I grew up going to the theater. Seeing a Broadway show was my norm. My grandmother would pull her kids from school (including my mother) to see a show in Manhattan on any given afternoon. It’s something my mother wanted to give to her children too. Thus, I’ve always enjoyed and valued live performances because of it. That’s Broadway and this experience is a near relative in my eyes: What is Kabuki and Why You Should Be Interested.
I was looking into evening activities the first time I was in Japan. Kabuki, or traditional Japanese theater, came up in an online search. A matinee that trip was befitting due to available times and prices the days I was in Tokyo. Kabuki has a rich 400 year old history and I left the performance feeling like my Japanese cultural experience was truly enhanced.
I fortunately found myself back in Japan this year. I was near the end of a six day visit, wishing I had made time to see a Kabuki performance. Lo and behold the next day I was walking in Tokyo from the Tsukiji to Ginza neighborhood and stumbled upon the theater. It’s a traditional Japanese looking facade amongst modern buildings and skyscrapers so it stands out. I was so excited to see it again. But having my afternoon somewhat already set I snapped a photo, took in a moment of nostalgia and kept walking. Two blocks later I looked at my watch and asked myself, “Can I make a show and still make my 4:00pm appointment?” Hopeful, I turned around to head back towards the theater.
Luckily there were still some standing room only tickets available for the 2:00pm performance. I’d make my appointment at the Owl Cafe if I left the show ten minutes early, which I was told I was able to do. I hadn’t eaten lunch and I was very hungry. Yet risking getting a headache because I was foregoing food was certainly worth seeing another performance of Kabuki theater.
Everyone who worked at the theater was incredibly friendly and helpful (much like Japanese people in general) and spoke English rather well. Their guidance was appreciated since I asked a fair amount of questions so I could quickly understand where to go and what to do due in a short amount of time.
For 1,900 yen I was able to secure a ticket to the second act of the the three-act play. I was wiser this time and rented an English translation device, which cost 500 yen plus a 1,000 yen deposit I got back when it was returned. A rental for the entire show, as opposed to just one act, is 1,000 yen, no deposit needed. (Last time I didn’t rent a translation device and regretted it. You’ll be able to follow the story line if you can read what’s going on. It doesn’t detract from viewing what’s transpiring onstage either. Without the translator, it’s all just a foreign language and visuals without understanding the plot.) I needed 3,400 yen total for the experience.
Be prepared to hear some audience members sporadically yelling names during performances. This is simply a tradition, to help encourage the actors during their performance. If I had known the actors’ names I would have been cheering them on too!
Reserved seats are set aside for those who can dedicate many hours to the entire performance, including all acts. This could mean four hours time total though act length varies depending on the performance. Entire show tickets can be purchased online and prices range from 4,000 yen to 18,000 yen, the more expensive tickets being closer to the stage.
The Single Act ticket option is an additional option. I love it – it’s perfect for a tourist. The tickets are less expense and less of a time commitment. They only accept cash for these and allow one ticket per person. (Make sure everyone in your party is there at time of purchase to account for the one-per-person rule.) These are purchased on the day of the performance. I purchased my ticket very late, close to when the act was beginning, so standing room only was all that was left. It’s completely fine – there’s no one blocking your view and there’s a banister to lean on.
The act I saw the day I went was quite long at about an hour and thirty minutes. Ticket price and performance time differ between each act but the prices are decided in advance at the beginning of each month. Acts can last anywhere between 30 minutes to two hours. Seeing one act instead of all three or four provides a substantial taste of Kabuki without taking up an entire afternoon. I was, however, sad to leave before the act was over. I was so engrossed in the story line.
What to Expect
The word Kabuki literally translates to: “Ka” = song, “bu” = dance, “ki” = acting. This particular location, The Kabukiza Theater, is the largest for Kabuki in Japan. The exterior facade is the most attractive part of the design, combining architectural styles from the Nara (600-794) and Momoyama (late 16th century) periods. It’s considered the most prestigious Kabuki theater to perform in.
Its decoration is minimal. There isn’t adornment of any kind inside like you’d see in a New York City theater with scroll motifs and chandeliers aplenty. The stage design is also very minimal yet incredibly beautiful. The theater is well kept. While not ostentatious its minimalism and color palette is visually pleasing. (Photography is prohibited inside the theater so I don’t have photos of it to display but you’d be surprised at how minimal the design is. All photos posted here were taken outside the theater.)
The way they usher in the Single Act ticket holders is incredibly organized. While I was waiting I was given a piece of paper with an English description of what I was about to see. I particularly read about the act I was about to view. It was very helpful to understand the overall storyline going into the theater.
The performances draw you in with beautiful costumes. All Kabuki actors are men, even if they’re playing female characters, much like Shakespearean days. Words are song-like; while there wasn’t any singing (like a traditional musical would have) all the words have a melodic cadence. There is minimal music played: one string player sits next to a narrator who fills in the story line and provides some percussion with a single drum.
Accessing the Theater
It’s incredibly easy to get to the theater. Public transportation is convenient and prevalent in Tokyo. The closest subway goes directly underneath the theater. Take the Hibiya Line or Asakusa Line subway, stopping at “Higashi Ginza” station. Use Exit 3. Ginza subway station, accessible through the Ginza and Marunouchi lines, is a five minute walk through Exit A6. Note that the JR line is different from the Tokyo Subway but a Pasmo transportation card work for both. Parking is also available at local garages.
Theater address: 4-12-15 Ginza Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 104-0061, Japan
For more information on Japan check out:
- 20 Surprising Things to Love About Japan
- How to Ace Your Visit to Tokyo Tsukiji Market
- Most Unforgettable Sushi You Will Ever Eat
Would you be interested in seeing a Kabuki performance?