Theater in Japan: Four Oldest Locations to Visit!

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The inside of a theater in Japan, the Konpira Grand Theater.

When it comes to theater, Japan has been richly blessed and recognized for its contributions. Kabuki, bunraku, noh theater, and other performing arts have been preserved and honed to the present day. Key to their successes are the buildings where the plays and films were performed or screened for the first time. Despite natural disasters, wars, and the passage of time, many original structures have survived until today. Here are four of the oldest theater locations to visit in Japan!

Kyoto Shijō Minamiza

Considered Japan’s oldest theater, Kyoto Shijō Minamiza was instrumental in developing kabuki theater. Dating back to the early 17th century, it was a style of dance drama by an all-female troupe led by former shrine maiden Izumo no Okuni. However, women were banned from performing soon after; while kabuki remains mostly all-male, some troupes have returned to using actresses for onnagata (female roles).

The outside of the Kyoto Shijo Minamiza Theater in Japan.
There’s a kabuki theater in Japan as well! Image via Shutterstock

Kyoto Shijō Minamiza was built in 1929 and designated a Japanese Tangible Cultural Property in 1996. Combining traditional architecture with modern technology is the best place to watch a kabuki performance. This month’s program features “Akoya” (from “The War Chronicles at Dannoura”), starring renowned onnagata actor Bandō Tamasaburō V. The final performance is on June 26th.

Access: One minute from Gion-shijō Station or three minutes from Kyoto Kawaramachi Station by foot. It is also a seven-minute walk from the Shijō Kawaramachi bus stop

Takada Sekai-kan

Cinema lovers, mainly those interested in international and independent films, should visit Takada Sekai-kan in Joetsu, Niigata Prefecture. Operating since 1911, Takada Sekai-kan was initially a playhouse called Takadaza, changing its name five years later. Despite numerous challenges, including financial issues and much-needed restoration, the movie theater has survived and been designated a Tangible Cultural Property. 

The inside of the Takada Sekaikan, an old movie theater in Japan.
You can still see old movies at this place! Image via Guidoor

Takada Sekai-kan screens movies in different genres, including American documentaries, Bollywood epics, and anime feature films. One of the Japanese films playing in June is the documentary Kazueteki, which runs until the 28th. Tickets are discounted after 5 pm on weekdays and all day on Wednesdays. A tour without a movie costs 500 yen ($3 USD), while a tour with a movie costs 300 JPY ($2 USD).

Access: A 10-minute walk from Takada Station

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Tonda Puppet Hall

We turn to another traditional Japanese art form: bunraku. Also founded in the Edo period (1603-1868), it quickly spread from Osaka to other cities, including Nagahama in Shiga Prefecture. The seeds for Tonda Ningyōkan (Tonda Puppet Hall) were sown around 1835 when traveling performers left behind their equipment during a snowstorm. The villagers trained in bunraku and formed the Tonda Ningyō (Tonda Puppet Troupe), still active today.

Pepper masters at the Tonda Puppet Hall.
This puppet hall was built in 1835. Image via Facebook

Built-in 1991, the Tonda Puppet Hall hosts highly acclaimed bunraku performances, workshops, and cultural exchanges with international students. The building also doubles as a museum; due to a fire that destroyed the national theater for bunraku in 1926, the Tonda Puppet Hall now contains some of the oldest bunraku heads in Japan.

Access: Visitors should use a taxi (15 minutes from JR Biwako Line Nagahama Station) or a car

Tokyo Kabukiza

We end with another kabuki theater, this time in Ginza, Tokyo. Also known as Kabukiza Theater, Tokyo Kabukiza was founded in 1889 by journalist and playwright Fukuchi Gen’ichirō, who often collaborated with famed actor Ichikawa Danjūrō IX. The building has been destroyed several times, including by an electrical fire and bombing during World War II, with its final reconstruction in 2013.

The outside of the Tokyo Kabukiza Theater in Japan.
This gorgeous building opened in 1885! Image via Shutterstock

Performances run nearly every day, featuring a variety of Japanese drama and dance numbers. There is a restaurant, a souvenir shop, and an interactive gallery. The June program runs until the 24th and includes an excerpt from “Exemplary Tales of Womanhood at Mr. Imo and Mt. Se,” a style of kabuki called jidai-mono (historical play). Non-Japanese attendants can rent a translation device for 1500 JPY or $10 USD (English only).  

Access: Directly in front of Exit 3 of Higashi Ginza Station or a five-minute walk from Ginza Station via Exit A6

Why should I go to a historic theater in Japan?

Visiting a historic theater introduces tourists to the various forms of Japanese performing arts. With accomplished actors, well-preserved costumes and props, and engaging stories, each performance fosters an appreciation for Japanese theater. It is also a chance to contribute to Japanese cultural initiatives. Whether a film screening or a noh play performance, each visit supports independent and traditional arts. It is essential to recommend these theaters to fellow travelers.

A performance at a theater in Japan which features water magic.
Have you ever been to a theater in Japan? Image via Shutterstock

Finally, these places offer a chance to step back in time. The buildings still have their original styles, and the performances capture centuries-old magic. This electrifying experience will linger with theater-goers long after the curtain drops. Have you visited any of these Japanese theaters? Share your experiences in the comments.

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