Kyoto is famous for its traditional geisha dance shows. Performances of kabuki and nō plays are more sporadic but worth attending if you happen to be in town when they are on.
Geisha (or geiko, as they are known locally) and maiko (trainee geisha) from each of the city’s former pleasure quarters (see Kōdai-ji) have been putting on Odori (dance performances) during spring and autumn since the late nineteenth century, though the music and choreography are much older. By turns demure and coquettish, they glide round the stage in the most gorgeous kimono, straight out of an Edo-period woodblock print of Japan’s seductive “floating world”. If you’re in Kyoto during these seasonal dances, it’s well worth going along. Performances take place several times a day, so it’s usually possible to get hold of tickets; you can buy them from the theatre box offices and major hotels. At all of the Odori, you can also buy tickets that combine the show with a tea ceremony conducted by geisha and maiko, which is well worth the extra cost (¥3800–6000, depending on the district). Make sure you get there early enough to enjoy your bowl of macha (powdered green tea).
The annual dance performances in the geisha districts kick off with the Miyako Odori (April 1–30) performed by the geisha and maiko of Gion. This is the most prestigious and well known of the Odori, mainly because it is the oldest, having started in 1872. The dances are based on a seasonal theme and have lavish sets and costumes. Live musicians playing shamisen, flutes and drums, as well as singers, perform in alcoves at each side of the stage. Miyako Odori is held at Gion Kōbu Kaburenjō (wwww.miyako-odori.jp).
Also at this time is Kyo Odori, held in the Miyagawa-chō district, south of Gion. This is a smaller, more intimate production than Miyako Odori, though equally as opulent. The ladies of Pontochō stage their Kamo-gawa Odori once a year (May 1–24) in Pontochō Kaburenjō, at the north end of Pontochō-dōri – Jean Cocteau and Charlie Chaplin were both fans.
Autumn brings a whole flurry of activity, though the dances are more like recitals, and not as extravagant as the spring dances. The Onshukai dances are held during the first week in October at the Gion Kaikan theatre, near Yasaka-jinja closely followed by Kotobukikai (around Oct 8–12) in northwest Kyoto’s Kitano Kami-shichiken Kaburenjō and Mizuekai (mid-Oct) at the Miyagawa-chō Kaburenjō. Finally, the Gion Odori, performed by the maiko and geisha of the smaller Gion Higashi district, wraps things up in early November (Nov 1–10, at the Gion Kaikan theatre near Yasaka-jinja.
If your visit doesn’t coincide with any of these, you can see maiko dancing, as well as a sampler of other traditional performance arts, from March to November at Gion Corner, held at Gion Kōbu Kaburenjō. As well as dances by maiko, there are short extracts from court dances, a puppet play (bunraku), kyōgen theatre, and demonstrations of the tea ceremony and flower arranging (ikebana). English-language guided commentary is available to rent at the entrance. Alternatively, the Gion Hatanaka Ryokan holds Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko Evening events which non-guests are welcome to attend. This is a great chance to see maiko performing at close range and take photos.
Kabuki and nō
Colourful and dramatic, kabuki theatre is said to have originated in Kyoto. Unfortunately, performances these days are fairly sporadic, but in December there’s a major kabuki-fest at Gion’s eye-catching Minami-za theatre . During this kaomise, or “face-showing” (Dec 1–25), big-name actors give snippets from their most successful roles.