Your Guide to Seeing Kabuki Show in Tokyo

I started Take Me to the World as a way to share my love of the performing arts and travel. Aside from the Flamenco Tour I took in Spain last year though it’s been awhile since I’d seen a show during my travels. I wanted to change that in Tokyo. There are several different types of performances you can see in Japan, but I really wanted to see a Kabuki show. Here is some information about Kabuki in Tokyo.

How to see a Kabuki Show in Tokyo

What is Kabuki?

Kabuki is a type of traditional Japanese theater where performers often wear elaborate costumes and makeup. It combines drama, dancing, and music, and started in the 1600’s as a form of entertainment in the redlight district of Edo (the former name for Tokyo). At this time women were the performers, but the shogunate (the former military government of Japan) banned female kabuki for being too erotic. After this time men played both female and male roles in Kabuki shows. Kabuki became more stylized over the years, and went through some changes. While it was banned for a short time in Japan after World War 2 it soon came back and has become a popular form of entertainment.

Shrine outside Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

Shrine outside Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

Where to See Kabuki in Tokyo?

Kabukiza is the main Kabuki Theatre in Tokyo, and it’s the biggest Kabuki theatre in Japan. Kabukiza features Kabuki shows throughout the week, and will often have a matinee (starting around 11am) and an evening performance starting around 6pm (although specific times will vary with each show). A Kabuki show can have several acts and last up to four hours (with several intermissions). Tickets for a full show can be as much as ¥20000 (about $237 CAD or $185 USD). If you decide you want to see a full Kabuki show you can go online to the Kabukiza website to buy tickets (available here in English) or you can purchase your ticket in-person at the box office. If you want a front row seat or have your heart set on seeing a specific show you’ll probably want to buy tickets in advance.

The main entrance of the Kabukiza Theatre in the Ginza district of Tokyo, Japan.

The main entrance of the Kabukiza Theatre. It’s located in the Ginza district.

If you’re interested in seeing a Kabuki show, but you have a limited time/budget then you can purchase a single act tickets, which are valid for the first act a show. This is what I did.

How to Get a Single Act Ticket

The single act ticket for the Kabukiza theatre is valid for the first act of a Kabuki show. If you look under the news section of the English part of the Kabukiza website they will list the upcoming shows selling single act tickets. Even though you may be able to see the upcoming shows that will have single act tickets, you can only be purchase single act tickets the day of the show.

Where to Go for Single Act Tickets

When you get to the theatre go outside to the left of the theatre, this is where the single act ticket entrance is. There might be someone working to show you where to queue, but if you don’t see anyone in line you can go to the single act ticket entrance and ask if tickets are available for the next show. The size of the queue for the single act tickets will vary depending on the show and other factors (like whether or not it’s a holiday, or high tourist season). Tickets may be available anywhere from 2 hours to 30 minutes before a show starts. I decided to try to get a single act ticket for an 11am matinee. It was during the middle of the week (a Wednesday) on a random day in March, so there was only a small lineup and I was able to get a ticket easily.

If a single act ticket is available you will need to pay for it with cash (Yen only). Each ticket is ¥1000 which is about $11 CAD or $9 US. It’s one ticket per person so if you are with a group of people everyone who wants a ticket will need to be in line to get one.

The basement of Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan

The basement of the Kabukiza Theatre. This is where you can buy souvenirs or if you are staying for the full show (which can be about four hours long) you can order dinner or lunch during the intermission.

Inside The Theatre

Everyone in line for the single act tickets will be led inside and taken up an elevator to the 4th floor balcony. This is where the single act seats are, and it’s important to know that there are a limited number of seats available (about 90) on the 4th floor balcony. The rest of the “seats” are actually standing only seats at the back. Seats for single act tickets are not assigned. If you want to sit down during the show you may want to queue up early to be first inside to get a seat. It wasn’t busy at the theatre when I went so I was easily able to get a front row seat.

Inside the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

You can’t take photos during the show, but I snapped this before the curtain went up. This is inside the Kabukiza Theatre with the view from the 4th floor balcony where the single act ticket holders sit.

Understanding Kabuki

Kabuki is performed entirely in Japanese, but you can rent a translator device for the show. It is ¥500 and you pay ¥1000 for a deposit (you get the deposit back when you return the device after the show). The device has a small screen where it will translate not only the dialogue during the show, but it will also give you some background information about the show itself and Kabuki motifs. If you don’t understand Japanese and you want any context about what you’re seeing then renting a translator is well worth the money.

Poster for a Kabuki show inside the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

Poster for a Kabuki show inside the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

The Show

The show I saw was called Kotobuki Soga no Taimen. It is the story of two brothers (Soga no Juro and Soga no Goro) who set out to avenge their father’s death. It starts with a group of feudal lords on stage talking about an upcoming hunt on Mount Fuji and how everything is going so wonderfully for everyone. Kudo Suketsune, a powerful councilor to the current Shogun, is set to lead the hunting expedition and of course (dun dun dun) he’s the one who killed Juro and Goro’s father. Kobayashi Asahina is a servant (maybe that’s not right) of Kudo Suketsune and agrees to let the brothers meet to Suketsune. Juro, the oldest is calm and rational, but Goro is ready for revenge. Being the first act of the play the intermission takes place before anything too exciting can happen (a.k.a there was no confrontation scene).

Kabuki posters outside Shrine outside Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

Kabuki posters outside Shrine outside Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

What is a Kabuki Show Like?

The show I saw was very interesting. A Kabuki show isn’t like seeing a western-style play. I found it interesting that the actors don’t face each other when speaking dialogue, but instead face the audience completely straight on. In western plays the performers will turn so they face each other, while still trying to have their bodies open to the audience (it would really suck to see a play where the performers have their backs to the audience during the entire show). The movements the actors make in the show (including the way they speak) is slow and deliberate. There is music in Kabuki shows, and during the first act of the show I saw there was some music during points of the show, but this isn’t a musical where the actors are singing. It was mostly drumming and flute playing, although I’m sure this will vary with every show.

My favourite part of this particular Kabuki play came at one point when the brothers were confronting Suketsane about avenging their father’s death, and Suketsane tells the brothers they can’t avenge their father’s death yet because their father had borrowed a sword and they need to bring it back before they can do anything else. When I first started watching this Kabuki show I thought this is kind of reminds me of Hamlet (you know avenge the father’s death type of story). Then that came along and I thought no this isn’t the same as Hamlet at all. This is Kabuki, and it’s Japanese and different from anything I’ve ever seen.

Final Thoughts

I can’t speak much for Kabuki since this first and only time I’ve seen a Kabuki show, but I’m very glad I went. When you buy a single act ticket you have the option of purchasing tickets for the other acts of the show if you want to see the rest. I decided a single act was enough of a taste of Kabuki for me at the time – there was a lot more of Tokyo I wanted to see. If I’m back in Tokyo again I’d definitely see another Kabuki show at Kabukiza again.

Things You Should Know

Kabukiza is located at Ginza 4-12-15, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Japan. It’s in the Ginza district of Tokyo. For public transit you can get direct access to the theatre by taking the Hibiya Line (Tokyo Metro) or Asakusa Line (Toei) to the Higashi Ginza Station and getting off at Exit 3. Be sure to check online if there will be a Kabukiza show for when you are in Tokyo. As single act shows are sold the day of, and there is no seating chart, you may want to queue at the theatre early for a front seat (that’s still on the second balcony).
While in Tokyo I stayed at the Business Hotel Fukadaya in the Asakusa nieghbourhood. This is a great budget hotel (that’s more like a guest house). I had a single private Japanese style room (with tatami mats) with a mini fridge. There is a shared bathroom and a share onsen (a male onsen and a female onsen) for guests. I paid about $26US/night for my room. The hotel is in a quiet local neighbourhood, but is within a short walk of the Minami Senju Station. I paid for my own stay here, and would recommend this hotel if you want a private room that is affordable.

Have you seen a Kabuki show in Japan?

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