Have you ever heard about Nihonbuyo (日本舞踊) – Japanese traditional dance?
Maybe you’ve seen some of them in movies featuring iconic traditional Japanese culture and history?
(Nihon means Japan, Buyo means dance)
In the traditional Japanese performing arts, buyo assumes a very important role, because its movements are considered the foundation of every traditional performance art. It`s meditative movement and mellow tune attracts not only traditional art enthusiasts, but also captures the imagination of people from all around the world.
Welcome to an introduction of the root of the Japanese traditional art world!
<What is buyo, and what does it look like?>
Here’s what you’ll see on the stage.
Dancers wear kimono, a traditional costume with long sleeves made by silk, and props typically including a fan, umbrella, small drum, sword etc. which symbolizes the story of the dance.
These dancers are called Tachikata (立方) directly translated “standing person” as only dancers can stand on the stage.
Note, buyo doesn’t simply mean dance.
Buyo (舞踊) consists of two words, 舞/mai and 踊/odori.
Mai is slow, quiet linear movement considered expression of inner world of tunes and dancers.
Odori is lively, energetic, improvisational dance.
<The appearance of the dancers>
One thing you can probably picture about traditional dance is dancers’ appearance.
You might have a mental image of the typical geisha and wonder “Why do they have to wear such white make up? Is there a reason?”
This is Japan, of course there is a reason!
In the olden days before electricity or gas lamps, they had to perform with only candles to illuminate the dark stage, which might at time make it difficult to see even their own feet. Hence the snow-white stage foundations and bright red lips, designed to shine beautifully in the reflection of fire.
Also, you may have noticed their unique hair style.
These styles are works of art in their own right, and come in endless varieties, depending on which tune and role are being performed, but are all collectively referred to as Nihongami (日本髪) – simply Japanese hair.
As you can easily guess, setting the hairstyle is neither simple or easy.
Less than a hundred years ago, there were lots of hair stylists who specialized in this, but as people gradually moved on from wearing kimonos, they untied their hair as well.
Unfortunately, only very few hair stylists can set up a professional nihongami nowadays, so usually wigs are employed for the stage.
<Instruments and music>
The different types of dance and tunes have multiple combinations of the number of musicians, and you’ll almost always hear the sound of shamisen, koto and singers, making each piece unique in scale and rhythm, sometimes almost with a hypnotic feel to it, which can send your mind swimming into outer space.
Shamisen (三味線) – means three-strings instrument.
The squarely shaped body is made from animals’ skin such as cats, dogs and snakes.
The wooden neck has various types of differing length and thickness.
It is played with a bachi-plectrum – a hand-sized pick shaped like an hourglass.
Koto（ 琴）: while musicians play shamisen by holding it like a guitar, koto is placed on the floor of the stage.
Similar to shamisen, kotos come in many types and sizes, and varies depending on the number of strings. The most standard koto has seven strings.
It played with tsume, nail-chip sized fingerpicks for thumb, index finger and middle finger.
Singer/jikata(地方) – means people who sit down on the stage.
Musician and singers are called jikata, and, as the name implies, are usually sitting down the stage during the performance.
Shamisen players often double as jikatas while they’re playing shamisen, especially in Kamigatamai performance, a type of dance schools in the western part of Japan.
<Buyo, old to new>
The origins of Nihonbuyo has, like many traditional dances around the world, an inseparable connection with God and religion.
According to one theory, Japanese traditional dance was invented as a dedication to the local shrine gods.
Some of these, including gagaku (雅楽) – dedicatory imperial dance, or kagura (神楽) – sacred dedicative dance for a shrine, claim to be keeping a tradition and spirit alive since ancient times, and are collectively referred to as koten-buyo（古典舞踊) – directly translated as classic dance. These usually have very slow, precise, and linear movements, and are/were typically frequented by the higher classes of society.
The other main category of Nihonbuyo, called shin-buyo（新舞踊）- new dance, is younger, drawing much inspiration from western music and choreography. These are folksier, – faster and livelier with a sharp rhythm.
Nowadays there are more than 200 schools, and each one has its own style of dance, visuals, costume and choreography.
<Kamigatamai, dance of the ancient capital >
Especially in Kamigata –located in the west, which used to be the ancient capital, the above-mentioned koten-buyo is still common. Named after the area, the origin of this particular style is relevant to Kabuki, – highly stylized historical dramas which, as the grandmasters of these schools says, are about 300 years old.
<What sets Kamigatamai apart>
You might think that “Is there any differences between the ones which has been descended the essence of aristocrats and newly born ones? How can I see that? ”
You can see it on the stage clearly.
One of the difference between kamigatamai and others is the stage itself.
It is called “dance on just a sheet of tatami-straw mats with folding screen” because the dance was sophisticated to perform in a small tatami-room of restaurants or meeting place for an entertainment.
(A size of tatami-mat is 910mm×1820mm )
(Folding screen is used to adjust the light and to let audiences focus onto dancers)
You can still watch these performances at big fancy theaters, as some schools have opened their mysterious doors to modern ways of performing, but many of them still keep the tradition of tatami-mats and small rooms with cozy atmosphere.
Are you interested in experiencing the Nihonbuyo during your stay?
If so, you must carefully plan your trip, and book ahead!
Below is the latest performance information.
<Gion-odori show in Kyoto >
If you are going to Kyoto, a city of tradition and culture, the performance seasons are in spring and autumn. Here you have a chance to see actual Geishas (courtesans, though nowadays best described as living museums with little to no relation with the sex industry) and maikos (geisha in training) at work, a privilege which is usually reserved for the wealthy.
[Gion-Odori]: Geisha and maiko dance performance in Kyoto
Date/Time: 1st ~10th of November
Fee: 4,500 yen (includes a cup of tea)
Where to buy ticket:
The entrance of Gion-kaikan. Sales start from 11:00~
<Workshops in the historical area of Tokyo>
If your plan is to stay in Tokyo, it is actually possible to have a trial dance lesson the oldest part Tokyo – wear a kimono, play around with a fan, and most importantly; enjoy the dance!
Date/Time: Every Sunday from 10 April 2016 to 26 March 2017
(Excluding 15 May, 31 July, 18 September, 11 December 2016,
1 and 8 January, 12 and 26 February and 12 March 2017).
11:30～, 13:30～, 15:30～
Place: Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center 6F
Where to book: 1st floor of Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center
Hope you have a beautiful experience!