Wandering the ancient streets of Gion is maybe my favorite thing to do in Japan. It is in these narrow and secluded alleyways where each step transports you further back in time. A time where samurai values such as bushido, the code of chivalry, governed the nation. A time before Japan became known for bullet trains, robots, and animae. This is the Japan that I love.
Close to the popular Kiyomizudera Temple, lies an ancient underworld quietly tucked away from the throngs of tourists. You won’t find any flashy storefront displays. Nor will there be vendors to entice visitors with free green tea and yatsuhashi, Kyoto’s famed soft triangle shaped mochi. Instead, there are only tightly packed traditional wooden merchant houses, uncontaminated from the last seventy years of post war modernization.
All these traditional houses, called machiyas, have narrow facades no longer than twenty feet wide. However, each extends more than sixty feet deep from the main street. These odd dimensions are the result of old property taxes that were based upon street frontage. Beautiful wooden lattice work and heavy clay roof tiles encapsulate these gems. Sadly, many of these buildings are facing a declining population, as Japan struggles to find a balance between preserving traditional culture, while embracing Western elements.
Sprinkled throughout these streets lay luxurious teahouses. A passerby may even catch a rare glimpse of a geisha or a maiko, a geisha in training recognized by longer sleeves and more elaborate hair styles, commuting between client meetings.
This time of year, pink and white cherry blossoms fill the sky and add a nice contrast to the stone walkways and dark colored roof tiles that line the street. I can’t think of a better image that screams, “This is Japan,” than cherry blossom leaves swirling in a light breeze amidst the streets of Gion.
Below are photos from some neighborhoods in Gion and Kiyomizudera Temple.