Developed for travelers visiting Kyoto’s Yasaka Shrine (which began construction in the year 656), the alluring Gion neighborhood later transformed into an exclusive geisha district with plenty of tea houses, bars and restaurants. Gion today has plenty to offer locals and tourists alike, and is home to countless traditional machiya (wooden townhouses). Kyoto, more than many other cities, calls you to live like a local while visiting and Gion is an ideal neighborhood with great access to all the city has to offer.
Meeting that need, American-born, longtime Kyoto-resident Curtis Hawes started renovating traditional machiya with visitors in mind. Old Kyoto properties, a small hospitality brand with a lot of passion, is infatuated by Gion’s buildings and the concept of “old Kyoto” in general.
“Gion has a unique, traditional atmosphere and a quiet, subdued vibe and you can see maikos [apprentice geisha] and geikos here and there on the streets,” Hawes tells CH. “Traditional Japanese architecture is alive and well in Gion—more than any other part of Kyoto. And the location is very central, so perfect as a base for visitors.”
Hawes continues, “In my early days here, I was renting a 150-year-old machiya in a different part of Kyoto, and I fell in love with the charm and uniqueness of the Kyoto-style machiya I was living in. I was in the fashion business at the time and eventually fulfilled my dream to purchase my own machiya in Kyoto, in what to me was the most ‘old Kyoto’ part of Kyoto, which is the historic Gion district.”
Old Kyoto’s portfolio of vacation rental properties grew almost out of accident. Hawes started renting out his machiya to tourists because he was frequently traveling out of the country, and his side business blossomed into a full-time endeavor. Hawes now owns three beautiful homes and several apartments in Gion, all right near each other and found through “pure luck, as well as a few local connections.”
When we were planning a recent trip to Kyoto our friend and resident expert Chris Rowthorn, the founder and editor of Inside Kyoto suggested we stay at one of Old Kyoto’s three homes. Though our schedules didn’t permit a stay, we did get to view the homes and apartments and left planning our next visit.
Old Kyoto currently owns three machiya in Gion: Indigo House, Amber House and The Gion House. Indigo House Gion is a two-level traditional home, which was abandoned and rundown until Hawes enlisted architect Geoffrey Moussas to restore it last year. Gion House (a similar townhouse nearby) was used as an “ochaya” (a geisha’s space for entertaining) until the 1960s and has also been refreshed by Moussas. These two accommodations are rented out as double-residence spaces, with an upper and lower level that function entirely separately and privately, though can be rented together by families and friends. Amber House (also a two-story) is located in a quiet cul-de-sac just a few meters away; its windows look out over the gardens of Kenninji—the oldest Zen temple in the country. These houses offer the kind of charm and peace that one hopes to achieve after a busy day exploring the treasures of Kyoto—near but away from the city’s tourist-fueled energy. The best of both worlds, all of Old Kyoto’s properties are serviced by a centralized office and reception area in the neighborhood with English-speaking staff eager to help visitors navigate the best the city has to offer.
Reasonably priced, book a stay at any of the Gion properties online. Note that for the Indigo House Gion and The Gion House, lower levels and upper levels are booked separately and have independent entrances.
Images by Josh Rubin