Art & Leisure: overview

Get the inside scoop on Kyoto

Art & Leisure: overview

Let’s get straight to the geisha, or geiko as they are known in Kyoto, and maiko, their more colourful apprentices. These enigmatic women are as high on most must-see lists as the temples, pagodas and shrines. Tourists linger on Hanamikoji Dori each evening in the hope of glimpsing one of the entertainers scuttling to an appointment. The cobbled streets of Gion are beautiful, but throw in a maiko and you’ve got Kyoto’s top photo opportunity.

Not everyone is happy about that. Maiko-hunting has become such a popular pursuit in Kyoto that the local tourist bureau issued a plea in 2009 for visitors to respect the ladies’ privacy. They are, after all, on their way to work, dressed in a uniform worth many millions of yen.

It can also be hard to distinguish the master performance artists from tourists: maiko makeovers are becoming so popular that the kimono-clad lady with a snow-white face may well be a day tripper wearing fancy dress.

There are several ways to make sure that you’re seeing the real deal. The traditional way is to visit an ochaya, a teahouse where the ladies sing, dance, play games and pour drinks. But, unless you are fabulously well connected, you can forget this option: it’s invitation only and frighteningly expensive. However, you can hire a maiko as a dinner companion; most top restaurants have connections to the teahouses, and if you’re staying at a high-end hotel or ryokan, your concierge will be able to organise this. Expect to pay around ¥40,000 to spend two hours with a maiko.

Since 2009, the Gion Hatanaka ryokan has been hosting a ‘Kyoto cusine and maiko evening’. A geisha and a pair of maiko treat up to 40 guests to a less intimate approximation of an ochaya evening, beginning with traditional dances and culminating in geisha games (think parlour amusements along the lines of ‘rock, paper, scissors’).

For most, it’s the dancing rather than games that will impress, and each of the five geisha troupes stages seasonal performances, open to all, at their kaburenjo (arts theatres), with the option of a tea ceremony beforehand (see Calendar p29). They take bookings directly, or you can turn up on the day for the cheapest seats at the Miyako Odori.

Propping up the table of maiko options is Gion Corner. Although aficionados consider this the equivalent of listening to jazz in Disneyland, it offers a reasonably authentic trot through seven of the city’s great arts, including tea ceremony, ikebana, kyogen comic theatre and a performance by maiko from the adjacent kaburenjo.

Traditional theatre

The most prolific performance art in Kyoto is the least fathomable. Noh performances take place several times each week, mainly in the Kongo or Kanze theatres, and tickets are affordable and easy to procure. To say Noh moves slowly would be a vast understatement. You could fall asleep in the dramatic pauses. The performances are highly stylised, and according to Kongo School soke (head) Hisanori Kongo, few Japanese people really comprehend what’s going on. But, he says, there are various forms of beauty on stage, and each viewer should focus on the aspects that interest them. You should ‘feel’ Noh rather than try to understand the genre, says Kongo.

Noh is Japan’s oldest performance art, predating kabuki by centuries. Its roots lie in sarugaku (literally ‘monkey music’), a more upbeat, now-defunct art form originating in nearby Nara. A 14th-century father and son team took the serious side of sarugaku and turned it into a high art. The light-hearted leftovers became kyogen, now performed as comic interludes at Noh shows.

With powerful supporters such as shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga and Japan’s unifier Hideyoshi Toyotomi, Noh flourished until the end of the 16th century, and around 2,000 plays were written. It was then declared formally perfect, schools were forbidden to create new plays, a hereditary system of performers was instituted, and Noh became frozen in time. Even now, troupes perform from a repertoire of around 250 plays, written more than half a millennium ago. New plays appear once every several years, but they are usually based on one of the ancient stories.

Two of the five major Noh schools have theatres in Kyoto. The Kongo theatre is the newest, and the only one to offer English language pamphlets that explain the storylines. If you happen to be in the city on 1st or 2nd June, the venue at which to see an outdoor, torchlit Noh performance is Heian Jingu (tickets cost ¥3,000 at the gate, and ¥2,500 in advance from ticket offices).

A less esoteric theatrical option is kabuki, with a narrative style and pace that will be more familiar to Western minds. The art form was born in Kyoto, with the earliest performances reportedly taking place on the banks of the Kamogawa river. Each December, Gion’s Minamiza stages the country’s pre-eminent kabuki event, the season-opening kaomise (literally ‘face showing’) run. The rest of the year, however, kabuki jostles for space on the bill with other, more modern, forms of theatre. Catch it if you can.

Karaoke crazy

When you need a break from the highbrow, there’s karaoke. Hire a private room, pick a song and flex your vocal chords with only your friends to mock you. The place to head is Super Jankara, which offers premium rooms with chandeliers, disco balls and better drinks. Telephones on the wall are for ordering drinks or food.

Sporting chances

Kyoto has yet to embrace the pleasures of modern ball games. The city has a football team, Kyoto Sanga FC, in the top-tier J-League, but visiting crowds often outnumber home fans at the Nishi-Kyogoku Stadium. There’s more enthusiasm for baseball, and the Hanshin Tigers, in particular, even though Kyoto has to share the team with Osaka and Kobe. Their Hanshin Koshien Stadium is an hour away by train in Nishinomiya, situated between Osaka and Kobe.

Bathing and beauty

To enjoy an authentic hot spring, you will need to take a day trip to one of the nearby resorts. Ohara, Kibune and Kurama all lie within easy reach of Kyoto and offer mineral-rich bathing in the photogenic countryside. In the city, there are several sento (bathhouses with artificially heated water), and Funaoka Onsen stands out as the best. Its rich mix of nostalgic architecture and a variety of baths has made it the city’s most popular place to soak, as well as a genuine tourist attraction. If you make the trek to the countryside, you’ll be rewarded with great scenic vistas. If you decide to visit Funaoka, you’ll have to make do with views of ceramic tiles and body art.

Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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