Your Guide to Seeing Kabuki in Tokyo
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This blog started as a way to share my love of the performing arts and travel. Aside from the Flamenco Tour I did in Spain the year before it’s been a while since I’d seen a show during my travels. I wanted to change this in Tokyo. There are several different types of performances to see in Japan, but I wanted to see a Kabuki performance. Here is your guide to seeing Kabuki in Tokyo.
What is Kabuki?
Kabuki is a type of traditional Japanese theatre that uses drama, dancing, and music. Performers often wear elaborate costumes and makeup, including masks. Kabuki started in the 1600s as a form of entertainment in the red light district of Edo (the former name for Tokyo). At this time women performed Kabuki. The shogunate (former military government of Japan) eventually banned female kabuki for being too erotic. After this time only men performed in Kabuki shows. Kabuki became more stylized and went through some changes. Japan banned Kabuki for a short time after World War 2, but it soon came back. Now you can see Kabuki in Tokyo and throughout Japan.
Where to See Kabuki in Tokyo?
Kabuki-za is the main Kabuki Theatre in Tokyo, and it’s the biggest Kabuki theatre in Japan. It features Kabuki shows throughout the week. The Kabuki show tends to change each month. A matinee goes from 11 am to 3:30 pm, and an evening show will go from 4:30 pm to 9 pm. Specific times will vary with each show. Kabuki has three to four acts with a 20 to 30 minute intermissions between each act.
Tickets for a full Kabuki show can be as high as ¥20000 (about $185 US). If you want to see an entire show you can buy Kabuki tickets online. You can buy your ticket in-person at the box office as well. If you want a front-row seat or want to see a specific show, you’ll want to purchase tickets in advance.
If you’re interested in seeing a Kabuki show, but you have a limited time/budget, then you can buy a single act ticket as I did.
How to Get a Single Act Ticket
The single act ticket for the Kabuki-za Theatre is valid for a single act of a Kabuki show. A single act ticket is called hitomaku mi seki in Japanese. A single act ticket is only valid for the act you purchased. If you buy a single act ticket for the first act, you can only use the ticket for the first act. If you want to stay for any acts after the act you saw you can buy a ticket for those acts during the intermission.
The news section of the English part of the website lists the shows at Kabuki-za Theatre. You can only buy single act tickets on the day of the show at the Kabuki-za Theatre.
Where to Buy a Kabuki Single Act Ticket
Outside the Kabuki-za Theatre go to the left of the central box office. Here you’ll see the single act ticket box office and entrance. There might be someone working to show you where to queue. If no one is in line, you can go to the single act ticket entrance and ask about “hitomaku mi seki” tickets. The single act ticket box office opens up 90 minutes before the act starts. You have until 30 minutes before the act begins to buy your ticket. The size of the queue for the single act tickets will vary depending on the show and other factors (like whether it’s a holiday or high tourist season).
I bought a single act ticket for the first act of an 11 am matinee. It was a Wednesday in March. There was only a small queue, and I was able to get a ticket with no issues.
A Kabuki Single Act Ticket Price
If a single act ticket is available, you need to pay for it in cash (yen only). The price of a Kabuki single act ticket ranges from about ¥500 to ¥3000 (about $5 to $25). The cost depends on the show, when it is, what act you’re seeing, and the date of the show. It’s one ticket per act per person. If you are with a group, everyone who wants a ticket will need to be in line to get one. You can buy tickets for more than one act, but they have to be in consecutive order. That means you could buy a ticket for act one and two, but not for act one and three.
Inside The Theatre
Everyone in line for the single act tickets will go inside and up an elevator to the 4th-floor balcony where the single act seats are. It’s important to know that there are a limited number of seats available here (about 90). There is room for about 60 more people standing at the back. Seats for single-act tickets are not assigned. If you want to sit down, you should queue early to be among the first inside. Seeing a matinee during the week (opposed to an evening or weekend show) will give you a better chance of getting a seat. Of course, this isn’t a guarantee. It wasn’t busy when I went, and I got a front-row seat without any problems.
Kabuki is in Japanese, but you can rent a translator device for the show. It costs ¥500 plus ¥1000 for a deposit (you get the deposit back when you return the device after the show). You must have cash on hand for the rental and deposit. The device has a small screen where it will translate the dialogue during the show. It also gives background information about the show itself and Kabuki motifs. If you don’t understand Japanese then renting a translator is worth the money. It will help you to understand the show and Kabuki as well.
The show I saw was Kotobuki Soga no Taimen. It was the story of two brothers (Soga no Juro and Soga no Goro) who set out to avenge their father’s death. It started with a group of feudal lords on stage talking about an upcoming hunt on Mount Fuji. They were talking about how excellent everything was for them. Kudo Suketsune, a counsellor to the current Shogun, was set to lead the hunt. Of course (dun dun dun) he was the one who killed Juro and Goro’s father. Kobayashi Asahina (a servant of Kudo Suketsune) agreed to let the brothers meet Kudo Suketsune. Juro, the oldest was calm and rational, but Goro was ready for revenge. The act ended before any significant confrontation happened.
What is it Like Seeing a Kabuki Show?
The show I saw was a unique experience. Seeing Kabuki in Tokyo isn’t like seeing a western-style play. The actors don’t face each other when speaking dialogue. Instead, they face the audience straight on. The movements the actors make in the show (including how they talk) is slow and deliberate. During the part, I saw there was some music that included drumming and flute playing. However, this isn’t a musical where the actors are singing. The music can vary with every show.
My Thoughts on Kabuki
My favourite part was when the brothers were confronting Kudo Suketsane. They want revenge for their father’s death. Kudo Suketsane tells the brothers they can’t avenge their father’s death. Their father had borrowed a sword from Kudo Suketsane before he died. The brothers would need to return the sword before they could get any revenge. When I first started watching this Kabuki show, I thought this reminds me of Hamlet (the avenge the father’s death type of story). Then that part came along, and I thought no this isn’t the same as Hamlet at all. Kabuki is Japanese and different from any theatre I’ve ever watched.
After the act is over, you can return the translator device and get your deposit back. If you want to stay and watch more of the Kabuki show, you can buy tickets for the next acts after this act is over. During intermission, you can go down to the basement of the theatre. Here you can buy souvenirs, or get a bento box to eat. If you have a ticket for the rest of the show, you can take your bento box and eat it at your seat.
Should You See a Kabuki Show?
I can’t speak much for Kabuki in Tokyo since this was the only time I’ve seen a Kabuki show. I am glad I went and saw a Kabuki show. While I would have loved to see more of this particular show I wanted to go out and explore more of Tokyo, so I only saw this one act. If I’m ever in Tokyo again, I will see a show at the Kabuki-za Theatre again.
Things To Know
Kabuki-za is at Ginza 4-12-15, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Japan in the Ginza district of Tokyo. For public transit, you can get direct access to the theatre by taking the Hibiya Line (Tokyo Metro). You can also go on the Asakusa Line (Toei) to the Higashi Ginza Station and get off at Exit 3. I recommend getting a re-loadable Suica or Passmo card if you are going to be in Tokyo for a few days.
Be sure to check online if there will be a Kabuki-za show for when you are in Tokyo. Single act tickets are only available on the day of the show, and there is no seating chart. You may want to queue at the theatre early for a front seat (this will still be on the balcony).
While in Tokyo I stayed at the Asakusa Hotel Fukudaya. This is a great budget hotel (more like a guest house). I was in a single private Japanese-style room (with tatami mats) and a mini-fridge. There is a shared bathroom, private showers, a male-only onsen, and a female-only onsen. At the time of my stay, 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 and would recommend this hotel if you want a private and affordable room in Tokyo. If you are not on a budget there are plenty of other hotels you can book in Tokyo.
Would you see a Kabuki show in Tokyo?