Noh Theatre in Yokohama

Do you remember the final match of the Rugby World Cup 2019? The game that South Africa won took place in Yokohama, the capital of Kanagawa Prefecture and the earliest memorable place that a rugby match took place in Japan’s history.

Yokohama is close to Tokyo, and will be a venue of the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 for football and baseball. Watching the matches in the stadiums of Yokohama will offer a good opportunity to view other tourist attractions and touch Japanese traditional cultures nearby such as Noh, a traditional masked dance-drama.

Noh Theatre in Yokohama
Noh Theatre in Yokohama. Photo by Fumiya Otsubo

Yokohama Noh Theater

Noh is a form of classical Japanese dance-drama that has been performed since the 14th century. It’s the oldest major theatre art that is still regularly performed today, and it’s a strong symbol of traditional Japanese culture.

Yokohama, Japan is a harbor city with fine theater where Noh is performed. A visit to Yokohama offers the opportunity to watch this unique form of Japanese “opera”.

Noh-in-Japan
Traditional Noh in Japan. Photo by Fumiya Otsubo

Noh in Japan

Some say that Noh is a form of Japanese “musical” or “opera.” Male main actors called shite wearing masks play a role, dance and chant with chorus and melocic accompaniment of drums and the flute.

While we don’t know the exact year Noh began, the primitive form called Sangaku came from China in the Nara period (710-784). The acrobatic street performance had evolved down through the ages and was completed in the Muromachi period (1336-1573).

Noh kept evolving while being protected in various dominions. The Yokohama Noh Theater was originally constructed in 1875 in the mansion of a feudal lord. At that time, local lords had to build private mansions in central Edo (Tokyo) where the general shogun (tycoon) lived. The lord of Kaga (now Ishikawa Prefecture) also needed to build his private compound. In its corner of the estate, the stage of the present theater was constructed in 1875.

The theater relocated once and finally dismantled in 1965. However, building components were placed in storage and it was reconstructed in 1997 in Yokohama. The stage has now revived indoors as part of the Yokohama Noh Theater.

Noh Theatre in Yokohama
Noh Theatre in Yokohama. Photo by Fumiya Otsubo

“Even local Japanese people cannot precisely understand what the performers chant”

You may worry whether you can understand what performers and chorus members chant in the play. They explain the story with Japanese chant, but it is not necessary to worry about the language barrier.

This is because Noh protects its original form that was completed about hundreds of years ago and even ordinary Japanese people cannot precisely understand what they chant because they speak in older terms.

If you read or know the story in advance like other Japanese spectators, you can partly follow the story and feel the emotions of the performers. In addition, now the Yokohama Noh Theater has an audio guide for international travelers. This helps you understand the performance.

Noh Theatre

It is said that spectators should feel Noh as a whole, but don’t need to try and understand it. To feel more while watching the Noh play, try to soak in all its details, such as the design of the stage and the role of performers on the stage. Before visiting the theatre for Japanese “opera” in Yokohama, read up and research a little to deepen your impression.

Roof-Above-the-Stage
Roof Above the Stage. Photo by Fumiya Otsubo

Roof Above the Stage

Although the building is indoors, you can see the roof above the main stage. Only wrestling rings of sumo and stages for Noh play still have a roof because they were performed outside at one time.  Spectators once enjoyed sitting on the grass in front of the stage, where 439 seats are now set up surrounding the main stage.

Pillars

Pillars are also characteristic of Japanese Noh. Although the four corner pillars on the main stage may sometimes obstruct your view, they are very important for the main performer because he wears masks and lacks part of this sight. Pillars offer clues to the performer where he is at on stage.

Bridge

The adjacent bridge of the main stage is like a runway for the performers to appear. You can see pine trees along the way. The height of each tree is different to emphasize a sense of perspective.

Mirror Board

The mirror board called kagami-ita, where a pine and white plum tree with a ground bamboo at its base have been painted, acts as the stage background. The tree painted on the mirror board is usually a solitary pine tree, but the board of the Yokohama Noh Theatre is very rare. It is believed that plum is the family crest of Sugawara Michizane, who was the ancestor of the builder of the stage.

Noh-Performers
Noh Performers. Photo by Fumiya Otsubo

Noh Performers

There are many performers on stage. The main masked performer is shite. Musicians sitting in front of the mirror board are hayashikata. Chorus members sitting in the right side of the main stage are jiutai, who chant to explain emotions of the main performer and make the story more dramatic.

The secondary actor called waki, who is sitting by the pillar on the right side of the stage, is the actor to support the main performer.

If You Visit Yokohama

The Yokohama Noh Theatre is located near JR Sakuragi-cho Station. The theatre is in the central district of Yokohama. It’s just a 15-minute walk from the station to the theatre. Yokohama itself is a  30 to 40-minute train ride from Tokyo Station.

Author Bio: Masayoshi Sakamoto(坂本正敬)is a Japanese writer and translator based in Toyama, Japan. He writes news and columns for a number of publications and web magazines. He’s also in preparation for contributing to a new local magazine, HokuRoku as the editor-in-chief.

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