In addition to the listings, Tokyo has occasional shows of more avant-garde or lesser-known performing arts, including highly stylized Butoh dance performances by companies such as Sankai Juku, and percussion demonstrations by Kodo drummers and other Japanese drum groups. The publications listed above have complete listings.
Traditional Performing Arts
Kabuki -- Probably Japan's best-known traditional theater art, Kabuki is also one of the country's most popular forms of entertainment. Visit a performance and it's easy to see why -- Kabuki is fun! The plays are dramatic, the costumes are gorgeous, the stage settings can be fantastic, and the themes are universal -- love, revenge, and the conflict between duty and personal feelings. One probable reason for Kabuki's popularity is that it originated centuries ago as a form of entertainment for the common people in feudal Japan, particularly the merchant class. One of Kabuki's interesting aspects is that all roles -- even those depicting women -- are portrayed by men.
There are more than 300 Kabuki plays, all written before the 20th century. For a Westerner, one of the more arresting things about a Kabuki performance is the audience. Because this has always been entertainment for the masses, the spectators can get quite lively, adding yells of approval, guffaws, and laughter. Also contributing to the festive atmosphere are the obento lunches and drinks available during intermission.
One of Japan's most prestigious theaters for Kabuki is Kabuki-za, 4-12-15 Ginza, which unfortunately closed for demolition in April 2010, with an expected resurrection in a new building in 2013. Although I lament the destruction of the handsome older structure, which boasted a Momoyama-style facade influenced by 16th-century castle architecture, the new theater will undoubtedly incorporate the usual Kabuki stage fittings, including a platform that can be raised above and lowered below the stage for dramatic appearances and disappearances of actors, a revolving stage, and a runway stage extending into the audience.
In any case, until the Kabuki-za's reopening, kabuki performances will be held at the nearby Shinbashi Enbujo Theater, 6-18-2 Ginza (tel. 03/3541-2600, or 03/5565-6000 for advance reservations; www.shochiku.co.jp/play/kabukiza/theater; station: Higashi-Ginza), as well as other venues in town. Shochiku, a major film and production company that also serves as Tokyo's chief Kabuki production company, stages about eight or nine Kabuki productions a year. Each production begins its run between the first and third of each month and runs about 25 days (there are no shows in Aug). Usually, two different programs are shown; matinees run from about 11 or 11:30am to 4pm, and evening performances run from about 4:30 or 5pm to about 9pm. It's considered perfectly okay to come for only part of a performance. Of course, you won't be able to understand what's being said, but that doesn't matter; the productions themselves are great entertainment. For an outline of the plot, you should rent English-language earphones for ¥650, plus a ¥1,000 refundable deposit -- these provide a running commentary on the story, music, actors, stage properties, and other aspects of Kabuki. Renting earphones will add immensely to your enjoyment of the play.
Tickets generally range from ¥2,500 to ¥17,000, depending on the program and seat location. Advance tickets can be purchased at the theater box office from 10am to 6pm. You may also make advance reservations by phone (same-day bookings are not accepted). Otherwise, tickets for each day's performance are placed on sale 1 hour before the start of each performance.
Another venue for Kabuki is the National Theatre of Japan (Kokuritsu Gekijo), 4-1 Hayabusacho, Chiyoda-ku (tel. 03/3230-3000; www.ntj.jac.go.jp; station: Hanzomon, 6 min.). Kabuki is scheduled throughout the year except during February, May, August, and September, when Bunraku is staged. Matinees usually begin at 11:30am or noon, and afternoon performances at 4:30pm. Most tickets range from about ¥1,500 to ¥8,500, with earphones available for ¥700 plus a ¥1,000 deposit. Tickets can be purchased at the box office (daily 10am to 6pm), by phone, or online.
Noh -- Whereas Kabuki developed as a form of entertainment for the masses, Noh was a much more traditional and aristocratic form of theater. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), Noh became the favorite performance art of military rulers; indeed, many feudal lords not only maintained their own Noh stage and troupe but also performed Noh themselves.
In contrast to Kabuki's extroverted liveliness, Noh is very calculated and restrained. The oldest form of theater in Japan, it has changed very little in the past 600 years. Altogether there are about 250 Noh plays, almost all of them created before 1600 and often concerned with supernatural beings, Shinto gods, beautiful women, warriors, mentally confused and tormented people, or tragic-heroic epics. The language is so archaic that today the Japanese cannot understand it at all, which explains in part why Noh does not have the popularity that Kabuki does. Central to Noh are elaborate costumes, masks, and musicians who chant and play the drums and flute.
Because the action is slow, sitting through an entire performance can be tedious unless you are particularly interested in Noh dance and music. In addition, most Noh plays do not have English-language translations. You may want to drop in for just a short while. Definitely worth seeing, however, are the short comic reliefs, called kyogen, that make fun of life in the 1600s and are performed between Noh dramas.
Noh is performed at a number of locations in Tokyo, but most famous is the National Noh Theater (Kokuritsu Nohgakudo), 4-18-1 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku (tel. 03/3423-1331, or 03/3230-3000 for reservations; www.ntj.jac.go.jp; station: Sendagaya, 5 min.). Opened in 1983, it is dedicated to presenting classical Noh and kyogen, with about three to five performances monthly. Tickets range from about ¥2,600 to ¥4,800 but are often sold out in advance. However, about 30 tickets are held back to be sold on the day of the performance. In addition, privately sponsored Noh performances are also held here, for which the admission varies. Check the Japan Times or Daily Yomiuri for performance dates and times, or go to www.theatrenohgaku.org/index_e.php for information on Noh performances being staged throughout Japan.
Bunraku -- Bunraku is traditional Japanese puppet theater, but contrary to what you might expect, the dramas are for adults, with themes centering on love, revenge, sacrifice, and suicide. Popular in Japan since the 17th century, Bunraku is fascinating to watch because the puppeteers, dressed in black, are right on stage with their puppets. They're wonderfully skilled at making the puppets seem like living beings. It usually takes three puppeteers to work one puppet, which is about three-quarters human size. A narrator recites the story and speaks all the parts, accompanied by the shamisen, a traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument.
Although the main Bunraku theater in Japan is in Osaka, the National Theatre of Japan stages about four Bunraku plays a year (in Feb, May, Aug, and Sept). There are usually two to three performances daily, beginning at 11am, with tickets costing ¥1,500 to ¥6,500. Earphones with English-language explanations are available for ¥550, plus a ¥1,000 deposit.
Contemporary Performing Arts
Western Classical Music -- Among the best-known orchestras in Tokyo are the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra (tel. 03/5353-9521; www.tpo.or.jp), the largest orchestra in Japan and with the longest history; Japan Philharmonic Orchestra (tel. 03/5378-5911; www.japanphil.or.jp); Tokyo Symphony Orchestra (tel. 044/520-1511; www.tokyosymphony.com); and NHK Symphony Orchestra (tel. 03/3465-1780; www.nhkso.or.jp). They play in various theaters throughout Tokyo, with the majority of performances in Suntory Hall in Akasaka, Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya, NHK Hall in Shibuya, Tokyo Opera City in Shinjuku, or the Tokyo Geijutsu Gekijo in Ikebukuro. Because the schedule varies, it's best to contact the orchestra directly or check the Japan Times or Daily Yomiuri to find out whether there's a current performance. Tickets generally start at ¥3,000 or ¥4,000.
Takarazuka Kagekidan -- This world-famous, all-female troupe stages elaborate musical revues with dancing, singing, and gorgeous costumes. Performances range from Japanese versions of Broadway hits to original Japanese works based on local legends. The first Takarazuka troupe, formed in 1912 at a resort near Osaka, gained instant notoriety because all its performers were women, in contrast to the all-male Kabuki. When I went to see this troupe perform, I was surprised to find that the audience also consisted almost exclusively of women; indeed, the troupe has an almost cultlike following.
Performances, with story synopses available in English, are generally held in March, April, July, August, November, December, and sometimes in June, at Tokyo Takarazuka Gekijo, 1-1-3 Yurakucho (tel. 03/5251-2001; www.kageki.hankyu.co.jp/english; station: Hibiya, 1 min.). Tickets, available at the box office or through Ticket Pia (with many locations around town), usually range about ¥3,500 to ¥11,000.
Show Nightclubs -- For unique, casual entertainment, nothing beats an evening at an entertainment nightclub, featuring fast-paced dancing in intimate venues. Although the emcee may speak Japanese only, no translation is necessary for the stage productions, which may center on easy-to-understand themes or include humorous antics. One of the oldest show nightclubs is Kingyo, 3-14-17 Roppongi (tel. 03/3478-3000; www.kingyo.co.jp; station: Roppongi, 4 min.), which stages one of the most high-energy, visually charged acts I've ever seen -- nonstop action of ascending and receding stages and stairs, fast-paced choreography, elaborate costumes, and loud music. There are a few female dancers, but most of the dancers are males assuming female parts, just like in Kabuki. In fact, many of the performances center on traditional Japanese themes with traditional dress and kimono, but the shows take place in a technically sophisticated setting. There are also satires: One past performance included a piece on Microsoft vs. Apple; another featured aliens from outer space -- great fun. It's located in the Roppongi nightlife district near the Roppongi Cemetery. (From Roppongi Crossing, walk toward Tokyo Tower on Gaien-Higashi Dori and take the second left; it's on the right.) Cover is ¥3,500 for shows at 7:30 and 10pm, with additional shows Friday and Saturday at 1:15am (closed Sun and Mon; reservations recommended). You are also required to purchase one drink and one food item, and there's a 20% tax and service charge. Or you can opt for admission packages that include a set meal and drinks beginning at ¥6,000.
I also like Show Dining Konparuza, 8-7-5 Ginza (tel. 03/6215-8593; station: Ginza or Shimbashi, 5 min.), also with moving stages and with lively choreography by Makato-san, who also performs. Productions change twice a year, but there's always a traditional number with dancers dressed in kimono, along with performances that act out popular songs or movies. Doors open daily at 6pm, with the first show at 7:30pm. Cover charge is ¥3,000, plus a minimum of one drink and one food purchase. Alternatively, there's an all-you-can-drink set that includes three dishes and the cover charge for ¥5,800.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.