Most people, including myself, hear the word Gion and immediately think of Memoirs of a Geisha. While Gion is definitely known for the elusive Geiko's and Maiko's that roam the streets after dark, there is a lot more to this neighborhood that meets the eye.
There are a few streets that are mainly cluttered with pedestrians and that is where many of the famous teahouses are located. The surrounding streets feel much more modern, with shops, restaurants and ice-cream parlors shifting the focus to a different type of entertainment.
The Kamo River is a few blocks away from Gion and there are often times live performers and musicians playing music there. Also along the river are a slew of upscale restaurants in case you're in the mood to splurge.
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Collecting memories and eki stamps
Train stations (eki) all over Japan have big rubber stamps with beautiful designs illustrating each town or neighborhood. Kyoto, which draws a ton of foreign and domestic tourists, is totally on top of its eki stamp game. The stamps are often on little desks outside the turnstiles, but some are kept in the station master's office. Ask one of the station employees: "Eki stampu wa doko desu ka?" Or a simple "eki stamp?" also works.
My favorites in Kyoto were at the Gion-Shijo Station (lower left) and the JR Inari Station (upper middle).
They're the perfect souvenir: free and portable. Just remember to carry a small notebook to collect them.
Wandering in the alleys of Gion district, you're bound to come across geiko and maiko (a geiko-in-training). These beautifully dolled-up girls and young women are the masters of art of entertaining, through conversations, song, and dance, and likely a hidden skill or two. They have been around in this area for centuries, and today's geiko and maiko have kept tradition going. Donned in layers of beautifully brocaded (read: heavy) kimono with a stiff obi (belt for kimono) and walking to and from their dorm to clients in the brutally humid summers or bone-chilling winter roads, you'll see they're serious about the art and have a lot of pride in their work. If they're not en route to work, they may be happy to pause to briefly chat and give you a glimpse into what it means to be a geiko for her.