I had the free time this weekend and jumped at the opportunity to visit Kyoto. Kyoto is THE REASON I came to Japan and I am incredibly happy that I live as close as I do. It costs me about 3,000 yen (30 Japanese dollars) to take the train round-trip and only 71 minutes one way. How could I not go?!
While I visited many parts of Kyoto this past weekend, Gion Corner in the Gion “Geisha” District was definitely one of the highlights. I have wanted to visit Gion ever since I fell in love with the book and movie, Memoirs of a Geisha. I knew nothing about the mysterious life of Geisha prior to reading the book and watching the movie and I was instantly intrigued. I ventured to Gion on a Monday night around 5 pm. I had been on the fence about going to Gion Corner, a theater in the Gion district, because I had read that it was ‘touristy’ and expensive (3,150 yen, although I have found coupons here). I found that they don’t start selling tickets until 5:30 for the 6:00 pm performance so I walked around the district for a while. There wasn’t a whole lot to see other than restaurants, although I did see a geisha here or there, and lots of tourists.
Promptly at 5:30 I returned to the Gion Corner ticket counter and bought my ticket. I immediately took a seat front and center of the stage. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a thing! As we inched closer to the show time, I realized that a Monday night was a good time to see the show – there were very few people in the audience. It was nice because I had read that you could take photos during the show and that other tourists’ flashes can be distracting.
The Gion Corner show started with a tea ceremony off the main stage on a platform to the right. They asked for 2 volunteers from the audience to participate. The tea ceremony was not very impressive, in fact, I seemed to have experienced something similar at Shinjuku Gyoen’s tea house. If you are interested, you can read more about it here.
Before the tea ceremony was completed, the Koto zither is brought onto the main stage and played while a woman begins flower arranging. The zither was nice to listen to, but the flower arranging was a little lack luster…
The show began to pick up after this portion with the beginning of the Gagaku Court Music and dance. According to this site, “Gagaku is the name for indigenous Japanese music and dance performed at the imperial court, shrines and temples.” I really like this music and have heard it at temples and shrines around Japan (I’ve even heard it in the Kyoto train station!)
After this performance, the show shifted to the Kyogen Theater portion. We were told that Kyogen Theater began in Osaka and was about the sea merchants. It was spoken in the common dialect and told stories that the people could relate to. The short performance we saw was about two servants who worked for the owner of the home. The owner was leaving so he tricked his servants into being tied up so they wouldn’t steal his saki. After the owner left, the servants found a way to drink the saki without their hands. The owner of the home returned and caught them, and everyone laughed. It was all in Japanese, but the pamphlet I was given in English provided information so I was able to follow the show and actually laughed a time or two!
The show then shifted to the Kyo-mai dance, which was performed by maiko, a Geisha apprentice. According to this site, “Originating in Kyoto, kyo-mai is an elegant and dazzling dance performed by maiko dancers in beautifully ornate dress.” This was my favorite part of the performance. The maiko were elegant showed little emotion on their face, but showed great detail in their movements. The closer I watched, the more detail I saw – every single movement seemed to have been perfectly choreographed but seemed effortless and flawless!
The final vignette of the show was of Bunraku Puppet Theater. According to this site, “Bunraku, Japan’s traditional puppet theatre, was put on UNESCO’s list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003.” The puppet was very large and was controlled by two men with their face covered in black and one man without his face covered (I don’t know the significance). None of the men spoke and the puppet seemed to talk via a recording or someone off stage. It was interesting to watch, but not my favorite part of the show.
Overall I loved the show. It was definitely intriguing and I believe it just scratched the surface of some of what Japan has to offer. It seems like its a good starter session for someone who’d like to learn more, or a good place to see a show for a traveler just passing through. If you go to Kyoto, this is definitely a must see!.