April in Kyoto is the month of the Miyako Odori, the Dance of the Capital. Several of the Geisha districts in Kyoto put on dance shows throughout the year but the Miyako Odori is performed by Maiko and Geisha of the Gion Kobu and is the longest-running and most famous. It began in 1872 to bring prosperity back to the city of Kyoto after the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1868 and is also referred to as the cherry blossom or spring dances.
The dance style features very precise movement and small nuances of expression. The routine is tightly choreographed and is performed very slowly which means any tiny flaw will be obvious, the performers are expected to perform it perfectly every time and I understand there is intense competition for the lead roles.
There are 7 or 8 distinct acts with changes of scenery, dress and props and for the finale, all of the performers return to the stage. Photography isn’t allowed during the performance so I don’t have my own photos of the event but it’s definitely something I’ll never forget, I’d wanted to get along to this performance for so many years.
The Miyako Odori Tea Ceremony
We started our show with the Geiko tea service which I would thoroughly recommend and the whole performance is something I would do again if I was in Kyoto at the right time of year.
The tea service is in the Ryurei style with guests seated on stools, not tatami mats. For an activity aimed at foreigners, although also well patronised by Japanese women, we thought it represented excellent value and were fortunate to be seated in the front centre row.
You are part of a relatively small group and watch the Geiko meticulously make matcha while the Maiko waits to serve the drink. You were able to take photos throughout the preparation but space was very limited, a large camera would have been impractical and inconsiderate to other attendees. Obviously not all the drinks were prepared individually by the Geiko so serving staff dressed in kimono assisted and served the majority while the Maiko served a lucky guest.
While I would still like to attend a traditional tea ceremony in a tatami matted room this experience did allow you to observe several unique aspects of the Geisha ceremony.
The Geiko who normally wear a wig wears her own hair in the unique Kyoto Shimada style for the event which highlights her white powder makeup in the shape with three points at the nape of her neck. As is usual for the Geiko her kimono has no adornment on the sleeves or shoulder but the Kuromontsuki kimono reveals a portion of her white collar is inside out to show a part of the red under-kimono signifying her graduation from apprentice Maiko to an established Geiko.
While Geisha is an all-inclusive term meaning roughly a person of the arts, in Kyoto the more specific term of Maiko is used for the apprentice and Geiko (Arts Child) for the qualified.
Location and Ticket details for the Miyako Odori
The show is held in the Gion Kobu Kaburen-jo Theatre. There are two different types of tickets on sale, first-class are Y4,200 and are assigned seating, while second class are Y2,500 and are unallocated bench seats on the third floor. The seating we were given was in the front third of the theatre on the ground floor. It was an excellent position to see both the main stage area and the long wings extending up both sides which were used extensively during the performance.
Sessions are held each day of April at 12.30 pm, 2 pm, 3.30 pm and 4.50 pm. There are maybe 50-60 performers on stage during each session and from what I understand of this dwindling profession this must be a good proportion if not the majority of the Gion Maiko-san and Geiko-san. It must be quite an exhausting schedule for the women with sakura already an extremely busy time of year and they continue their normal evening engagements in addition to the show.
The tea ceremony is an additional Y600 and includes a cup of delicious matcha and a spring-themed wagashi (sweet filled with red bean paste). If you have the time and it’s in your budget I’d recommend this as part of the overall experience.
There are several other Geisha dance performances in Kyoto from other Hanamachi districts but this is the most famous. I’d like to see the Kitano Odori by the performers from Kamishichiken after seeing two of their Maiko perform in a Setsubun performance a few years ago, they are very talented but the season only runs for a short time in late April. Pontocho holds their River Dances in May and the Gion Odori is in November.
Outside of this short season, one of your few other chances to see a performance as a foreigner throughout the year may be at Gion Corner. This is marketed directly to foreign tourists and we’ve not been but there are two nightly performances that include a short demonstration of Maiko dancing, flower arranging, Japanese music, the tea ceremony, comedy theatre and puppetry.
Have you seen the Miyako Odori or any of the Geisha performances in Kyoto? Do you have a favourite cultural performance from your country or on your travels that you’d recommend to others?
Photo credit: Feature photo of geiko and maiko on stage is courtesy of Nullumayulife on Flickr and reproduced under creative commons licence V2.0