I have seen several different kinds of performances in my life: an open air Turandot opera in Verona, Kecak Dance in Bali, Haka in Rotorua, and even Little Shop of Horrors on Broadway. But attending a full Kabuki show in Tokyo is one of my favorite experiences. My good friend Yuko and I went to the Kabukiza Theater – a kabuki theater in Tokyo, and the largest in Japan.  This Japanese theater sits atop of one of the most prized pieces of real estate in the world, Ginza – Tokyo’s upscale shopping district. It has a long history of existence – and destruction – since the 1880s.

Yuko bought the tickets as a surprise for my visit. She said the majority of non-Japanese visitors buy tickets for an act or two. The truly Japanese stay at the kabuki play for the whole five hours!

Kabuki theater poster at Kabukiza Theater, Tokyo.
Kabuki theater poster at Kabukiza Theater, Tokyo.

Kabuki definition

Japanese kabuki is a tradition of art performance dating back hundreds of years.  It involves singing, kabuki dance, and acting. Some people translate it as “the bizarre shows” – referring to the over the top costumes and kabuki make-up.  You would recognize it right away upon seeing a person with a ghostly white face dressed in a Geisha-like costumes. Kabuki has even has been portrayed in several classic Japanese paintings from the 1700s. Many of these famous works now hang in the nearby Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.

My favorite part of the show was the beautiful design of the stage – both artfully and mechanically- as it needed to be assembled and disassembled quickly and shifted throughout the acts.

Young men in kabuki

It started in the early 1600s when they banned women from performing. The all-male group assigned petite male kabuki actors or actors with higher-pitched voices dress in kabuki costumes and pose as women. Fast forward to 2016, and the all-male cast is now a tradition.  Nobody in Japan seems to care much about this gender issue anymore.

Like actors in Hollywood or on Broadway, the Kabuki actor is in a very cut-throat business.  A lot of these actors come from family dynasties and run it as a family business.

Kabuki Theater - the stage
Waiting for the performance

No pictures during kabuki

While it was not written anywhere, I was approached by an attendant after snapping a few quick phone pictures during the act. I thought it would be OK to take a few without the flash. The attendant didn’t speak English, so after talking to me in Japanese with no luck, my friend Yuko stepped in to translate. She was extremely polite and apologetic. I acknowledged my mistake and the show went on. About ten minutes later, that same attendant came back and politely asked me to delete all of the pictures I took.  I deleted one. That seemed to satisfy her and she left.

Bring a Bento Box

Kabuki theater is very unusual in so many ways.  Our matinee was to start at 11 AM and last for five hours. Surprised by the length, I confirmed this with Yuko, and she nodded with glee. Although she grew up in Japan, this was also her first time attending Kabuki theater.

Five hours is a long time. That meant it overlapped with meal time.  ear not – the tradition of Kabuki also includes a bento box, which you can bring with you. If you prefer, you can buy one at the theater for a reasonable price. Let them know the bento type you prefer in advance.

The show’s longest interval was 30 minutes. The lights came on and everyone began unwrapping their bento boxes. We stood out a little because we didn’t have the proper bento box. We brought a few things from the Tsukiji Fish Market and purchased our drinks from the nearby vendor.

Kabuki Theater - audience
Intermission with Bento boxes

Taiyaki

Taiyaki is a one of many Japanese sweets. The fish-shaped confections are made with either pancake or waffle batter filled with sweetened azuki red bean paste. They don’t taste very sweet, unlike typical American pancakes or Belgian waffles. For my taste, they are the perfect portion size for a nice snack. The Taiyaki here has a famously unique design, with two different colors of azuki paste – red and white – the colors of the Japanese flag.

Kabuki Theater - The Kabukiza Theater 'Taiyaki',
Taiyaki – fish-shaped pancakes

Locals line up as soon as they enter the theater to get a few of these snacks for the show.  They even have a queue for it, including one of the few signs written in English so non-Japanese speakers know where to queue (or NOT) to get their food.

Kabuki Theater - Sign explaining Taiyaki
Foreigners, beware: some of the few English signs at the Theater. The Japanese know that this line is Taiyaki only.

Get a free translator

If you don’t speak Japanese, this device is a must. You need an ID (unless you are with a Japanese citizen who will act as a guarantor), and the device is free – no deposit required. Although it was nice to see the dramatic performance and the beautiful stage, my eyes were glued to my translator. It did a great job of timing the acts with their translation.

All in all, a wonderful time. And after a long day sitting, I went back to my Japanese Capsule hotel to relax!

Kabuki Theater in Tokyo

Here’s an English site to buy the tickets online. Have you been to a Kabuki theater show? What’s been your favorite performance?  Leave comments below. For more things to do in Tokyo, see creative Travel Guide’s Tokyo Travel page.

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Kabuki Theater, Tokyo


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Halef moved from Indonesia to the US nearly two decades ago to go to college here. He hasn’t looked back. He’s been to over forty countries and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. He’s a Landscape Architect in Atlanta, GA.


4 thoughts on “Things to Do In Tokyo: Attending the Kabuki Theater

  1. Very insightful article actually. You gave me a peek into a totally different culture of which I realise how little I know. A very Rich cultural history is not new to know about the country but It was my first “dip” in that ocean. and believe me, just one dip isn’t sufficient.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. What?! 5 hours of the show?! Was not too much? What you think?! You can go there and stay the 5 hours again?! Was worth?!
    With the translator seems awesome to understand everything but to be honest the thing I enjoyed more in your post it was the break time where everyone begins to eat, so fun 🙂
    Japan is always in my mind, so different, so beautiful!

  3. Getting that translator device would be the best even if you with a native for your eye not to be gluing on him/her always like you did, hahaha! The Taiyaki Japanese sweets seems to be the thing down there, something I’d like to try out.

  4. They all seem to be tucking into their noodles during recess! The Kabuki looks like a must during any stay in Japan, they are obviously geared up for tourists with the sign in English. Thanks for teaching me about Kabuki, you’ve influenced my next trip to Japan.

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