Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku – Japan’s traditional theatre

Here at Heartland Japan, we love including authentic, traditional Japanese performances into the itineraries of all the exciting, off-the-beaten-track package and custom tours we create. For many of our customers, this means experiencing something brand new that they may not even have ever heard about before visiting Japan. 

To help shed some light on the wonderful Japanese performing arts that we’re so fond of, and to give you more information about what to expect when you witness them for yourself, today we’re exploring ‘Kabuki’, ‘Noh’ and ‘Bunraku’ – three fantastic examples of historical Japanese theatre that we’re sure you’ll want to experience for yourself!


Kabuki-za in Ginza is the most famous theater in Tokyo for Kabuki shows (Photo: ©photoAC)

Kabuki is a traditional performance art dating back to Edo Period Japan. Considered one of Japan’s three main forms of theatre (along with Noh and Bunraku), Kabuki performances are easily recognizable for their elaborate costumes, overly-exaggerated movements, dynamic sets and ingenious use of props.

While Kabuki is usually performed using an old-fashioned form of the Japanese language that even natives may find hard to follow, even those with no Japanese skills whatsoever can enjoy the highly-visual performances. Some theaters can provide guests with English narration via headsets, while the plots usually follow famous, well known Japanese stories – this means that you can do a little bit of research at home before the show!

Kabuki shows are usually performed in ‘segments’ throughout the day, and each segment is further split into ‘acts’. Tickets can be purchased for individual acts (the most cost-effective option) or for complete segments, depending on how much time you wish to spend at the theatre and what your budget may be. 


The iconic Noh mask (Photo: ©photoAC)

Developed in the 14th century during the Muromachi Period, Noh is a popular form of dance-drama. Stories are performed to music with slow, deliberate movements by male performers dressed in costume. 

Noh is always performed on a square stage with a pine tree painted in the background, and performers enter the stage via a set up bridge. While the drama was originally performed outside, it can now be enjoyed inside as well. 

A very convenient feature of Noh performances are the masks worn by the ‘Shite’ – drama’s main character. The masks show over-exaggerated expressions, helping even those with no Japanese skill to understand the mood and feelings of the story. 

Today, Noh is usually performed in two or three acts, and can last for a few hours – an ideal way to fill up a free afternoon!


Puppets used for the Bunraku shows (Photo: ©photoAC)

Bunraku is a special form of Japanese puppet theatre that originated in Osaka during the Edo Period. The puppets are roughly half as tall as an average person, and each one is operated by three people – the main puppeteer and two assistants. These puppeteers control every element of the puppet’s appearance by hand – with no strings involved – which gives the puppet’s actions, expressions and movements a truly life-like air. 

Bunraku shows have just one narrator who is responsible for not only telling the story, but also for producing all of the puppet’s voices. The narration is also accompanied by music performed upon a Japanese Shamisen – a traditional, lute-like instrument – to create a truly captivating experience. 

Similar to Noh and Kabuki, Bunraku is performed in segments and acts throughout the day, meaning that there are many different ticket options for you to choose from to fit both your itinerary and budget. 

For those who truly wish to experience Japan’s unique traditions and cultures for themselves, watching an authentic performance of Japanese theatre such as Bunraku, Noh or Kabuki is a fantastic opportunity. 

No matter where your interests may lie, the team at Heartland Japan are always excited to use their knowledge and connections to create the perfect, once-in-a-lifetime tour just for you. Simply get in touch to find out more. 

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