Fall brings about many changes in Japan: The changing of leaves, cozy clothing, and some pretty great cultural activities. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to have a unique cultural experience: Traditional Noh and Kyogen performances as they were hundreds of years ago on an outside stage.
How I Got to See Noh
I was in the Tokyo Expat Network (TEN) Facebook group when I saw a post from Alice Gordenker saying that she was giving away free Noh tickets at Mount Oyama as part of an outreach program with the Agency for Cultural Affairs. I submitted my interest form and I actually got selected! What a treat!
Who is Alice Gordenker, you may ask? Well, I didn’t really know either, but it turns out she is a journalist and consultant to Japanese museums to help stir up foreign engagement. I met her at the venue between her usual greeting of the many people there and she was very friendly and seemed to have a keen interest in sharing Japanese culture and making events like this as accessible as possible for foreigners living in Japan. Neat!
Noh and Kyogen: What’s the Difference?
You may have noticed that in my sources, there have been mentions of Kyogen as well as Noh. So, what’s the deal? Are they the same or different?
Well, Kyogen is performed in conjunction with Noh performances and acts as a more light-hearted fare to balance out the seriousness of Noh. Kyogen is more comical and focused on dialogue, whereas Noh is more dramatic and focuses more on music and musicality. Together, they achieve a balanced viewing experience.
For my personal experience, there was an app that we could download that would give us live captioning for the performances while we watched. This made enjoying it all significantly more enhanced, as without the subtitles, I don’t think I would have been able to understand even some of the simplest words in the unique sing-song way of performing both Kyogen and Noh have.
There is so much to discuss with Noh and Kyogen, and I wish to keep myself out of a rabbit hole for now, so I’ll keep it brief and describe the two performances of the night I remember most: Fumiyamadachi (The Poetic Bandits) and Kurama Tengu (Goblin of Kurama).
Fumi Yama Dachi: The Poetic Bandits
Fumiyamadachi (文山立) is about two bandits who get into an argument about robbing a traveler before turning on each other. They decide to duel to the death to settle their dispute, but not before writing a letter to memorialize the struggle that happened on that spot. While composing, they realize just how sad their families will be to hear of their deaths, and reluctantly (and tearfully) decide to call off the duel and leave the route as friends. Sometimes Japanese comedy doesn’t click with foreigners, but I can say that this one was genuinely funny and had me laughing at several parts. I would highly, highly recommend seeing this as part of your introduction to Kyogen; it’s a good one!
Kurama Tengu: The Goblin of Kurama
Kurama Tengu (蔵馬 天狗) is about a mountain monk who, essentially, gets shunned at a cherry blossom viewing by snooty nobles… except one young boy, who the mountain monk takes under his wing. Turns out the monk is the mythical being, Kurama Tengu, and takes him around Japan to show him the most fabled cherry blossom-viewing spots and to reveal the secrets of war to him. This had much more pageantry and a small ensemble to provide the music. It really is quite something to see it in person: The flames of the festival burning at the base of the stage, the background sounds of the mountain life adding ambiance, and the sound of the echoes in the air from the performers are truly something unique. Seeing it inside would be a treat, but if any opportunity arises to see Noh and Kyogen outside, jump on that opportunity as soon as you can!
If you’re into culture, like shorter shows that run back-to-back for the run time of a blockbuster movie, then you can’t go wrong with Noh and Kyogen! Oyama is really trying to reach more foreign audiences, so keep your eyes open and see if they have tickets if you’re in the area.