Your Guide to Seeing Kabuki in Tokyo

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Take Me to the World started a way to share my love of the performing arts and travel. Aside from the Flamenco Tour in Spain last year it’s been awhile since I’d seen a show during my travels. I wanted to change that in Tokyo. There are several different types of performances to see in Japan. I wanted to see a Kabuki performance. Here is your guide to seeing Kabuki in Tokyo.

What is Kabuki?

Kabuki is a type of traditional Japanese theatre that uses drama, dancing, and music. Performers often wear elaborate costumes and makeup, including masks. Kabuki started in the 1600’s as a form of entertainment in the red light district of Edo (the former name for Tokyo). At this time women performed Kabuki. The shogunate (the previous military government of Japan) eventually banned female kabuki for being too erotic. After this time only men performed in Kabuki shows. Kabuki became more stylized and went through some changes. Japan banned Kabuki for a short time after World War 2, but it soon came back. Now you can see Kabuki in Tokyo and throughout Japan.

Shrine outside Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

Shrine outside Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

Where to See Kabuki in Tokyo?

Kabukiza is the main Kabuki Theatre in Tokyo, and it’s the biggest Kabuki theatre in Japan. Kabukiza features Kabuki shows throughout the week. The Kabuki show tends to change each month. A matinee goes from 11 am to 3:30 pm. Evening shows go from 4:30 pm to 9 pm. Specific times will vary with each show. Kabuki has three to four acts with a 20 to 30-minute intermissions between each act.

Tickets for a full Kabuki show can be as high as ¥20000 (about $185 US). If you want to see an entire show at Kabukiza, you can buy Kabuki tickets online. You can buy your ticket in-person at the box office as well. If you want a front row seat or want to see a specific show, you’ll want to purchase tickets in advance.

Kabuki-za Main Entrance in Tokyo, Japan.

The main entrance of the Kabukiza Theatre. It’s located in the Ginza district of Tokyo.

If you’re interested in seeing a Kabuki show, but you have a limited time/budget, then you can buy a single act ticket as I did.

How to Get a Single Act Ticket

The single act ticket for the Kabukiza theatre is valid for a single act of a Kabuki show. A single act ticket is called hitomaku mi seki in Japanese. A single act ticket is only valid for the act you purchased. If you buy a single act ticket for the first act, you can just use the ticket for the first act.  If you want to stay for any acts after the one you saw you can buy a ticket for those acts during the intermission.

The news section of the English part of the Kabukiza website lists the shows at Kabukiza Theatre. You can only buy single act tickets the day of the show at the Kabukiza theatre.

Where to Buy a Kabuki Single Act Ticket

Outside the Kabukiza theatre go to the left of the central box office. Here you’ll see the single act ticket box office and entrance. There might be someone working to show you where to queue. If no one is in line, you can go to the single act ticket entrance and ask about “hitomaku mi seki” tickets. The single act ticket box office opens up 90 minutes before the act starts. You have until 30 minutes before the act begins to buy your ticket. The size of the queue for the single act tickets will vary depending on the show and other factors (like whether it’s a holiday or high tourist season).

I bought a single act ticket for the first act of an 11am matinee. It was a Wednesday in March. There was only a small queue, and I was able to get a ticket with no problems.

A Kabuki Single Act Ticket Price

If a single act ticket is available, you need to pay for it in cash (Yen only). The price of a Kabuki single act ticket ranges from about ¥500 to ¥3000 (about $5 to $25). The cost depends on the show, when it is, what act you’re seeing, and the date of the show. It’s one ticket per act per person. If you are with a group, everyone who wants a ticket will need to be in line to get one. You can buy tickets for more than one act, but they have to be in consecutive order. So you could buy a ticket for act one and two, but not for act one and three.

Inside The Theatre

Everyone in line for the single act tickets will go inside up an elevator to the 4th-floor balcony where the single act seats are. It’s important to know that there are a limited number of seats available here (about 90). There is room for about 60 more people standing at the back. Seats for single act tickets are not assigned. If you want to sit down, you should queue early to be among the first inside. Seeing a matinee during the week (opposed to an evening or weekend ) will give you a better chance of getting a seat. Of course, this isn’t a guarantee. It wasn’t busy at the theatre when I went, and I got a front row seat without any problems.

Inside Kabuki-za in Tokyo, Japan.

You can’t take photos during the show, but I snapped this before the curtain went up. This is inside the Kabukiza Theatre with the view from the 4th-floor balcony where the single act ticket holders sit.

Understanding Kabuki

Kabuki is in Japanese, but you can rent a translator device for the show. It is ¥500, and you pay ¥1000 for a deposit (you get the deposit back when you return the device after the show). You must have cash on hand for the rental and deposit. The device has a small screen where it will translate the dialogue during the show. It also gives background information about the show itself and Kabuki motifs. If you don’t understand Japanese then renting a translator is worth the money. It will help you to understand the show and Kabuki as well.

Kabuki-za Show Poster in Tokyo, Japan.

A poster for a Kabuki show inside the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

The Show

The show I saw was Kotobuki Soga no Taimen. It was the story of two brothers (Soga no Juro and Soga no Goro) who set out to avenge their father’s death. It started with a group of feudal lords on stage talking about an upcoming hunt on Mount Fuji. They were talking about how excellent everything was them. Kudo Suketsune, a counsellor to the current Shogun, was set to lead the hunt. Of course (dun dun dun) he was the one who killed Juro and Goro’s father. Kobayashi Asahina (a servant of Kudo Suketsune) agreed to let the brothers to with meet Kudo Suketsune. Juro, the oldest was calm and rational, but Goro was ready for revenge. The act ended before any significant confrontation happened.

Kabuki posters outside the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

Kabuki posters outside the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

What is it Like Seeing a Kabuki Show?

The show I saw was a unique experience. Seeing Kabuki in Tokyo isn’t like seeing a western-style play. The actors don’t face each other when speaking dialogue. Instead, they face the audience straight on. The movements the actors make in the show (including how they talk) is slow and deliberate. During the part, I saw there was some music that included drumming and flute playing. However, this isn’t a musical where the actors are singing. The music can vary with every show.

My Thoughts on Kabuki

My favourite part was when the brothers were confronting Kudo Suketsane. They want revenge for their father’s death. Kudo Suketsane tells the brothers they can’t avenge their father’s death. Their father had borrowed a sword from Kudo Suketsane before he died. The brother would need to return the sword before they could get any revenge. When I first started watching this Kabuki show, I thought this reminds me of Hamlet (the avenge the father’s death type of story). Then that part came along, and I thought no this isn’t the same as Hamlet at all. Kabuki is Japanese and different from any theatre I’ve ever watched.

During Intermission

After the act is over, you can return the translator device and get your deposit back. If you want to stay and watch more of the Kabuki show, you can buy tickets for the next acts after this act is over. During intermission, you can go down to the basement of the theatre. Here you can buy souvenirs, or get a bento box to eat. If you have a ticket for the rest of the show, you can take your bento box and eat it at your seat.

Basement of Kabuki-za theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

The basement of the Kabukiza Theatre where you can buy souvenirs or if you are staying for the full show (which can be about four hours long) you can order dinner or lunch during the intermission.

Should You See a Kabuki Show?

I can’t speak much for Kabuki in Tokyo since this was the only time I’ve seen a Kabuki show. I am glad I went and saw a Kabuki show. While I would have loved to see more of this particular show I wanted to go out and explore more of Tokyo, so I only saw the one act. If I’m ever in Tokyo again, I will see a show at Kabukiza Theatre again.

Things You Should Know
Kabukiza is at Ginza 4-12-15, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Japan in the Ginza district of Tokyo. For public transit, you can get direct access to the theatre by taking the Hibiya Line (Tokyo Metro). You can also go on the Asakusa Line (Toei) to the Higashi Ginza Station and get off at Exit 3. I recommend getting a re-loadable Suica or Passmo card if you are going to be in Tokyo for a few days.
Be sure to check online if there will be a Kabukiza show for when you are in Tokyo. Single act tickets are only available the day of the show, and there is no seating chart. You may want to queue at the theatre early for a front seat (this will still be on the balcony).
While in Tokyo I stayed at the Asakusa Hotel Fukudaya. This is a great budget hotel (that’s more like a guest house). I had a single private Japanese style room (with tatami mats) with a mini fridge. There is a shared bathroom, private showers, a male-only onsen, and a female-only onsen. I paid about $26US/night for my room. The hotel is in a quiet local neighbourhood but is within a short walk of the Minami Senju Station. I paid for my own stay here and would recommend this hotel if you want a private room affordable room in Tokyo.

25 comments on “Your Guide to Seeing Kabuki in Tokyo

  1. I’ve never heard of Kabuki before, it sounds incredibly interesting. So do all the single act tickets leave during intermission? And do more people with single act tickets get to watch the second half or no?

    • Once the first act is over the single act ticket holders can leave, or go down to the food hall and get a snack. But if you want to watch the rest of the show you have to buy a full price ticket, which was a bit over my budget. There are several acts in a Kabuki show, unlike most western shows where there’s just one act or two acts. Thanks for the comment.

  2. I don’t think I have ever heard of Kabuki before. A detailed and in-depth description of an art form is quite rare to find. Just a quick question – Can a single act ticket be extended upon the intermission? or does have to buy a fresh full show ticket. Would love to check out one of the shows.

    • I believe you could extend the ticket, but you had to buy one for the rest of the show, not just single acts. Since a Kabuki show can be about four hours in total I decided to just see the one act and go out and explore elsewhere in Tokyo after. Thanks for the comment Ozzy.

  3. Absolutely fascinating article – In my other life I used to manage a community theatre (or as we call it Manager of Herding Cats) and I adore anything related to theatre. I have always been interested in Kabuki and was quite shocked to see the prices for tickets. Thank you for giving us ways to see it on a budget incredibly helpful and much easier on the pocket. This was a really informative post and it will go into my treasury for when I do get to Japan.

    • Faith your description of being a community theatre manager sounds pretty apt (from what I understand from friends doing something similar). I love theatre too and I’m glad I could give you some help to see a Kabuki show in Japan. It’s completely different that western theatre, but it’s definitely worth check out. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Kabuki was a term used in the Philippines for females who wear a lot of whitish make-up and associated with women of ill repute. Now I know why…it started as entertainment in the redlight district.

  5. I would definitely see at least one act of a Kabuki show! I always find performing arts to be a wonderful – and often entertaining – window in aspects of the home culture. Thank you for the wonderfully detailed writeup!

  6. It’s always a bit of a thing to visit a show when visiting a new country. It feels a bit cheesy but then again, I usually love it. My last experience was a tango show in Buenos Aires and even though I was jetlagged and tired, I still loved it. I never heard of Kabuki before but since Japan is so much different than my culture, this would definitely be something to consider doing!

  7. Hi Alouise,

    Wow, $185 for a whole show. Impressive.

    I too would have enjoyed a single show and probably headed on out to see more of this fascinating city. Sounds intriguing though. Interesting history too, with the women being banned for too much eroticism, then men taking over on stage.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Ryan

  8. I can’t believe it’s so cheap to watch a single kabuki show. All the preparations the cast must do before the show makes it very much worth it. I haven’t seen one yet, and it might take getting used to, seeing the actors facing the audience and not each other, but it would be an experience I can’t miss to have in Japan.

  9. Thanks for sharing your experience. During my time in Japan, I got to participate in a Noh workshop, a much more traditional and less animated form of theater, but it perked my interest. Unfortunately, I never made it to a theater show in Japan. I was wary because I knew most of the shows were conducted not only in Japan, but usually an older style of Japanese (similar to Shakespearean English). I had no clue that they had devices you could rent to do translations. If I’d known that, I definitely would have gone to see a show!

  10. I also love the performing arts – among my favorite travel highlights have been Broadway and the West End. Though I’m heading to Japan next month, so would love to organize to see Kabuki. Thanks for the heads up on the single act tickets – that’s a really cool way to get an idea of the shows, and a glimpse of it, if it’s out of budget. Also good to know that you need cash. I’m always caught out on that since I usually only travel with my credit card nowadays!

    Glad you enjoyed the act you saw, I love that they have the option of renting a translator device – I would probably go anyway just for the experience – but to actually understand what’s going on would be amazing! Sounds really fun 🙂

  11. I love seeing the arts around the world too (I am in love with flamenco too!). I find it so interesting that Kabuki was originally performed by women until it was banned by the shogunate. I think we saw a form of Kabuki in Kyoto and it was quite amusing to see (even if we couldn’t understand the jokes). Thanks for providing the details on where to see it in Tokyo, although I can’t believe how expensive the tickets can get! Cool that you can get a single act ticket, although I’d probably have FOMO for the other acts! So cool they even offer translators (that’s what we needed!).

  12. I would absolutely go and see a Kabuki show – it sounds like an authentic Japanese experience. I would also rent a translator device for the show – thanks for all of the helpful tips.

  13. I always think it’s fun to see theater when traveling, so this would be something that I would be interested in for sure! Kabuki sounds like a really interesting and traditional show—glad the lifted the bans after WWII. I would probably try to get a ticket for a single act as well, so thanks for sharing how to do that! Getting the translator also sounds like a really good idea. It would be nice to know what you are actually seeing in the show! We will definitely have to look into this next time we are in Tokyo!

  14. Curious…is each act roughly an hour?
    I went to the ticket booking web site and it’s a bit confusing. For the show I am interested in, they list three parts for which tickets can be purchased separetely. But they also have a link describing single tix.
    I have a feeling what they say is Part 1, 2 and 3 are actually the shows repeating three time in the day because the tickets are expensive (close to $150 each) AND each part is around 3 hours.

  15. Going to see a Kabuki play is on my bucket list when I’ll be in Tokyo next month. As my time is limited I’ll do just one act. I was aware that one didn’t have to see the entire performance. But, I was curious to know what website to go to for information on forthcoming plays.

  16. Thanks for an excellent report/guide on seeing a Kabuki; my wife an d I are in Tokyo next month and shall surely try and see an act at kabukiza; i had seen some in NH TV and it has some resemblances to traditional indian theatres like Yaksh Gana and Kathakali. I have basic knowledge of Japanese language and will try and enjoy this. Thanks again

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