Experience

Experience: Gion Corner (Kyoto)

While I was in Kyoto last month, I attended a show at the Gion Corner. I must admit, staged performances like this are not always the kind of activity I look for as a tourist. Maybe it came from a few years of leading large group package tours to places around Asia (and suffering through all the “staged” culture and bus-friendly restaurants that came with that) but despite three previous trips to Kyoto, a night at Gion Corner had never made the to-do list.

However, I realized two truths. One, those of you who ask me for Kyoto itineraries might want to know the quality of a show here and I can’t very well give my opinion if I’ve never attended a performance myself. And two, despite numerous trips to Kyoto, I hadn’t actually seen a geisha perform, or a snippet of bunraku puppetry and I truthfully had no idea that the art of kyogen even existed!

A bunraku performance at Gion Corner

A bunraku performance at Gion Corner

So with that in mind, I headed to the theater at Gion Corner in the southern part of Kyoto’s famed Gion District for an hour-long overview of Japan’s various traditional arts. And – truth be told – I rather enjoyed myself! Here are my thoughts:

Pluses:

  • Unless you’re in town during one of the annual geisha performances, this might be your only chance to see a geisha (or in this case a maiko, or apprentice geisha) in action. It’s not polite to stalk these poor women on the street, but here you can take photographs freely and come away with a slight understanding of her talents in the arts.
  • You’ll get to see samples of traditional arts you might never have heard of. I myself had no knowledge of the comedic art of kyogen before this performance and I had never seen bunraku (Japanese puppet theater) performed live. Both performances were intriguing, but not long enough to bore me to tears.
  • The theater is small and rarely crowded (even on a Saturday night near sakura season, half of the seats were empty) and the English language signage is excellent
View of a maiko

View of a maiko

Minuses:

  • In the beginning of the show, there’s a lot going on. A tea ceremony takes place offstage while two women play the koto (a type of stringed instrument) while two other women arrange flowers. It made it hard to focus on any one thing without feeling like I’d miss something.
  • Surprisingly, two of Japan’s major art forms – noh and kabuki – were not represented.
  • If you’re looking for “authenticity”, you’ll probably be disappointed. That’s not to say that what these talented performers are doing isn’t authentic, but it’s not a performance you feel you’ve just stumbled across. There are some lovely opportunities in Kyoto to attend a tea ceremony where you actually feel a part of the process or learn to do ikebana on your own rather than just watching someone do it on stage. And an evening at a true bunraku or Noh/Kyogen event, with a Japanese audience, might be a wholly different experience.

So there you have it. Would I recommend Gion Corner in the future? It all depends on whose asking, really. For myself, I’m glad to have seen it once. For a glimpse into Japanese performing arts, it’s not a bad deal. 🙂

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