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Miyako Odori: My First Time at the Japanese Theater
A magical experience
When a friend of mine was too busy to visit Kyoto, she gave me her tickets to Miyako Odori. Although I've been to Kyoto a few times, I've never been to Miyako Odori. I've never even heard of it. The more she told me about it, the more fascinated I was. I couldn't wait.
Miyako Odori means "Dances of the Old Capital." This is because Kyoto was once the capital of Japan before it was moved to Tokyo in 1869. Since 1872, Miyako Odori has been a traditional dance in Kyoto's Gion district.
It begins every year from April 1 to April 30. The maiko and geiko sing, dance and play traditional instruments. A maiko is an "apprentice" geisha and a geiko is what the locals call the geisha who perform in the show.
Simply put, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The beauty of the music, the costumes and the dancing was like nothing I'd seen before. It is easy to see why people from all over Japan come to see the show.
The geisha tea ceremony - Let's keep it moving folks
Before the Miyako Odori, some guests can see a geisha (or geiko) performing a tea ceremony. She sits in the front of the room making tea according to strict tradition with the help of a maiko. She does this quietly and we watch.
During this, we are served green tea and a sweet bean mochi by staff dressed in kimonos. The mochi is served on a small Japanese ceramic plate. They even let us keep it! I've seen this plate sold elsewhere for about 1,200 yen.
Still, some people might be disappointed by the tea ceremony. Dozens of us are herded into the room and then are herded out in about fifteen or twenty minutes. I didn't mind. I was in the second row so I was lucky. It was the first time I'd seen a geisha so close. Also my ticket was free.
The tea ceremony is only available to a person with a "special class" ticket. This is about 4,500 yen. This ticket holder can count on a nice seat on the first or second floor. Then there is the "first class seat" higher on the second floor for 4,000 yen.
Finally there is the "second class seat" on the third floor for 2,000 yen. People here sit on tatami mats. This is the most popular for foreign tourists as they usually show up without reservations.
Just before the show - I couldn't wait
The audience is not allowed to take pictures or video of the show. I'm (mostly) a good boy so I put my camera away. But before that I took a few pictures of the theater. This is where those with "special class" tickets would sit. I was very lucky because my seat was in the very first row!
A small taste of the show
Notice the left and right side of the seating in the image above. There seem to be long narrow platforms. I'd never seen that before in a theater. What was that all about? Once the show begins, maiko and geiko arrive from entrances on these sides. Then curtains on the sides rise with more maiko playing traditional instruments. It's like surround sound!
There's more than music and dance - Can you believe it?
If you saw the video above you may have noticed the theater setting. This continually changes between and even during scenes. How? The kuroko! Simply put, these guys are traditional stage hands who wear black and move things around even during the scenes. They even pop up from trap doors on the floor of the stage. This tradition is still used today. For a sample of this in action click here.
Because my Japanese is so bad, it was difficult to follow what was going on. Watching the performance followed up with bit of research afterwards I discovered that Miyako Odori tells ancient stories of romance and heartbreak that are familiar in Japanese culture. One example is the famous Tsuru no Ongaeshi or "The Crane Returns a Favor."
If you can't make it to the show take a look at the work here.
Then Miyako Odori was over
My show was the earliest, starting at 12:30pm but as I left it was getting dark and cloudy. I took a look at the theater one more time and walked away. I couldn't wait to tell my friends about the experience. If you're interested here are a few things to remember:
There are four shows a day. First starts at 12:30pm. Second starts at 2pm. Third starts at 3:30pm. The final starts at 4:50pm. For the special class and first class tickets, you'll need a reservation. If you're staying in Kyoto in April, tell your hotel concierge or front desk. They'll be happy to help you. If you want the second class seat then no reservation is required. Just swing by if you're in the area and buy a ticket.
The name of the theater is Gion Kobu Kabukai. Don't let this mouthful scare you. As soon as you get to the Gion district, look for the gate in the image above. It's big and hard to miss. If you came to Gion the way almost everyone else does, then the gate should be on your left. Walk right in and follow everyone else to the ticket counter.
If you get confused just ask one of the locals this, "Sumimasen. Miyako Odori doko desu-ka?" (Exuse me. Where is the Miyako Odori?). It's world famous, so they'll be happy to help.
For more information...
- Miyako Odori official website
For more information take a look here
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