Recently, some graduates of the Mugenjuku Kenshusei Course went out on the town. Takenaga Naomi (class of ’14), Nick Richardson (class of ’13), and I (class of ’14) went to Heian Shrine to see traditional Japanese drama called Noh lit by bonfires.
Heian Shrine is one of the major shrines in Kyoto. It is a -jingu shrine, which means it is connected with Japan’s Imperial family. It was built when Emperor Meiji moved to Tokyo, and it commemorates the 1000 years during which Kyoto was the capital of Japan. The design of Heian-jingu is based on the ancient imperial government buildings that no longer exist in Kyoto; in fact, it is a scale model of them. So we can see what the imperial city looked like in medieval times.
Starting in 1950, Heian-jingu started holding firelight Noh events on June 1 & 2 every year.
Noh is a traditional style of Japanese drama. The actors wear oppulent traditional clothing and carved wooden masks, and they sing and dance, accompanied by the music of flute and drums. It is performed on a special small square stage with a long walkway. Noh is not for everyone. The actors move very slowly and there is almost no action and no sets on the stage.
Usually, Noh is performed indoors, but outdoor Noh performed by firelight is very popular in the summer. It is called Takigi-Noh, or bonfire Noh. At Heian-jingu, a Noh stage is built in the courtyard, and the audience sits in the open air. The performance starts in the daylight. When the sun goes down, fires are lit around the stage and the shrine’s buidlings are lit up with flood lights.
This year was the 65th annual Kyoto Takigi-Noh. Here is the poster for the event:
Nick and I arrived a lit early because there was a big line outside the shrine’s front gate.
It was hot but we had folding fans, and I had a hat. Nick put a washcloth on top of his head.
We got pretty good seats not too far away from the stage.
We saw 4 Noh plays. The first two were very interesting to watch, although we couldn’t understand what was going on. The Noh actors move in a special way, and Naomi says it is good study for aikido.
The third play was actually something different from Noh, called kyogen. It is a type of traditional Japanese slapstick comedy.
The fourth play called Shakkyo (or “stone bridge”) is famous for having a lion dance. It has a typical plot for a Noh drama.
A monk is on pilgrimage in China, visiting Buddhist holy places. Traveling in the mountains, he comes to a dangerous stone bridge over a deep gorge. Before he can cross, a boy appears and tells the monk that on the other side of the bridge is the Buddhist Pure Land of the bodhisattva Monju. No one can cross the bridge without performing years of ascetic practices. The boy tells the monk that if he waits Monju will bless him with a special vision. The monk sits down and the boy disappears. Lions come from the other side of the bridge and frolic among the peony flowers on the mountainside. The lions disappear and the monk moves on.
Shakkyo was a lot of fun. The music for the lion dance is still echoing in my head. I took a video of the lions leaving the stage, which is posted on YouTube. There is also news footage of the whole event from Japanese news; the video is only 2 minutes long. You can see the lion dance starting at 1:15…
The shrine at night has a very mystical atmosphere. It feels very ancient and elemental, like sitting around a campfire in the mountains.
Nick, Naomi, and I wore Japanese clothes. We enjoyed wearing yukatas very much, and Naomi looked very nice in high quality clothes and tasteful makeup.
After Noh, we were very hungry, so we went for French fries!
If you come to Kyoto for kenshusei training, please see the Noh drama.