etiquette?

Hanami-koji Street, the center of Gion’s Geisha districts, will remain open to the public. However, a few small streets attached to Hanami-koji will be off-limits to tourists. These small streets are designated private properties where locals live and/or work. Some of these small streets have restaurants; if you have proof of prior reservation, you can enter as usual. 

A crowded street full of tourists.
Some streets are closed off to protect locals and geisha. Image via Shutterstock

If someone enters these small streets without reservations or permission from the residents, they can face an on-the-spot 10,000 yen (approximately $60 USD) fine. In addition to these new rules, Kyoto City would like to emphasize the importance of existing rules. Existing rules include not touching, following, or taking unauthorized photos of geisha, not blocking roadways, and not throwing trash on the ground. 

Kyoto City understands that many tourists are interested in geisha, so they recommend watching the daily Kyo-mai dance performances at Gion Corner from 6 pm to 7 pm. These performances cost ¥5,500 ($34) for adults 22 years or older. For younger people, it costs ¥3,850 ($24) for those between 16-22 years and ¥3,300 ($22) for those between 7-15 years. It is free for children who are 0-6 years old. There are additional costs if you want tea and sweets with the performance. 

Are you looking for great snacks on your way to the Gion district? Check out TokyoTreat?! TokyoTreat delivers limited-edition Japanese noodles, snacks, drinks, and sweets right to your door so you can enjoy the latest treats directly from Japan!

What can I do in Kyoto instead of visiting the Gion District?

While Gion is the heart of Kyoto, there are plenty of other places to visit if you want to experience the streets in a nostalgic atmosphere. 

Pontocho

The Pontocho district is located along the Kamogawa River and has many restaurants and bars within townhouses built centuries ago. Many restaurants offer scenic riverside dining options but require reservations in advance. Pontocho is particularly beautiful at night, where street lanterns light up the path. 

A rainy street in the Pontocho district.
Pontocho is a lovely hotel in the area! Image via Wikimedia

Kamishichiken

The Kamishichiken district is located northwest of the city center, between Nijo Castle and Kinkakuji. It is the oldest geisha district in Kyoto and still retains many old structures. Since it is a bit far from the city center, there are fewer tourists; however, general rules surrounding approaching or photographing Geishas remain. 

A street in the Kamishichiken District.
This is the oldest geisha district in Kyoto. Image via Wikimedia

Gion is a great area to visit in Kyoto if you are interested in old Japanese architecture and geisha. However, when visiting Gion, it is important to note that many small roads or alleyways are private properties where locals live and work.

Following the rules and sticking to public roads such as Hanami-koji Street can help locals feel at ease and reduce problems arising from overtourism. Which area do you want to visit in Kyoto? Let us know in the comments below!

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