Gion is a district of Kyoto, Japan, originally developed in the Middle Ages, in front of Yasaka Shrine. The district was built to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine. It eventually evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan.
The geisha in the Gion district (and Kyoto generally) does not refer to themselves as geisha; instead, Gion geisha use the local term geiko. While the term geisha means "artist" or "person of the arts", the more direct term geiko means essentially "a child of the arts" or "a woman of art".
There are also many modern entertainment establishments in Gion – restaurants of all types, bars, clubs, pachinko, off-track betting, and a very large number of tourist-oriented establishments, particularly along Shijō Street; the region is both a major tourist hub, and a popular nightlife spot for locals. Streets vary dramatically in character, and quiet traditional streets abut modern ones. Among the traditional streets, Hanami Lane , and environs is a major preserved street. It ranges from Shijō Street at the north end, anchored by the famous Ichiriki Chaya, and running south to the major temple of Kennin-ji.
The stretch of the Shirakawa River before it enters the Kamo river is also a popular preserved area. It is lined on the south side with traditional establishments which directly abut the river, and some are accessed by crossing bridges from the north side. The north side was previously also lined with buildings, but these were torn down in World War II as a fire-prevention measure, and the section is now primarily a pedestrian street, lined with cherry blossoms. These are lit up in the evening in the spring, and the area is active year-round.
There is a popular misconception that Gion was a red-light district. It was a geisha district, and as geisha are entertainers, not prostitutes, Gion is not, and never was, a red-light district. Shimabara was Kyoto's red-light district.