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A Trip to the Kabuki-Za Theater

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Japan’s most famous cultural offering, Kabuki, is not an art form meant to cater to Western tastes. The performances can last all day long. The acting, done exclusively by men, is second-fiddle to the make-up and costumes. Monologues go on interminably. The music is strange and the dialogue is usually recited in an exaggeratedly affected, chiming manner. There is no earthly reason why Jürgen and I should have enjoyed it. But we did.

Kabuki Theater Tokyo

Kabuki emerged in the 1600s, and was originally performed entirely by women. These were often courtesans who might be purchased, and the shows were suggestive and bawdy. Kabuki was a natural fit in the red light districts of Tokyo, and drew audiences of every social class. Hoping to curb prostitution, women were eventually banned from performing, and acting duties were handed over to young boys… which did exactly nothing to curb prostitution. Performances were often interrupted by fighting in the audience over the affections of the most attractive young lads.

Soon enough, Kabuki acting became the exclusive domain of mature males, and the performances grew less ribald. It developed into an art form whose popularity spread like wildfire through Japan. Although the capital of Kabuki was undoubtedly the red light district of Yoshiwara (until the end of legalized prostitution in 1958), the most prominent theater has long been found in Ginza. The Kabuki-za was originally built in 1889, destroyed by fire in 1921, rebuilt in 1922, destroyed by the earthquake of 1923, rebuilt in 1924, destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945, rebuilt in 1950, destroyed in 2010 due to structural flaws, and rebuilt again in 2013. Phew.

So the theater has a history of 125 years, which just happens to be the exact length of a normal kabuki performance. These things are long, often lasting from the late morning until the evening. Mercifully, it’s possible to purchase tickets for a single act, which might be 90 minutes long. The procedure to buy single-act tickets is complicated but manageable. A good run-down can be found here.

Kabuki Theater Tokyo

But don’t buy single-act tickets! We did so, and regretted the decision as soon as the show started. Kabuki is bizarre, indecipherable, tiring, silly, often boring, and utterly awesome. From the moment twenty ladies-in-waiting appeared on the stage, we were captivated. The play we were attending, Ichijo Okura Monogatari, dealt with the loyalties of a woman who had married into a rival clan, but the plot didn’t matter at all. This was about the acting, the make-up, the costumes and the set design. It was a lot of fun, and we were upset that we couldn’t stay for the subsequent acts.

Another problem with single-act tickets is that the seats are found way up at the top, in the theater’s worst section. From this height, you can’t see much of the detail in the actors’ expressions, nor the intricacy of their dress.

I didn’t expect to enjoy Kabuki anywhere near as much as I did. It’s hard to describe what’s so great about it… and when I try explaining it to friends, they look at me like I’m crazy. But I’m not crazy! Kabuki really is great, although you probably won’t believe that until you see it for yourself.

Location on our Map

(Unfortunately, the Kabuki-za is very strict about their “no photography” rule, so we weren’t able to get any pictures of the performance itself. You’ll have to see it yourself!)

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Kabuki Theater Tokyo
Kabuki Theater Tokyo
Kabuki Theater Tokyo
Kabuki Theater Tokyo
Kabuki Theater Tokyo
Kabuki Theater Tokyo
Kabuki Theater Tokyo
Kabuki Theater Tokyo
Kabuki Theater Tokyo
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May 27, 2014 at 5:16 am Comments (2)

The Ginza Stroll

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Ever since springing to life in the seventeenth century as home to the city’s silver-coin mint, the central district of Ginza has been among Tokyo’s most popular places to shop, see and be seen. We spent our first Saturday in the city walking along the joyfully car-free street of Chuo-Dori, watching people, and popping into some world-famous stores.

On weekends, traffic on Ginza’s main artery of Chuo-Dori is prohibited, allowing walkers to enjoy what’s become known as the Hokoten, most frequently translated as the “Ginza Stroll”. Filled with massive Japanese department stores, buildings blazing the emblems of international brands like Hermes, Chanel and Apple, as well as smaller boutiques, Ginza is a shopper’s paradise. Most of the people who are out and about, though, seem content to window-shop. That suited us fine; the few times we bothered to look at price tags, we were left both terrified and impressed.

On weekends, traffic on Ginza’s main artery of Chuo-Dori is prohibited, allowing walkers to enjoy what’s become known as the Hokoten, most frequently translated as the “Ginza Stroll.” Home to towering Japanese department stores, international brands like Hermes, Chanel and Apple, as well as smaller boutiques, Ginza is a high-end shopper’s paradise. Most people seem content to window-shop, and that suited us fine; the few price tags we looked at were terrifying.

Ginza was destroyed by a fire in 1872, a few years after the new Meiji Empire had assumed power in Japan. In contrast to the deposed Tokugawa shoguns, who had kept Japan insular, Meiji sought to usher the country into modernity. With this in mind, the task of rebuilding Ginza was given to an English architect, an outreach to foreign expertise which would have previously been unthinkable. With red brick buildings and streets lit by gaslight, Ginza soon found itself home to foreign shops, and rambling along its streets to examine the curious fashions of Europe became a favorite pastime of Edo’s well-to-do residents.

This was our first excursion into central Tokyo, and we were still overwhelmed by the scale of the city. Ginza did nothing to alleviate our stress. We spent hours inside giant department stores like Matsuya and Wako. We donned 3D goggles and played the newest PlayStation inside the Sony Building. We admired pearl necklaces in the Mikimoto shop, which was founded by the father of modern pearl cultivation. We ducked down back streets, browsed book shops, ate pastries and found rooftop gardens from where we could look down on the madness of the Ginza Stroll.

As dusk fell, we grabbed a seat at the Lion Beer Hall, established in 1934 with the mission of introducing a German drinking atmosphere to Tokyo. Apart from the immaculate, bowing waiters who showed us to our table and the presence of some decidedly Japanese items like Pickled Fish Guts on the menu, the German vibe was surprisingly authentic.

The full list of experiences we had during this single day in Ginza could go on for pages. And the number of things which are possible to experience in the neighborhood must approach the infinite. Ginza certainly isn’t among the most traditionally Japanese spots we could have picked for our initial excursion, but its size, wealth, action, strangeness and cosmopolitan flair offered a nice introduction to Tokyo.

Location of Ginza Crossing on our Map

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March 14, 2014 at 7:44 am Comments (2)
A Trip to the Kabuki-Za Theater Japan's most famous cultural offering, Kabuki, is not an art form meant to cater to Western tastes. The performances can last all day long. The acting, done exclusively by men, is second-fiddle to the make-up and costumes. Monologues go on interminably. The music is strange and the dialogue is usually recited in an exaggeratedly affected, chiming manner. There is no earthly reason why Jürgen and I should have enjoyed it. But we did.
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