A Lesson in Noh (Kyoto, Part 1)

On Sunday morning (March 9) we went from our Hotel in Kyoto to 河村能楽堂 (Kawamura Nōgakudō), a 能 (Nō, often written as Noh) theater. Nō has a long tradition since its initial development about 600 years ago, and with its frequent use of music and dance it can be seen as traditional Japanese musical.

Actor in mask and blue/gold robe wielding a naginta on a Nō stage
The Ghost of Tomomori

Nō was originally performed on outdoor stages with minimal equipment outside of costumes. However, in the Meiji period people wanted to enjoy Nō regardless of weather. To preserve the style, outdoors-style stages — including roofs — were build indoors to create Nō theaters. A drawing at the back of the stage traditionally shows a 松 (“matsu”, pine tree). This comes from the belief that kami (Shinto deities) particularly like pine trees, and displaying one may be seen as an invitation to the kami to enjoy the play along with the human audience. This tradition may be connected to the fact that Nō plays were often performed as part of the entertainment around religious festivals.

Ms. Kawamura, the director, explained that Nō is one of the oldest ongoing theater traditions in the world. Sure, ancient Greek theater is much older than 600 years, but it hasn’t been continually practiced and performed. During its history, the topics of Nō plays were influenced by current events, for example fires that killed many people are related to certain ghost stories.

The play we saw as part of the lesson was also a ghost story, albeit one located on the sea. The ghost of Tomomori, who drowned in Daimotsu Bay, attacks Yoshitsune, a samurai on a passing ship, to make him suffer the same fate.

Woman on a stage holding a pale yellow kimono with flower pattern
Ms. Kawamura presents a Nō kimono

However, we did not only see a play and hear about history, but also tried some things ourselves: We practiced both a Nō style song and the special kind of step Nō actors use on stage. Concerning the latter, the most difficult thing for me wasn’t the step in itself, but rather keeping my eyes straight ahead instead of looking where I’m going. When wearing a Nō mask as part of a costume, looking anywhere else is impossible, though. Some of us could also try on the robes which, together with masks and other props, are part of the costumes. They come with an impressive price tag: 2 to 3 million Yen (20 to 30 thousand Euro) for one. Or, as Ms. Kawamura put it, “a very expensive cosplay.” :mrgreen:

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