Known for its clandestine restaurants and ancestral traditions—from members-only tea houses with lantern-lit courtyards to invite-only geiko gatherings with kyomai dances—Gion, Kyoto's most exclusive neighborhood, is now welcoming a crop of new creatives to its cobbled streets and wooden bridges for the first time.
"Gion is in the midst of a revival,” says Sara Aiko, founder of Curated Kyoto, a bespoke experience company offering private and immersive itineraries that welcome travelers into Kyoto's creative community. “Young creatives are moving in, ultimately changing the landscape and bringing new energy to the area.”
The beauty of this movement, explains Aiko, is that young people are respecting the essence of Gion’s culture, ultimately playing by the rules and creating collaborations with traditional chefs and artists from the district. “It’s not uncommon to see a 70-year-old Gion regular—dressed in a traditional suit with a geiko, the proper Kyoto term for geisha, to his right—mingling with 30-year-old creatives,” says Aiko. It’s this merging of old and new coinciding with a deep respect of traditional Japanese culture that Aiko believes will keep Gion heading in the right direction as emerging artists set up shop in the area’s once-abandoned real estate that went into decline following the Japanese economic crash in the 1990s.
Here, Aiko’s top not-to-miss Gion outposts to visit in on your next trip to Kyoto.
This multi-story complex overlooking the Kamo River packs a creative punch in the Japanese style of zakkyo, a term used to describe a space where artists from various disciplines join forces to create something delightful. The building—once a 1990s-era snack bar and hostess club— is now home to an art gallery with exhibits ranging from collections of glazed ceramics to mixed-media canvas paintings and a record store and coffee shop with sleek and minimalist made-in-Kyoto streetwear. The rooftop bar is home to cult-favorite cocktails by Sour, a concept offering shochu-based cocktails (a spirit most commonly made from sweet potato, barley, or rice) flavored with fruits, herbs, and spices like passion fruit and Okinawan turmeric and often topped with freshly-sliced strawberries or whole green grapes.
Beyond its wooden walkway set above the bubbling Kamo River, this vintage shop houses reworked goods and antique accessories in a 120-year-old traditional machiya wooden townhouse, a style of home marked by inviting living spaces and interior gardens. Offering reworked items like kimono clutches, vintage ceramics and fringed leather boots, the shop doesn’t feature new-wave luxury goods or simple vintage but instead believes in recycling specialty items to pass along the product’s legacy to a new owner. Items like antique trench coats and retro twist ribbon earrings are available, as are koimari kinsai dishes and antique geisha hair ornaments. Plus, the shop offers shaved ice desserts with monthly syrup specials in flavors like almond tofu and white miso.
Jazz music fills this ethereal, split-level gallery featuring Japanese works by the country's most prolific craftspeople. As Kyoto’s most beloved interiors shop, Master Recipe may be diminutive but it could easily require hours to peruse the wealth of both high-end and affordable goods it offers like a line of ceramics produced in an 850-year-old kiln in the town of Echizen in the Fukui Prefecture, one of the last six of its kind in the world. Other products range from pieces like tin sake cups made in the uchimono style of stamping by metal hammer to bamboo baskets made by the youngest and only female bamboo craftsperson specializing in the Surugu arts, a skilled practice born in the Shizuoka province where bamboo grows wild in the basin of the Abe River. For more suitcase-friendly items, the shop also offers a line of specialty green teas and Japanese essential oils and fragrances inspired by the country’s floral meadows.