kyoto triptych (II) — gion

13Feb06

The Gion district of Kyoto is Kyoto’s “best known geisha quarter.” Located in Eastern Kyoto, home of some of Kyoto’s oldest and most well-known temples and shrines, the Gion district runs along both banks of the Kamogawa, the river that historically brings life to Kyoto, but also flooding and plagues. Yasaka Shrine, formerly known as Gion Shrine, was built to appease the gods responsible for plague and, as such, is symptomatic of the form of ceremonial appeasement that was the hallmark of early Shinto. Gion Matsuri, one of Japan’s three biggest festivals, began in 869 when the deities enshrined at Yasaka-jinja were paraded through the streets to help stave off an epidemic. Yasaka-jinja is still visited by people who come to pray for health and prosperity, and it is one of the most popular spots for the new year’s hatsumode visit.

Gion was originally a pleasure district, and the traces of this history are to be found everywhere. Kabuki began along the Kamo river, and there were several kabuki theatres that could be found just east of the river. Minamiza, one of these original theatres, can still be found in Gion. Restaurants and teahouses line the banks of the Kamogawa, and in summer you can sit on elevated platforms that extend out over the river in order to beat the summer heat. Stores selling expensive kimono accessories are prevalent along Shijo-dori, as well as stores that sell pickles, traditional sweets, incense, crafts, handmade wooden hair combs, and just about anything else you can imagine. One especially interesting area of Eastern Kyoto is Pontocho Alley which was licensed as a gay quarter during the Edo Period and still plays a role for Kyoto’s queer community (including hosting regular drag shows).

I made several trips to the Gion district during December, primarily because I was looking for good holiday gifts for family and friends. J. and I first went to Gion sometime in late December. We walked up and down Shijo-dori, crossing the Shijo bridge and looking out across the river, which you can follow with your eyes all the way up to the surrounding mountains. After spending a full day shopping, we stopped and had some coffee and then went in search of Nishimura woodblock prints, a small store that sells only originals of Edo period ukiyo-e, images of the “floating world.” This shop is featured in the excellent Old Kyoto: A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns, by Diane Durston. Walking into the store we saw Nishimura-san, who looks precisely as he does in the photograph in the book, but a decade or so older. His son helped us look through dozens of ukiyo-e prints and, after rejecting some great, but totally crazy, images of kabuki stars with chickens, J. finally settled on a beautiful Fuji-san landscape to bring back to her family.

The second time I went to the Gion area was just before the new year. I had lunch at Takasebune, a fantastic tempura house very close to Shijo Bridge, and then I walked up to Yasaka-jinja to take photographs. Unfortunately, food stalls were beginning to be set up all over the shrine grounds in preparation for hatsumode, so the shrine was at its least photogenic the day I was there. There’s really nothing so unphotogenic as empty, tatty looking stalls choking off otherwise beautiful views of ancient wooden structures. At night, however, the stalls come to life and the plastic, which seems dull and ugly in the day, takes on its proper incandescent glow and the voices of the crowd become their own form of life as well.

But I had to get back home that night so I would be in time for hatsumode at the local shrine in Miyayama-cho. Before leaving the shrine area I bought two placards — silkscreened images of the kami, the spirits, being carried through the city in mikoshi, or portable shrines, driving the plague away.

(Special thanks to Warren and Mayumi for donating their copy of Old Kyoto to me last time I was in the States.)

A typical Kyoto street scene in the Gion district.

The entrance gate of Yasaka-jinja.

One of two Shishi guardians outside the gate of Yasaka-jinja.

Lanterns at Yasaka-jinja.

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