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Classical Performing Arts in Kyoto

Insider Blog

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Classical Performing Arts in Kyoto

There are a variety of classical performing arts in Japan, and you are able to enjoy the culture in Kyoto. This article introduces five traditional arts which you can experience in Kyoto.

Geisha and Strolling Around Kagai

Geiko and Maiko, or apprentice Geisha, are female entertainers who wear elegant and intricate traditional dress. They entertain at elite ocha-ya, or "teahouses", where they sing, dance, and play traditional instruments to entertain their patrons.
Geiko and Maiko entertain in five small districts in Kyoto called "Kagai," which literally means "Flower Town." The kagai areas of Kyoto are Kamishichiken, Pontocho, Miyagawacho, Gion-higashi and Gion-kobu. These areas are also where Maiko and Geisha lead their daily lives and are among the most popular places in Kyoto for sightseeing in the evening.
Only the wealthy and influential are granted access the ocha-ya of Flower Town, but ochaya-asobi, or "teahouse play," with Geisha and Maiko can be experienced at selected ryokan and hotels. This teahouse play consists of a combination of song, dance, and games.

Miyako Odori

The Miyako Odori dance festival provides additional opportunities to see Geisha and Maiko. No trip to Kyoto during April would be complete without being in the audience.
Address: Higashiyama-ku, Gion-cho, Minamigawa 570-2

Kamogawa Odori

The similar Kamogawa Odori dance festival takes place from around May 1st through the 24th and again from around mid-October to around early November at Kaburenjo Theater.
Address: Nakagyo-ku, Pontocho, Sanjo Sagaru, (Kyoto Pontocho-Kaburenjo)

Kitano Odori

Address: 570‐2 Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto
Date: Around March

Kyo Odori

Address: 4 Chome Miyagawasuji, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0801
Date: Around April

Gion Odori

Address: 323 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0073
Date: Around October

Gion Corner

Gion Corner is a unique theater presenting one-hour shows of seven of Kyoto's professional performing arts - kyogen classical comedy, kyomai dance, gagaku music of the imperial court, koto harp, bunraku puppet theater, the tea ceremony, and flower arrangement. Gion Corner is located inside Yasaka Hall on the north side of Gion's Kaburenjo Hall, where Maiko (apprentice Geisha) and Geiko (Geisha) give presentations. Visitors can also experience a genuine tea ceremony and learn about tea ceremony etiquette in a casual atmosphere.
Since explanations of the performances are given in English, Gion Corner is popular among tourists from abroad.
Address: Yasaka Hall Shijo-sagaru Hanami-koji Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
*Please respect the Maikos' privacy, and do not follow them in the streets or touch their kimonos. Thank you for respecting the Japanese culture, please enjoy your stay.

Noh Theater and Takigi-noh

Noh Theater

Noh is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama performed exclusively by men with recitative chants (called "Yokyoku") and a small orchestra (a flute and 3 drums only) accompanying the play. It is unique in its slow grace and its use of elaborate masks. Originating in dramatic performances at religious festivals in the 14th century, the present form of Noh was developed in the Muromachi Period by Kan'ami and his son, Zeami under the patronage of the Ashikaga clan.
Noh continued to flourish in the Edo Period (17th to 19th century) under the patronage of feudal lords throughout Japan and became the preferred entertainment of the samurai.
Following the Meiji restoration, Noh gradually lost its popularity as the samurai became less influential in society. Nowadays, Noh is again regaining its popularity and a growing number of people from home and abroad are showing interest.
Being made of wood, the Noh stage is very different from other stages. It has an extension from a central main stage which is used by actors as a side stage. Very few stage settings are used although there is always a pine tree painted on the back wall of the stage.
Takigi-noh is a special Noh performed on an outdoor stage. Here, takigi (firewood) is placed at each corner of the stage. Then after dusk, the takigi is lit. Profound and beautiful, Takigi-noh leaves a deep impression that makes it very popular among foreigners.

Kyogen (Japanese Traditional Play) and Nenbutsu Kyogen

Kyogen is a form of traditional theater. It was performed along with Noh as an intermission of sorts between Noh acts and retains close links to Noh in modern times. However, its content is not at all similar to the formal, symbolic, and solemn Noh theater. Kyogen is comical in form, and its primary aim is to make the audience laugh.
Nenbutsu Kyogen is a unique Buddhist play performed without dialog.
The following are places to view these traditional plays.
Date: February, From April to May, and October
Place: Mibu-dera Temple
Address: Boujo-bukko-ji kita-iru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto
Access: 10-minute walk from Hankyu Railway Omiya Station

Japanese Court Music


Gagaku is a classical music and dance performance for the Imperial Court. Some musical pieces and dance regarded as part of Gagaku are indigenous to Japan, but many songs and dances have been brought from China, Korea and India. In 701, Gagaku music became the official music for the Imperial Court and temples/shrines, and evolved into a domestic art during the Heian Period. Following World War II, Gagaku became increasingly popular and widespread.
Gagaku has many kinds of instruments all which are categorized into three types: Fukimono (wind instruments), Hikimono (string), and Uchimono (percussion).
Combinations of instruments vary in accordance with the genre and the method of performance.
Special arrangements must be made to allow visitors to enjoy a hands-on experience of Gagaku.


Along with the Shamisen (Japanese lute with three strings) and the Shakuhachi (a vertical bamboo flute), the Koto, similar to a zither, is one of Japan's representative traditional musical instruments. The Koto appears as far back as the 12th century in Genji Monogatari Emaki (Tale of Genji Scroll) which depicts noble ladies playing Koto. In the Edo Period, girls from wealthy families learned to play Koto and many pieces were composed during this era. In the 20th century, with the influence of Western Music, many tunes composed for Koto came to incorporate a Western touch.
The Koto has thirteen strings. To play the Koto, you first put finger picks on your right-hand fingers to pluck the strings while the fingers of the left hand are used to change notes or to add variations to lingering sounds. Kyoto has many Koto instructors but special arrangements must be made to enjoy a hands-on experience.

Nihon Buyo, Japanese Dance

Nihon buyo is a generic term for Japanese dance. It first originated in the early Edo Period (17th century) by borrowing from Kabuki (a traditional stage drama). Ever since Nihon buyo has incorporated and refined various new techniques.
Among the two most important Nihon buyo, one is "Kabuki dance" which uses many elements of Kabuki stage, and the other is Kamigata-mai which developed in Kamigata (the Kyoto & Osaka areas) after being influenced by Noh. Both dances are performed to the accompaniment of a Shamisen (Japanese lute), but Kabuki dance has more dynamic and vigorous movements, while Kamigata mai shows restraint and can be performed in a very small area.
Nihon buyo is very different from Western dance forms in that, while Western dances usually have very vigorous movements and leaping, Nihon buyo dancers move quietly in shuffling motions.
There are several famous schools of Nihon buyo, where predominantly female trainees practice in kimono to obtain "Natori" (stage title) qualification.

Kabuki Theater and Kaomise

Kabuki is a popular traditional stage drama in Japan performed exclusively by men along with songs and music.
Its history began in 1603, when Okuni, a miko (Shinto shrine maiden) of Izumo Taisha Shrine started performing a new style of dance drama on the dry river beds of Kyoto. At that time, female performers played both male and female roles about ordinary life. It was a form very different from its modern incarnation and because much of its appeal was due to the ribald, suggestive performances, women were banned from the stage in 1629 for the purpose of protecting public morality. However, since Kabuki was already so popular, young male actors took over. Along with the change in gender came a change in the emphasis of the performance. More emphasis was placed on drama rather than dance and today Kabuki is performed only by men. Overseas visitors are often impressed due to the women's roles performed very gracefully by male actors. Another unique facet of Kabuki is the long narrow extension of the stage that runs through the audience to the rear of the theatre. This is called "Hanamichi" (literally called "Flower Passage") and it enables actors to come into closer contact with the audience.
In Kyoto, there were seven Kabuki stages in the 17th century but only the Minami-za Theater remains to this day. Kaomise is literally the "Face-showing" ceremony of a theater to celebrate the opening a new season and its new troupe during the Edo Period. At Minami-za it is held in December.
Minami-za Kabuki Theater
Address: 198 Nakano-cho, Yamato-oji-nishiiru, Shijo-dori, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Access: In front of Keihan Railway Shijo Station or a 3-minute walk from Exit 6 of Hankyu