Kabuki is one of Japan’s most well-known performance arts, whose history traces all the way back to the Edo Period. While the imagery of kabuki has become iconic both in Japan and around the world, not many people have the opportunity to actually see a kabuki performance in person. For somebody who has never seen a kabuki performance, entering a kabuki theater might be a little intimidating.
Put yourself in front of the stage though, and you will be enveloped in an excitement that takes your breath away, as performers in extravagant outfits put their all into stunning performances.
Kabuki performances can be as long as an entire day, or as short as 30 minutes, creating plenty of space for kabuki beginners dip their feet into. Here, we will introduce you to Kabukiza Theater, Japan’s center of kabuki performances!
What is Kabuki?
The word “kabuki” comes from “kabuku”, the old Japanese verb for “tilt”. Taking its meaning of “odd and eccentric”, the word “kabuki-mono” emerged around the Edo period to describe people who dressed and acted in an unconventional manner.
It is in 1603 that the beginnings of Kabuki is said to have emerged. A female performer in Kyoto by the name of Izumo-no-Okuni, took on the outfit of a bizarre “kabuki-mono” and entertained townspeople with her dances.
Many other women of the arts come to mimic Okuni’s style, causing this “kabuki” to slowly spread from Kyoto to Edo. Thus “onna-kabuki” (women’s kabuki) flourished across Japan, until it was banned by the Edo government in 1629 as a threat to public morals.
From then on, men took on the role of kabuki actors. They shaved their bangs into a hairstyle called a “yaro-atama”, and brought the male-casted “yaro-kabuki” into style. Male actors referred to as “onna-gata” began to act the roles of women too, creating the basis of what is now known as kabuki. The stories and content of kabuki remain almost unchanged since this era.
History of Kabuki
The front entrance of Kabukiza today
The First Kabukiza Theater
Fukuchi Genichiro, a journalist and Theatrical Reform Movement activist, was the central figure in building the Kabukiza Theater in 1889. The first Kabukiza had a western-style façade. With famous kabuki actors like Ichikawa Danjuro IX, Onoe Kikugoro V and Ichikawa Sadanji I (the trio known as Dan-Kiku-Sa), kabuki was familiarized and modernized for the public to enjoy during this era.
The Second Kabukiza Theater
In 1911, Kabukiza underwent an extravagant reform process. From its originally western exterior, it transformed into a purely Japanese build. Unfortunately, the building was damaged 10 years later due to a short circuit.
The Third Kabukiza Theater
Although the reconstruction of the third Kabukiza had already started, it was halted after the Great Kanto Earthquake left Tokyo in ruins. After resuming construction, the third Kabukiza was completed the following year. The kabuki industry was booming at the time, with big names like Ichikawa Uzaemon XV, Onoe Kikugoro VI and Nakamura Kichiemon I performing regularly at the Kabukiza.
The Fourth Kabukiza Theater
Unfortunately the Golden Age of kabuki did not last long, as Kabukiza burned down in the Tokyo Air Raid during World War II. The theater was rebuilt after the war in 1951, but failed to receive the same recognition as it had previously gotten. With speedy westernization and modernization as a result of World War II, the Japanese had embraced a new sense of materialistic and artistic value. Traditional arts were no longer Japan’s cup of tea, but the kabuki Industry did not give up. With new acts such as name successions and overseas performances, kabuki and Kabukiza overcame struggles and thrived once again.
The Fifth (and current) Kabukiza Theater
The current Kabukiza is the Fifth, built in 2013. Although the exterior looks quite traditional, the interior is now safer with a sturdier quakeproof build, and more user accessible with barrier-free upgrades. With a tower built behind Kabukiza, named the Kabukiza Tower, the Fifth edition of the theater is no doubt the most innovative one yet
Performance Information at Kabukiza Theater
Kabukiza on a busy day
The performances at Kabukiza Theater come in two categories: "standard performances" and "single-act performances".
Standard Kabukiza Performances
Kabuki performances are held most days of the month at Kabukiza. Full-length shows are divided into day and evening sessions. Each session lasts approximately 3 to 4 hours, and is divided into a few acts with intermissions in between.
The performances have different stories and performing cast every month, and you can check for more information online.
Tickets per session range from ¥3,000 to ¥20,000, and you can choose to view just the day or evening session, or opt for the entire day’s performance.
(You must buy tickets for both day and night sessions to view the entire day’s show).
Single-act / Hitomakumi - 一幕見
For those short on time and wish for a quick kabuki performance, the single-act (Hitomakumi) show is excellent. This short Kabuki showing is not available at other Kabuki theaters across the nation and only here at Kabukiza. At these single-act shows, you can catch just one act of show, which typically lasts between 30 minutes to an hour and a half.
The tickets for these short shows are only available on the day of at the ticket box at Kabukiza, and are sold about an hour before the show’s starting time. For shows with popular actors, lines for the tickets tend to form earlier than usual and tickets sell out faster as well.
Tickets are cheaper than the full shows, approximately ranging between ¥1000 and ¥3000. All seating is first-come first-serve, with 90 seats available and a standing viewing zone for 60 people.
To Enjoy Kabukiza Theater even More
Restaurants in Kabukiza Theater
There are several restaurants and food vendors in Kabukiza. You can dine at these restaurants during the intermissions, which are typically 25 to 30 minutes long.
The restaurants serve Japanese food, such as sushi and plate meals. It is recommended to make a reservation for these restaurants in advance, as it can get hectic to find a table on the day of. Reservations can be made online or by phone (all guidance in Japanese).
Restaurants can be found on the first, second and third floors.
Reservation via website: Restaurant "Hanakago"(in Japanese only)
Reservation via Phone: 03-3545-6820
Another option is buying a lunch box and bringing it back to your seat to enjoy. During intermission, food and drinks are allowed at your seat. Bento boxes are available at the designated bento vendor on the second basement floor.
At the souvenir shops in Kabukiza, you can buy kabuki-related items to bring back home. Not only do they sell Kabuki goods, but traditional Japanese foods and snacks are available as well. Souvenir shops can be found on the first, third, fifth floors and the second basement floor.
The Kabukiza Tower standing behind Kabukiza
The Kabukiza Gallery is located on the fifth floor in the Kabukiza Tower, the office building behind Kabukiza. In this gallery, real kabuki props and costumes are exhibited and available to touch and pose with. Sets of kabuki performances are reenacted precisely, and you can follow your favorite performer’s steps and poses here. An English guidance pamphlet is provided, explaining the gallery and the exhibitions.
The Kabukiza Gallery is open from 10:00AM to 5:30PM (last entry at 5:00PM) every day.
¥600 per person
The G-Mark Guide is a special captioning service provided by Kabukiza. The language used in kabuki performances is an old, traditional form of Japanese, and is difficult for even native Japanese speakers to understand, which is why this captioning device comes in handy.
The captions are available in Japanese and English, and are displayed on a screen similar to one on a plane seat.
Fees vary according to the length of the show.
・Single-act: ¥500 (+¥1000 refundable deposit fee)
available at the Earphone Guide / Caption Guide Counter on the Fourth Floor.
・Full show: ¥1000 (+ ID as insurance)
available at the Caption Guide Counter on the First Floor.
For more information → check here
Buying Tickets for a Kabuki Show
Tickets for kabuki performances can be purchased online by phone call or at a ticket office (for single-act shows).
You can order tickets online from the following website, phone number, or ticket offices:
・Web: Ticket Web Shochiku
・Single-Act Box Office: To the left of Kabukiza Theater’s main entrance. Ticket sales for single-act shows usually start 1-2 hours prior to the show starting.
・ Shochiku Kabukiza Box Office: Located on the second basement floor of Kabukiza Theater.
Access to Kabukiza Theater
・Higashi Ginza Station (Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line H09, Toei Asakusa Line A11)
・Ginza Station (Tokyo Metro Ginza Line G09/Marunouchi Line M1/Hibiya Line H08)
From Shinjuku Station
【Shinjuku Sta.】Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line / for Ikebukuro
→【Ginza Sta.】 about a 5-minute walk from Exit A7
From Tokyo Station
【Tokyo Sta.】Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line / for Ikebukuro
→【Ginza Sta.】about a 5-minute walk from Exit A7
From Narita Airport
【Narita Airport Sta.】Skyliner / for Keisei Ueno
→【Keisei Ueno Sta.】 about a 5-minute walk to Ueno Station
→【Ueno Sta.】Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line / for Nakameguro
→【Higashi Ginza Sta.】Exit 3 directly connects to Kabukiza
From Haneda Airport
【Haneda Airport Sta.】Keihin Airport Express Limited Express (KAITOKU) / for Narita Airport
→【Sengakuji Sta.】Toei Asakusa Line / for Keisei Sakura
→【Higashi Ginza Sta.】Exit 3 directly connects to Kabukiza
Into the World of Kabuki with Kabukiza Theater
Kabuki performances are a key aspect of Japanese tradition. It has represented Japan worldwide and holds its place in the central town, Ginza. For those who are short on time, visiting the galleries is an option, and for those who have the time, watching a kabuki performance is strongly recommended. You will be opened up to a world never seen before.