Kanamaruza: the historic Kabuki theater of Kotohira

I recently blogged about Kabuki, one of Japan’s more modern performing arts.  Kabuki is highly entertaining wherever it is performed, but it is often said that there is nothing like seeing a Kabuki play performed in an historical theater in order to truly get the feel of the art.

The trouble is, there aren’t that many historical theaters left.

Kanamaruza, the oldest surviving Kabuki theater in Japan, was built in 1835. It sits on a hillside in the Kagawa town of Kotohira, not far from the entrance to the omote-sando approach to the famed Konpira Shrine.

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In the late 20th century the theater was restored to is original condition and still hosts Kabuki performances each Spring, usually in April. The intimacy and authentic Edo Period feel of the theater–apparently no electric lighting is used during performances–make it particularly appealing for serious Kabuki fans.

Even when there is no Kabuki performance, the theater is open to visitors interested in Kabuki and historic architecture.

IMG_4570Just to enter the building is to step back in time. The ticket-taker sits in the same booth as the ticket-taker would have sat in back in 1835.

Footwear must be removed and on either side of the entrance hall is a shoe-check room, its numbered tags still hanging from hooks on the walls. One can imagine the room with geta or zori sandals hanging on these strings waiting to be retrieved by their owners at the end of the show. Probably not a good idea to be in a hurry to get out of the building, as this could have been a slow process.

The theater space is magical.  Like all Kabuki theaters, there is a hanamichi runway bisecting the seating on the left-hand side of the theater. Unlike modern theaters, the seating is on tatami mats, divided into boxes, each intended to hold four people. The only other place I’ve seen this type of seating these days is the box seats for sumo.

Traditional paper lanterns hang from the ceiling and side walls of the theater to provide lighting.

There are also box seats in the balconies at the back and along the sides of the theater. The latter were particularly private, with side walls and doors that could be closed to the hallway at the rear, similar to boxes in Western performing arts theaters.

Visitors can also step behind the stage, which, of course, has a revolving center for quick scene changes. Surprisingly, the back stage area is somewhat cramped. Apparently, sets are often removed from the theater entirely and stored in the back when not in use. Back stage on the second floor are the actors’ dressing rooms, a couple of private ones for the principal actors and communal areas for other.  None are completely private, as the walls don’t extend all the way to the ceiling. If nothing else, such an arrangement would discourage temperamental actors from complaining loudly about each other.

The theater has a basement, which includes the mechanism for manually turning the revolving stage, as well as stairs below the various platforms on the stage and hanamichi through which the actors occasionally rise or descend during performances. It is rustic space, with a compacted dirt floor and wooden platforms for walkways. The circle for turning the revolving stage is obvious by the footholds embedded in the dirt floor that enable the stagehands’ feet to find purchase. Surely turning the stage is heavy work!

Although entry is not permitted at night, the exterior of the theater is lit with changing colored lights that also lend an air of the magic of Kabuki.

It’s truly wonderful that such an historical theater has been preserved both as a museum and occasionally as a working theater.  I hope someday I can actually watch Kabuki performed here.

  • Hours: daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (closed when there are performances)
  • Admission:  JPY500 (adults), JPY300 (jr/sr high students), JPY200 (primary students)

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