Enjoy a Geisha performance on a small budget in Yamanaka Onsen
Experiencing the Geisha culture is another essential part of a trip to Japan, though Geisha performances are not easily available and might be out of budget for many. In Kanazawa, for instance, regular Geisha shows in summer months cost 5000 Yen per person (~ $50 USD), and private performances obviously a lot more. If you are on a budget, don’t worry. I’ve got you covered for much less with an ultimate side trip to Yamanaka Onsen that offers lots of experiences beyond Geisha performance! All you need to do is to break up the two-hour train journey from Kanazawa to Kyoto, assuming you’re traveling on a weekend or public holiday. Only on weekends and public holidays, you can attend a traditional Geisha song and dance performance at the Yamanaka-za theater adjacent to the ladies public bathhouse in Yamanaka Onsen (admission 700 Yen as of May 2018). That’s about $7 US for a 1-hour geisha performance, all clear? So, get ready for a day involving onsen, boiled eggs, nature walk, picnic, geisha, koi fish, and Shinkansen!
First, you need to catch a local train from Kanazawa to Kagaonsen (57 minutes, 760 Yen), a region composed of four onsens (=hot spring spa) towns. Once you arrive in Kagaonsen, lock your luggage (big lockers 600 Yen) at the station before catching the local bus just on time (30 minutes, 420 Yen) to Yamanaka Onsen spa town. Note where you get off the bus and check out the departure times back to Kagaonsen before heading into the town center. Unless staying overnight, you’ll eventually need to return the same way to continue your train journey towards Kyoto (or Osaka). There are several train connections throughout the day with some direct lines. Keep in mind that with its rich history and perfect mountainous setting, Yamanaka Onsen is worth even staying overnight in one of the ryokan style hot spring spa hotels, especially if you need a break from big cities while in Japan. You won’t regret adding this small but authentic town into your itinerary.
Yamanaka Onsen town, well rather village, is pretty small and easily walkable. Finding the public bath and the adjacent theater on the main square is like a breeze. After you’ve secured your tickets for the geisha performance, you may want to boil your own onsen eggs in the hot spring source in front of the men’s public bath (3 eggs 210 Yen), and while waiting 40 minutes for your perfectly cooked eggs, you can either go take a bath in the onsen (440 Yen), wander around the town or just take a footbath under the tree and wait for the clock puppet display (free). Once your eggs are ready, you can wander along the gorgeous gorge footpath and have a picnic. I know, I know, we are primarily here for the geisha show, so let’s get to it.
For the uninitiated, Geishas are the traditional female Japanese entertainers, skilled in different Japanese arts, like playing classical Japanese music, dancing, and poetry. The Yamanaka-za theater is dedicated to the preservation of Yamanaka-bushi, Yamanaka Onsen’s legendary folk song that originated when local women gathered in front of the public bathhouse and created their own versions of sailor chants. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Yamanaka Onsen was a popular relaxation destination for seafarers from merchant ships.
At the Yamanaka Onsen theater, you’ll see and hear some of these traditional pieces, including Shishi-mai, the Japanese lion dance, a particularly lively, acrobatic, and comical performance. Here is the compiled clip of the Geisha performance from my visit to Yamanaka-za (lion dance starts at 5:06): https://youtu.be/35UehxWlkVY
Worship the ancient craftsmanship at the Sanjusangendo Buddhist temple in Kyoto
While Kyoto boasts many other temples that are overrun with tourists, admirers of ancient craftsmanship may want to head to the Sanjusangendo Buddhist temple (Rengeo-in) with 1001 life-sized carved wooden statues of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, all of which are sculptured in amazing detail.
The Sanjusangendo temple was built in 1164 and rebuilt in 1266 after the original structure had been destroyed in a fire in 1249. The temple hall is said to be Japan’s longest wooden structure, measuring 120 meters or 33 intervals, referring to the intervals between support columns, an ancient method for measuring the length of a building. In the center of the hall is a large wooden statue of a 1000-armed Kannon, on each side flanked by 500 life-sized statues of 1000-armed Kannon. The statues feature 11 heads to better witness the suffering of humans, and 1000 arms to better help them fight the suffering.
Again, photography is prohibited inside the temple, but you can take as many as you like from the outside, where you’ll find a lovely Japanese Garden as well.
Learn about different layers of history at Hokkaido Museum and Historical Village
I won’t lie. I’m not particularly a history buff, only every now and then I visit carefully selected museums. So, in order to close the history circle with Russia and Korea, I aimed for the Hokkaido Museum on the outskirts of Sapporo City.
It’s said that the history of Hokkaido is brief, and admittedly it has only been 150 years since Japanese settlement and development first brought a large population to Japan’s second-largest and most undeveloped island. But this land is built upon layers of 1.2 million years of history. In Hokkaido Museum you can walk through the layers of this unique history, very well presented and illustrated, sometimes with hands-on sections (though limited English translations).
One section in the museum, for instance, dedicated to the Ainu, indigenous people of Hokkaido who also used to live in regions such as Sakhalin which is now part of Russia.
Fast forward to the end of the 19th century, influenced by border disputes between Japan and Russia over Sakhalin, the Meiji government (the early government of the Empire of Japan) renamed the island of Ezochi as Hokkaido and declared it Japanese territory. And from then on, Hokkaido became the new home for many immigrants from Honshu and other parts of Japan.
To be able to literally walk in the past, you should not miss out on the nearby Hokkaido Historical Village, an open-air museum showcasing the different architectures of the island and the pioneer’s daily life, complete with a railway station, school, barbershop, grocery, post office, government building, temple, shrine, church and more, in total around 60 typical structures of Meiji and Taisho eras, many of which you are allowed to enter after taking off your shoes.
The site is divided into separate villages (Town, Fishing, Farm, and Mountain). Most structures are original buildings that have been donated and moved to the museum. Not only were the structures impressive, but the insides were also outfitted with normal artifacts found at that time, in some places brought to life with wax figures and audio effects, in others by alive museum workers.
Heading up to the fishing village, I was invited to sit by the open fire pit, enjoy a warm cup of tea, and join in the conversation. And in the newspaper building, I was given a piece of paper and encouraged to print my own postcard.
My initial intention was to skip this fantastic open-air museum (it would have been a huge mistake!), but then while around the corner, I decided to check it out quickly. Quickly? I spent almost 3 hours and that wasn’t enough. The Historic Village of Hokkaido turned out to be one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever visited, if not the best. It simply felt authentic, alive, and kicking. Made in Japan.
Visit an exhibition of Yayoi Kusama
While you don’t necessarily need to be in Japan to come across an exhibit of Yayoi Kusama, the list would not be complete without a mention of one of the greatest artists from Japan.
Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto in 1929. She began drawing at an early age, and her visual art is a product of her obsession with patterns unfolding in her head. Kusama became the most expensive living female artist at New York Christie’s auction when one of her works, White No. 28 (1960), was sold for $7.1 million in 2014.
I was lucky enough to visit her Pumpkin Forever exhibition at the Forever Museum of Contemporary Art Kyoto in May 2018. The Yayoi Kusama Museum opened in October 2017 in Tokyo is the very first permanent museum dedicated to the artwork of the avant-garde artist, holding two long-running exhibitions a year. If you happen to be in Tokyo and have even a fleeting interest in her work, don’t pass up on it.
Watch the centuries-old performing art at the Kabukiza Theater, Tokyo
Last but not least, here is another traditional Japanese performing arts you should not miss out on, Kabuki Theater. Over 400 years old, an art that has been passed on for generations, rich in showmanship, elaborate costumes, extravagant wigs, and stunning Kumadori make-up, is no wonder on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
The origins of Kabuki can be traced back to 1603, around the same time Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Othello were first performed in London when dances and light sketches performed by a female troupe in Kyoto. But then Kabuki evolved into an all-male theatrical performance after females were banned from Kabuki theatre in 1629. Despite its over 400 years of history, Kabuki is surprisingly mainstream, usually plotting a classical drama, which makes the storyline easy to understand for foreigners, though it’s advisable that you learn more about the play on the internet or purchase a program guide on the spot.
It’s actually quite easy to catch a Kabuki performance in Japan, even if you don’t have plenty of time or cash on your hands! One of the best places to experience Kabuki is the Kabukiza Theater in Ginza, Tokyo, in fact, the only theater in Tokyo that specializes in Kabuki. Other than Kabukiza Theatre, there are theaters in Kyoto and Osaka where Kabuki is performed on a semi-regular basis.
At the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo, the program changes every month, hence you can basically see Kabuki year-round. There is an afternoon show, which starts at 11:00 am, as well as an evening show, which starts after 4:00 pm. Performances are usually divided into two or three segments that last up to four hours. Each segment is then divided into acts and, although tickets are normally sold per segment, it’s possible to buy a ticket per act. Tickets are available for online purchase at the Shochiku’s
official website: https://www.kabukiweb.net/
If online tickets are sold out, or you are looking for an economical and time-efficient way to experience Kabuki, you can try to get single act tickets on the spot. The number of single-act tickets available for purchase is limited to about 150 per day, thus you must line up at the ticket counter of Kabukiza Theater on the day of the performance. These tickets would allow you to watch just one act at a reduced price (1000 – 1500 Yen) from the upper gallery (4th floor, no seats). Should you go for this option, make sure to bring opera glasses, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see any of the details of the gorgeous art, costumes, and Kumadori, the unique makeup of Kabuki.
While in Tokyo, I was able to secure one of the lower-priced seats on the third floor for a Saturday evening show (for the entire segment, 3-acts, 4000 Yen) just two days in advance. Unfortunately, the stage was quite far away from my seat, so either opera glasses or more expensive seats are essential if you want to truly enjoy the performance.
On that evening, Benten the Thief, a 3-act play was on stage, a perfect display of Kabuki’s generations-old distinctive beauty incorporating rhythmic speeches accompanied by beautiful music, and even including a spectacular acrobatic fight scene. Photography/videography at the Kabukiza theater was strictly prohibited during my visit. Unaware of this rule, I took some pictures and videos, but as soon as the theater attendant noticed me, she made me delete all my shots. Later at home though, I was able to rescue some of the deleted files, as I believe there must be a tiny bring-home-souvenir included in that price tag to remember the colorful stage, lively atmosphere, and the roof of the temple that rotates to reveal another beautiful set below.
If you happen to be in a city with a Kabuki theater, make sure to immerse yourself in this unique experience and remember to pay attention to the special make-up of the actors, how men impressively play female roles, the exquisite costumes, the beautiful music, and the dance. Big shout out to all the talented actors and artists!