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Miyako Odori: My First Time at the Japanese Theater

I am an expat living in Japan. Every day is an adventure and a blessing. Here are some of my most memorable experiences.

Miyako Odori poster

Miyako Odori poster

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 theater before the show

The theater before the show

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."

The gate of Gion Kobu Kabukai

The gate of Gion Kobu Kabukai

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.

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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...

If you could... - Be honest now

What do you think?

RinchenChodron on February 27, 2014:

I didn't see the music or dance, but you can have a more authentic and personal tea ceremony at the Denver Botanic Gardens! Looks like a tourist concept, too bad. But I'm sure the music and dance were worth the price of a ticket. Nicely written lens, congrats on your purple star.

anonymous on February 26, 2014:

Fascinating performance. Congratulations on getting LotD!

Heidi Vincent from GRENADA on February 25, 2014:

Such great sychronization of the moves. Thanks for sharing, SgtCecil and congratulations on winning the LOTD!

PriyabrataSingh on February 25, 2014:

I would love to be the part of this wonderful Japanese Theater. It would be a pleasure experience to have on, in practical sense. Great Lens and thanks for sharing.....Many congratulation on getting the Lens Of The Day....Happy writing...

yoursfoolie on February 25, 2014:

Hey,:this lense was so informative, yet so humorously, modestly and smoothly put together... I learned a lot, but was also very emtertained. Keep smiling ~ it's doing the rest of us a lot of good!

Fay Favored from USA on February 25, 2014:

Congratulations on LotD. This would be something worth seeing. Thank you for sharing some of your experience.

anonymous on February 25, 2014:

A very interesting lens! Thanks for sharing this information

AnonymousC831 from Kentucky on February 25, 2014:

Very cool lens, love the photos.

Delia on February 25, 2014:

Congratulations on LOTD! I would love to go to one of these shows...everything has so much meaning, very interesting. SgtCecil It's nice to see you enjoy this...something always in your memory of your time in Japan. Thanks for your Service!

andnics on February 25, 2014:

nice video to watch

RoadMonkey on February 25, 2014:

Sounds fascinating!

Amine from Doha, Qatar on February 25, 2014:

let me start by saying hello in japenese kon nichiwa, your article about visiting Miyako odori is really good, the whole traditions in japan are cool from geisha to keminou, the dress they dress, and above that all they are the most humbled people you can meet.

thank you/ arigatou

Ibidii on February 25, 2014:

I would love to see any of the plays and or dances and attend an honored tea ceremony! I would love to have an authentic tea set!

GrammieOlivia on February 25, 2014:

One day I'll get to Japan, just don't know when that day will be! Looks beautiful!

tonyleather on February 25, 2014:

This looks like it would indeed be a memorable experience!

adragast24 on February 25, 2014:

Sounds very interesting. My Japanese is probably not good enough either to understand the play but I would still be interested in it. I once went to an Italian opera and I don't speak Italian at all. Dance and music don't always require an understanding of what is said.

Tanya Jones from Texas USA on February 25, 2014:

I lived in Japan at a very young age. I would love to go back and experience the culture and people from an adult point of view.

Stephen J Parkin from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada on February 25, 2014:

I have seen the Kabukai Theatre group at Sadlers Wells in London and this is a treat well worth seeing. Great LOTD. I would love to see them in Kyoto! I am jealous.

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on February 22, 2014:

I would love to experience this.

Renee Dixon from Kentucky on February 19, 2014:

Very neat how the platforms wrap around, that would be interesting- like surround sound indeed. Interesting lens :)

Merry Citarella from Oregon's Southern Coast on February 19, 2014:

Very interesting to read!

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