Where Diego says hello to an old friend, goes to the market, and watches a geisha performance.
Third and final part of three.
The last major event on today’s itinerary sees us bring the day to a close in a blaze of dazzling colour.
Many visitors come to Kyōto in the spring not only to enjoy the cherry blossoms, but also to witness one of the city’s great cultural events: the Miyako Odori. Held throughout April every year since the early 1870s – 2013’s is the 141st iteration – the grand performance features dozens of Kyōto’s iconic geiko and maiko in a series of dances, accompanied by traditional singing and instruments.
The dances have been held in the Gion Kōbu Kaburenjō theatre since April of 1873.
The theatre compound is surrounded by an attractive old-fashioned district of low wooden buildings and stone-flagged streets. Much of this was initially lost on me, however. Having misjudged the time, I was soon in a mad rush to reach the theatre and cut through the crowds on the street without paying much heed to the picturesque neighbourhood, or even the historic theatre building itself. No worries – we’ll get a look at both after the performance.
In any case, I made it with time to spare: about an hour or so before the 15:30 slot. That might seem like a very comfortable cushion, but it wasn’t, as I shall explain shortly.
It almost goes without saying that the Miyako Odori is a very popular event and can easily sell out. Not wanting to risk a same-day enquiry, I dropped by the main tourist information office in Kyōto Station the day before – I can’t recall the exact time but probably just before I dashed off to Nara on April 10th – and asked about obtaining a seat. As it turned out, the TIC sells tickets directly, so I discussed date/time and package options on the spot. With the Kaburenjō on the phone, the information officer managed to find available seats for a performance well suited to my schedule: the 3rd (of 4) scheduled dances on the following day, at 3:30 PM. To get the full experience, I splurged on a top-tier 4,500-yen ticket that included a tea ceremony, access to the theatre’s garden, and a reserved seat on the 1st floor in the area closest to the stage.
Here’s the catch: the tea ceremony is held before the performance, so patrons are advised to get to the theatre about 50 minutes before ticket time in order to participate.
Upon arriving, I and other premium ticket holders were allowed inside via a special entrance. We were kept in a holding area surrounded by souvenir stalls, where we waited until being ushered into a large inner room with a podium and rows of long, low tables. A geiko was seated at the podium, preparing tea in the traditional way. Assisting her was a maiko who served bowls of tea to the lucky patrons who were seated in the front row (not sure if they simply got there early or had a special status of some kind).
Apologies for the badly composed images here. The tea ceremony was far from an intimate affair, with a fairly large crowd packed into the room and everyone angling for the best spots from which to take photographs. I wasn’t lucky enough to snag one of the seats close to the front, and the aisles were clogged with people, so whatever angle I tried it was impossible to get a clean shot.
Tea and dessert. Yum.
Leave the bowl, but don’t forget to take the small dish along; it’s your souvenir of the ceremony. After you’ve finished, an attendant will come by to cover the dish neatly with a sheet of wrapping paper, ready to be packed into your bag for the journey home.
A few more shots taken on the way out, just as the next group was being shown in.
Before heading outside, take a few moments to admire some of the beautiful kimono that were made especially for the performance.
Now for a quick, relaxing garden stroll before we head back inside for the performance.
All right, it’s nearly time – into the theatre now.
The stage, with its richly decorated curtain. Note how they used a different fabric for before the performance (the one below) and after (the ones visible in the pictures above, which I took as we were leaving the theatre).
One of the two wing stages on either side of the hall, with a narrow ledge along the front for dancers and bays set further back where the singers and musicians would be seated.
In any case, pictures alone won’t do the event justice; the music is of course an integral part of the experience. I recall one particular singer, an older performer seated on the right-hand wing stage just above me: her voice had a particularly unique quality that can’t be compared to anything I’ve ever heard before, or since. It was so arresting that there were times when I, and even those sitting next to me, would turn our eyes away from the grand spectacle on stage and glance to our right towards the source of that hauntingly beautiful sound.
The performance began with a grand procession of maiko, who laid on a beautiful dance with fans and bouquets as they moved slowly from the wings towards the main stage. This was followed by a series of themed dances highlighting the various seasons, including a few based on old folk tales, concluding with a grand finale featuring all of the performers gathered together. As the many available photographs online will attest to, the costumes were absolutely splendid; even those of us who couldn’t fully understand what was going on would no doubt have appreciated the utterly gorgeous display of traditional craftsmanship on stage.
With the performance over, we can now turn our attention to the venue itself.
The neighbourhood around the Gion Kōbu Kaburenjō – in particular along Hanamikoji-dōri and the streets leading off from it – is filled with machiya that give this area a wonderful old-time atmosphere. Most of Kyōto probably looked something like this before development levelled many traditional buildings in favour of ugly modern concrete blocks.
Next on our itinerary: a series of walks around Kyōto, and a long train ride to our next base – the castle town of Matsumoto.