|Very close to Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s prime sightseeing destinations, is Ueno Onshi Park, popularly known as simply “Ueno Park”. Boasting nearly 150 years of history, it is also the site of the Tokyo National Museum, which will host a special exhibition titled “Experience it! Traditional Japanese Performing Arts: The World of Kabuki, Bunraku, Noh, Kyogen, Gagaku and Kumiodori dance” starting March 2020. All of these arts have been registered by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritages. The exhibit will feature the vibrant costumes, props, musical instruments, and other accompaniments used in each of these performing arts styles, but it will also offer rare opportunities to play the musical instruments used in kabuki theater, wear noh masks, and otherwise enjoy them firsthand. Read on to find out more! Top photo: The “Okuniwa Kitsunebi” act from the Honcho Niju Shiko bunraku play (Kanjuro Kiritake )|
Take a tour through thousands of years of Japanese culture at the Tokyo National Museum
Just a few minutes by train from Tokyo Station is Ueno Onshi Park, popularly known simply as “Ueno Park”. Renowned for its cherry blossoms in April, the park covers 530,000 square meters and is home to many of Japan’s premier historical and art museums.
The area is brimming with cultural facilities. See Monet’s Water Lilies, Rodin’s The Gates of Hell, and a Jackson Pollock piece at the National Museum of Western Art, visit the National Museum of Nature and Science to see science and technology exhibits from around the world, or check out the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, which hosts opera performances, classical music concerts, and more.
But of the many important cultural venues in the park, the Tokyo National Museum is considered particularly special.
The Tokyo National Museum opened its doors in 1872, making it the oldest museum in Japan. It boasts a collection of some 119,000 cultural artifacts from Japan and other Asian countries. Eighty-nine of these priceless pieces have been deemed National Treasures.
The regular exhibition features pottery from the Jomon period, Japanese painting, literary works, and ukiyo-e prints, gold lacquer and other traditional crafts, and examples of Eastern fine art. Here you can trace the culture of various parts of the East, particularly Japan.
The Japanese garden at the museum is also open to the public for limited periods of time, allowing visitors from all over the world to enjoy the natural beauty of each of Japan’s four distinct seasons–including cherry blossoms in spring and brilliantly colored leaves in fall. This is truly Japan’s signature museum, and a place where you can experience the essence of Japanese culture.
See a recreated kabuki stage and more at the “Experience it! Traditional Japanese Performing Arts” exhibit
Between March and May of 2020, the Tokyo National Museum will be hosting special exhibition of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage titled “Experience it! Traditional Japanese Performing Arts: The World of Kabuki, Bunraku, Noh, Kyogen, Gagaku and Kumiodori dance”.
The exhibit is designed to showcase the traditional performing arts of Japan that have been registered as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritages, and features the vibrant costumes, props, musical instruments, and other accompaniments used in each of these performing arts styles.
There are also rare opportunities for visitors to dive into these traditions firsthand. You can play the musical instruments used in kabuki theater, try on noh masks, or operate the puppets used in bunraku puppet theater performances.
The exhibit will also include recreated stages for the most famous plays in each of the Japanese performing arts, including that of the kabuki play Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura and the bunraku play Honcho Niju Shiko.
Climbing onto these stages allows you to experience the exquisite beauty of each of Japan’s traditional performing arts styles down to the smallest detail. There will also be interactive exhibits and demonstrations, such as one that uses digital enhancements to make up visitors faces to look like kabuki performers. This is a space that will delight even those who have never encountered traditional Japanese performing arts before.
We spoke with Akihiro Oki of the Japan Arts Council, which is responsible for planning the exhibit.
Oki: While much of Western culture involves continual innovation to create entirely new things, the Japanese tend to refine existing parts of their culture to come up with new cultural output. Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura, for example, was originally a traditional Japanese puppet show (bunraku) performance. Similarly, the kabuki play Kanjincho was adapted from the noh play Ataka.
By showcasing all five of these traditional performing arts styles at once, visitors will gain a better understanding of how their styles were refined as well as the primary influences on each.
Rei Tagawa, also from the Japan Arts Council, urged visitors to pay attention to the diversity with each of the traditional performing arts.
Tagawa: People outside of Japan tend to have a rather fixed view of our culture, focusing on things like kabuki or samurai. But our traditional performing arts were shaped by a variety of influences over the course of their long histories, and encompass the aesthetic of numerous genres, eras, and regions. I hope that visitors to the exhibit take the time to appreciate the diversity within Japanese culture.
What wonders of Japan do the country’s traditional performing arts reveal?
So what are the key characteristics of these traditional performing arts?
Kabuki, which is widely known all over the world, has a history going back more than four hundred years—and noh and kyogen (collectively known as nogaku) theater go back another two hundred years beyond that. Established in the fourteenth century, these performances feature slow movements and elegant dancing, representing ghosts still bound to this world.
Members of the warrior class would serve as patrons for nogaku, which is why the stages tend to be simple and why the distinctive low, deep voices of the performers tend to be rich with the psychological profundity and distinctive aesthetic favored by the samurai. Director Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998), known for his signature Japanese films like The Seven Samurai and Rashomon, was heavily influenced by nogaku.
Meanwhile, traditional Japanese puppet shows (bunraku) earned great popularity among the merchant class some three hundred years ago.
The performances depict the passions of the people of the Edo period (1603–1867), featuring seamless interaction between huge puppets operated by three people each, music performed on the shamisen, and the words of a storyteller called a tayu.
For a time, the people were so enthralled with the puppet shows that they surpassed kabuki in popularity. Tales of forbidden love from playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (author of The Love Suicides at Amijima and The Love Suicides at Sonezaki and often heralded as “the Japanese Shakespeare”) were particularly popular, and to this day still have the power to move people to tears.
Oki: Different kinds of puppet theaters exist all over the world, but bunraku is unique in that it features puppets that require three people to operate each one. This of course takes a high degree of skill, which visitors can see for themselves when they witness the sophisticated techniques involved in moving the puppets across the recreated stage in the exhibit.
The exhibition also includes gagaku court music and dance (which came to Japan from China and the Korean peninsula more than a thousand years ago before evolving into distinctive styles), as well as kumiodori singing and dancing from Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost region.
While you’re at the Tokyo National Museum, you can experience aesthetic of Japan’s traditional performing arts alongside ukiyo-e woodblock prints, Buddhist statues, and other artworks on display in the regular exhibition. The experience will allow you to peel back the many layers of Japanese culture to reveal the diversity that has arisen over centuries of development.
Tokyo National Museum | Japan Travel | JNTO
Tokyo National Museum
Address: 13-9 Ueno Koen, Taito-ku, Tokyo
UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Special Exhibition The World of Traditional Performing Arts Kabuki, Bunraku, Noh and Kyogen, Gagaku, Kumi-odori
Exhibition period:Postponed after March 17, 2020 (Tuesday)
Venue: Tokyo National Museum Hyokeikan
Hours: 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM
• Requires entry fee to the regular exhibition or a ticket to another special exhibition being held at the Tokyo National Museum (limited to the day of your visit)
• A separate entrance fee is required to see the special exhibitions “Passing on Cultural Heritage: Buddhist Murals and Sculptures of Horyuji” (March 13 through May 10) and “Kimono: Fashioning Identities” (April 14 through June 7)
• The museum is open until 9 PM on Fridays and Saturdays
• Last entry is 30 minutes before closing time
• The museum is typically closed on Mondays, but is open on March 30 and on May 4 (which is a public holiday)