Category Archives: Theatre

A First View of Kabuki

"A Scene from A Play" by Masanobu Okumura (1686–1764), depicting Edo Ichimura-za theater in the early 1740s - public domain.

“A Scene from A Play” by Masanobu Okumura (1686–1764), depicting Edo Ichimura-za theater in the early 1740s – public domain.

My latest article for Inside Kyoto is about a visit to Kyoto’s Minamiza Theater to see a kabuki show. Going to see kabuki is one of those things I have long wanted to do, but somehow I had never gotten around to – until now. I had strong doubts before going about whether I could enjoy it, as I knew that the language would be archaic and difficult to understand. In the event I couldn’t understand a lot of what was going on in the show, but nonetheless I enjoyed it immensely. Find out why by clicking on the link!

Kabuki At Kyoto’s Minamiza Theater

The refreshment stand in Kyoto's Minamiza Theater.

The refreshment stand in Kyoto’s Minamiza Theater.

‘Introduction to Noh theatre’ begins at Impact Hub Kyoto this Spring

‘Introduction to Noh theatre’ by The International Noh Institute (INI) is a 6-session course at Impact Hub Kyoto, aimed at Kyoto residents, exchange students, or any other English-speaker who would like to take a closer look at Noh theatre’s tradition.

noh limits

Details at the LINK!

World Heritage Kyoto by John Dougill

Our good friend, John Dougill, recently published a wonderful (and beautifully illustrated) book on Japan’s World Heritage Sites. Today he has been good enough to write a guest post on the many World Heritage properties of Kyoto, with some excellent personal recommendations.

WHS Cover

To research my book on Japan’s World Heritage Sites, I travelled the length of Japan from Hokkaido to Okinawa to visit all the 17 sites. (With the recent addition of Tomioka Silk Mill there are now 18.) It’s a peculiarity of Unesco registration that a single one of Japan’s sites – namely Kyoto – boasts no fewer than 17 ‘properties’, each of which can claim to be a World Heritage site in its own right.

Kyoto was capital of Japan for over 1000 years, and in its river basin was fostered much of the country’s culture: courtly aesthetics, Zen, Noh, the tea ceremony, Kabuki, Ikebana, and geisha arts. Small wonder that the city is recognised worldwide as a glittering gem. ‘Kyoto embodies all the values that Unesco treasures,’ declared Director General, Irina Bokova. ‘It is blessed by glorious nature. It has many intangible assets, like the Gion Festival. And it has wonderful people.’

At Kozan-ji Temple

At Kozan-ji Temple

In 1994 the ‘Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities)’ was officially registered as a World Heritage site. The cumbersome title allows for the inclusion of Enryaku-ji on Mt Hiei, which lies within the boundaries of Otsu City, as well as Byodo-in and Ujigami Shrine in the small town of Uji. Altogether there are 13 Buddhist temples, 3 Shinto shrines and 1 castle. Or put another way, there are over 200 buildings and gardens of the highest aesthetic and cultural significance. They include well-known places for which people fly across the world – the Golden and Silver Pavilions, Nijo Castle, Kiyomizu Temple, the Ryoanji rock garden, etc.

Ujigami Jinja

Ujigami Jinja

Yet there are also obscure properties, unfamiliar even to people who live in Kyoto. Take Ujigami Jinja, for instance, or Kozan-ji. Who would have thought these modest places would outrank such omissions as Daitoku-ji, Fushimi Inari, Katsura Villa or the Gion geisha district? The list of places left out could easily match those that have been included, which begs the question: how exactly did the 17 properties get selected? It’s a question I tried to enquire into, without ever getting a satisfactory answer.

Kozan-ji

Kozan-ji

So apart from the obvious, what are my tips for visitors? Two underrated places are Ninna-ji and Daigo-ji, which belong to the Shingon sect of Buddhism. ‘No, not another temple’ is a common complaint of visitors to Kyoto, but sites such as these are much more than places of worship. In fact, you could easily enjoy both of them without even stepping into a temple hall.

Ninna-ji 1

Ninna-ji

Ninna-ji contains the Omuro Palace that exemplifies the aristocratic lifestyle of former times. Covered corridors; fusuma paintings; ancient tea houses; gorgeous garden and exquisite view over pond and pagoda. Nearby is a grove of late flowering cherry blossom, named after the palace.

Ninna-ji 2

At Ninna-ji

Daigo-ji too has an attractive villa named Sambon-in, though technically it’s a subtemple. The ruggedness of the garden reflects samurai values and is filled with rocks assembled by Hideyoshi from all over Japan. Nearby, within the precincts proper, is Kyoto’s most ancient pagoda and a picturesque Benten pond to which photographers throng in spring and autumn.

Daigo-ji

Daigo-ji

In addition to the man-made beauty both sites provide access to the wildness of the surrounds, where nature is augmented by a spiritual dimension. At Ninna-ji if you exit by the north-west gate, there is a miniature 88-temple pilgrimage which winds around a hill. And at Daigo-ji you can walk uphill for an hour from Lower Daigo to Upper Daigo, where a collection of ancient buildings has connections with Shugendo (mountain asceticism).

Daigo-ji 2

Daigo-ji

Those of us who live in Kyoto know that it would be well-nigh impossible to visit in their entirety all the gardens, temples, shrines, museums, villas, festivals and other items of interest with which the city is blessed. The historical associations and buildings which once housed the great figures of the past mean that Kyoto is far more than merely the proud possessor of 17 Unesco ‘properties’. It’s surely a World Heritage Site in itself!

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Text and pictures by John Dougill. John Dougill is the author of Japan’s World Heritage Sites (Tuttle, 2014) as well as Kyoto: A Cultural History (Cityscapes)
(Signal/OUP, 2006), shortly to be reissued as an e-book.

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Kyoto’s 17 World Heritage ‘properties’, in no particular order

ujigami 2

Purification at Ujigami Shrine

– Kamigamo Shrine
– Shimogamo Shrine
– Toji Temple
– Kiyomizu Temple
– (Hieizan) Enryakuji Temple
– Daigoji Temple
– Ninnaji Temple
– Byodoin Temple
– Ujigami Shrine
– Kozanji Temple
– Kokedera/Moss Temple
– Tenryuji Temple
– Kinkakuji Temple/Golden Pavilion
– Ginkakuji Temple/Silver Pavilion
– Ryoanji Temple
– Nishi-Honganji Temple
– Nijo Castle

Noh by Torchlight – Takigi Noh

I just got tickets for the torchlight Takigi Noh performance at Heian Jingu this Sunday. Since March Mewby and I have been occasionally attending Noh performances at the Kanze Kaikan. Noh is of course notorious for sending people off to sleep, but our experience is that if you have a script to read along then it can be enthralling. Fortunately I was able to find the scripts for three of Sunday’s plays, Takasago, Matsukaze, and Shakkyō on the能.com. This will be our first time to try Takigi Noh so I’m quite excited!

kyoto-takiginoh65
Here’s what John Dougill wrote about Takigi Noh on this very blog back in 2010:

For many people Noh is a turn-off. The plays have no conflict, no humour and no facial expression. Actors move at a snail’s pace, the language is arcane and the music archaic. To its detractors it’s simply an outmoded relic of medieval times. Noh way, Noh thank you.

There are regular performances in Kyoto, and if you attend you’ll find a good number of the audience asleep. One top performer told me he would do the same if he were watching rather than on stage! It’s very much an acquired taste, for knowledge is needed of the crafts and skills to truly appreciate them. The types of play and their ethereal nature, for example. The stately movement of the actors. The exquisite quality of the costumes. The almost sacred nature of the masks. The musical form. It’s an art form for connoisseurs.

Once a year, however, Kyoto offers an opportunity to enjoy Noh in a different light, when an outdoor show in the atmospheric surrounds of the Heian Shrine brings the plays to life in spectacular style. With over 3000 expectant people packed into the courtyard, the event begins in daylight with robed figures gliding towards an open stage accompanied by the peculiar ‘ya-oh’ chants of a drummer and the piercing sound of a flute.

At 6.30 priests emerge to light the braziers and as darkness descends, the illuminated shrine buildings provide a decorative backdrop. A rustling of the curtain and a masked figure enters, dressed in the most gorgeous of robes. In the deepening darkness the effect is eerie. The visual splendour, the ethereal music, the rising moon over the eastern hills combine to produce a sense of theatrical wonder.

With its masks, chorus, music and all-male cast, Noh is sometimes compared to the drama of ancient Greece. Viewed at the Heian Shrine, however, it has something of the great religious dramas of South-east Asia, such as the Balinese beach performances of the Ramayana. The event started as a revival of an older tradition and has been held every year since 1949. It proved such a success that it spawned some two hundred similar events around Japan. Why not give it a go? You might have thought you weren’t the type to go to Noh, but I can guarantee this is one performance you won’t be sleeping through.

Location: Heian Jingu Shrine (may be postponed in case of rain)
Dates: June 1 (Sun), June 2 (Mon) from 5.30 to around 8:45 (Gate opens at 4.30)
Cost: Y4000 at the gate (Y3000 in advance)
Recommended to take a sweater or light jacket for later in the evening
Schedule: Different plays are scheduled for each day – you can see the schedule here: http://www.kyoto-kanze.jp/takiginoh/takiginh65-program.htm
Inquiries (in Japanese): The Kyoto Takigi-noh Office 075-771-6114

Diego Pellechia has some more details about the performances up on his site The Noh Diaries.

John Dougill is professor of British Studies at Kyoto’s Ryukoku University and the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History and In Search of the Hidden Christians. He is also a contributor to our book, Deep Kyoto: Walks.

Learn more:
Japanese Noh: Performances for the Gods
the 能.com probably has pretty much everything you need to get started with Noh drama…

Charity Noh Performance for Tohoku Disaster Relief at Kyoto Kanze Kaikan 3/11

Next week Kyoto Kanze Kaikan is holding two charity Noh performances to raise funds for victims of the 2011 Tohoku Disaster. They will be held on the morning and evening of March 11th – the anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami.

猩々乱

猩々乱

If you aren’t familiar with Noh, it’s best to take a script with you. There is a lot of talking in Noh plays, they are speaking medieval Japanese, and the speech patterns are very stylized, so even for native Japanese they can be hard to understand. Mewby and I went to see a couple of Noh plays at the Kanze Kaikan last weekend, but we only had a script for one of the plays. Let me tell you it makes a big difference when watching Noh, if you have a script with you to follow along with. Fortunately, translations of the scripts for both of the plays next week are available on the excellent the能.com site, with both English and modern Japanese.

Date and Times: Tuesday March 11th

10:30-12:30: The main performance  is of the Noh play Tsunemasa. You can download a translated script here: 経正

18:30-20:30: The main performance is of the Noh play Shōjō Midare. You can download a translated script here: 猩々乱

Location: Kyoto Kanze Kaikan is on the south side of Niomon Street between Higashioji and Jingu-michi. It is a 10 minute walk north from from Higashiyama Subway Station. Here is a map.

IMG_7847 (Medium)Both performances cost 1,500. They can be booked in advance at this number: 075-771-6114075-771-6114 (Japanese). However, specific seats cannot be reserved.

More details of the performances can be seen here (Japanese): http://www.kyoto-kanze.jp/performanceguide/gien-noh.htm