Gion Corner

One of the things I really enjoyed about our honeymoon trip to Kyoto was the hour we spent at the Yasaka Kaikan at Gion Corner. We’d received Yen as wedding gifts from friends to pay for a couple of trips we wanted to make. One of the trips was supposed to be to Sanrio Puroland near Tokyo, but we hadn’t realised how much travelling between Kyoto and Tokyo takes out of you, even by Shinkansen. (On our honeymoon we made the crazy decision to make Kyoto our base for most of the fortnight we were in Japan, travelling to Tokyo on daytrips like idiots!)

We parked the idea of Sanrio Puroland and used the money to pay for tickets to the hour long show at Gion Corner. The show consists of performance segments from traditional arts. It begins with a demonstration of the tea ceremony, usually with a couple of people selected from the audience as participants. While the tea is being enjoyed, a demonstration of ikebana takes place on the stage, accompanied by koto players.

On arrival, you receive a programme that sets out the history of each traditional art, and a recording of someone who learned English in Australia plays before each section, explaining what is going on. The programme makes the bored-sounding narrator redundant, but her dry tones add something surreal to the experience.

After the ikebana and koto performance comes a small orchestra playing court music (gagaku), accompanied by a man in costume performing a dance.

The final three segments were my favourites. First up was a kyogen performance. Kyogen is a form of comic play that is usually performed in the intervals at Noh plays. Kyogen is performed in local dialect and is a realistic counterpoint to the symbolic nature of Noh. It’s also really funny, even when you don’t understand what’s being said. There were elements of slapstick to the performance we saw, which was called Boshibaru. In this play, a Lord heads out on business at a nearby village. He has sake in the house and thinks his servants are going to steal it, so he ties his servants up. Left tied up, the servants plot how they can steal the Lord’s sake in his absence. Their arms are tied up, but their fingers are free, so they’re able to open up the store room, take the sake and pour it into a bowl they can drink from even while tied up. They are drunkenly dancing when the Lord returns and the reflection of his face in the sake bowl startles them. They think they have seen an apparition and begin to call their Lord names. This angers the Lord, who beats them and chases them from the stage. The slapstick humour and exaggerated performances are great fun.

Next up are two Maiko performing Kyomai dances. The Mai style of dance is influenced by Noh theatre and is usually performed in a small room, rather than on a stage like the Odori style. Kyomai is very elegant and sophisticated. Mamesome and Mametomi performed the dance on our visit.

The final segment is a Bunraku performance. I found this fascinating, but didn’t take any photographs of it. It was too mesmerising! I love the way the puppeteer is part of the performance, and isn’t hidden away. His body is part of the puppet, but it doesn’t interfere with the illusion. We watched a scene from a love story called Datemusume Koi no Higanoko, which is adapted from a true story in which Oshichi falls in love with Kichiza, a temple pageboy, although her parents want her to marry a merchant to whom they owe money. In the scene, Oshichi climbs a watch tower to strike a bell, and watching the puppet climbing up into the air was very striking.

When we visited in 2009, the ticket price was the standard 3,150円, but according to the official website there’s currently an offer on to encourage more tourists to visit the theatre. There are two performances each evening, at 7.00 p.m. and 8.00 p.m. We called into the theatre during the day to buy our ticket in advance, and also to make sure that we knew where we were going!

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