Miyako Odori

History

Miyako (都) means capital and odori means dance, thus making the name, “The Capital City Dance.” The first performance of Miyako Odori took place in 1872, three years after the capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1869. The goal of Miyako Odori was to counter the loss of status that came when the capital was moved. The first dance was choreographed by Yachiyo Inouye the third, the master of the Kyomai Dance School and performed by the maiko and geiko of Gion Kobu. It was such a success that it has been performed every year since then.

Every year, there are things that remain the same about Miyako Odori. The Kyomai School is always responsible for choreographing the dancing, and the maiko and geiko of gion always perform the dances (the other geisha districts have their own dances). There are always eight scenes and the scenes always progress from a spring themed dance to summer, then autumn, then winter, and finally back to spring. The kimono for the chorus dancers are usually blue (some years are green) with small modifications in the design and the obi are usually red. Both kimono and obi always have motifs from all four seasons. The kimono are always created by kyo-yuzen artists and the obi are always woven by nishjin artists.

Undated photo of a past performance of Miyako Odori.

Undated photo of a past performance of Miyako Odori.

Undated photo of a previous Miyako Odori performance.

Undated photo of a previous Miyako Odori performance.

Undated photo of a previous Miyako Odori performance.

Undated photo of a previous Miyako Odori performance.

Logistics

Miyako Odori takes place every year during the whole month of April, with four shows happening each day. Buying tickets has gotten much easier over the last few years. Tickets start going on sale in September, and you can order them through the official website here. I went this route. They emailed me a confirmation number, and on the day of the show, I showed up at the box office, showed them the email confirmation number on my phone, and picked up the tickets. Quick and painless.

There are three classes of tickets you can choose from. Second class seats are 2500 yen, first class seats are 4200 yen, and special class seats are 4800 yen. The more you pay, the better your seats are in the theatre. In addition, the special class tickets allow you to experience a tea ceremony performed by a geiko, complete with a souvenir plate to take home. I decided to go for the special class tickets.

Getting to the theater is very easy too. The dances are held in Gion Corner, a theater that is used to showcase a mix of different traditional arts to tourists for the rest of the year. It’s in the middle of Gion and there are signs and lanterns everywhere announcing the path. If that isn’t enough, the crowds of people and the police directing them should be a dead giveaway.

One of the many posters lining the street to the theatre.

One of the many posters lining the street to the theatre.

The entrance to the theatre itself. The rain that day destroyed my plans of wearing kimono.

The entrance to the theatre itself. The rain that day destroyed my plans of wearing kimono.

The Tea Ceremony

Before we entered the tea ceremony, we went through a mini museum, if you will, that showcased a history of the tea ceremony and the instruments that are used. You can also see kimono and obi from past performances. We were all herded into a waiting room that looked out onto a beautiful Japanese garden. It had the added bonus of letting us sneak a peak of the geiko about to perform the tea ceremony preparing in a room on the other side of the garden!

A sneek peak of what was to come!

A sneek peak of what was to come!

The tea ceremony I felt was very touristy. It was held in a large room with tables and stools for the guests to sit at. As soon as you walked in, waitresses directed you where to sit and they served out the sweets on the souvenir plates. After that, the geiko and maiko came in and the shutters started snapping. I admit, I was guilty of taking photos as well, but after three or four shots just to remember everything, I put the camera down and tried to enjoy the ceremony. But I have to say, it was very difficult with the man in front of me who never put down his large, professional grade camera with a zoom lens. He was snapping photos every few seconds and it took away from the mood. No cameras were allowed during the dancing and I think the same policy should be enforced for the tea ceremony.

While the geiko was preparing the tea, the waitresses were serving bowls of matcha tea. Nobody touched the tea or the sweets until there was an announcement over the loudspeaker saying it was ok to start eating. The tea prepared by the geiko was served to one random guest by the attending maiko and once again the shutters went off like crazy. The whole thing lasted about ten minutes, and at the end, everyone wrapped up their plates and were herded through to the “souvenir center” while waiting for the theatre to open up.

The tea room.

The tea room.

The geiko preparing the tea.

The geiko preparing the tea.

My bowl of tea.

My bowl of tea.

My sweet on the souvenir plate, along with my ticket.

My sweet on the souvenir plate, along with my ticket.

The souvenir center had the usual Kyoto and Japanese souvenirs; books, postcards, snacks and such. But they also had something really unique. They had taken kimono and obi from previous years and made different souvenirs out of them. There was everything from bags and wraps to smaller things like coin purses and tissue cases. I indulged in a tissue case. And I do mean indulged because these items were not cheap. Not that I expect them to be. After all, they are made from kimono and obi created by some of Kyoto’s finest craftspeople. I just wish my budget could have allowed me to get the 7000 yen purse made from an obi that I was drooling over.

A slightly blurry photo of souvenirs made from previous year's kimono and obi.

A slightly blurry photo of souvenirs made from previous year’s kimono and obi.

A clearer photo of the souvenirs.

A clearer photo of the souvenirs.

The Dances

I guess buying my tickets six months in advance really paid off. We got front row seats! We could literally see the dancers sweating! And it gave me a great vantage point to look at their kimono and their kitsuke. Nothing in their kimono, obi, or accessories shifted or moved. It was absolute perfection. In fact, at some points I thought it was too perfect. For the chorus dancers, their obi was tied at the back with two tails. When they spun, only the bottom third of the tails moved with the force of the spin. The upper two thirds of the obi stayed perfectly in place. I suspect that there’s a couple of stitches keeping the tails together and stopping them from moving too much! Still gorgeous to watch, but I’m not going to use their kitsuke as a model to shoot for. It’s like using an airbrushed model as a reference for how skinny you should be. Just not realistic.

An obi on display. Can you spot the small stitches that keep the two halves in place?

An obi on display. Can you spot the small stitches that keep the two halves in place?

One thing I would highly recommend for everyone is to pick up the program that they offer for 700 yen. It has a description of every scene in English as well as headshots of every maiko and geiko performing on stage as either a dancer or a musician. It was a huge help for me to understand what was happening in each scene, and it’s a great souvenir for after. There are some great pictures inside of each scene that they perform.

The cover of my program for Miyako Odori.

The cover of my program for Miyako Odori.

A page out of the program with a description of a scene in both Japanese and English.

A page out of the program with a description of a scene in both Japanese and English.

A sample page of the headshots of the geiko and maiko that appear in the performance. This can also be found in the program.

A sample page of the headshots of the geiko and maiko that appear in the performance. This can also be found in the program.

Every year, the dances start with an opening scene with the chorus dancers (in the recognizable blue kimono) showcasing that highlights of the dances to come. The number of dancers for Miyako Odori has steadily declined over the years as the population of maiko and geiko has also declined. In her book Geisha, Liza Dalby claims that during her time as a geisha in 1974-75, the ranks of the dancers would be filled out with high school girls. I don’t think this is the case nowadays, but I do question some of the “maiko” in the opening scene. With front row seats, it was easy to see the dancers’ faces, and some of them looked to be on the plus side of forty years old. They still danced beautifully, but I wonder what their story is. Are they just geiko who are filling out the ranks, or are they dance students who have been recruited? All I know for sure is that some of the ladies on stage were too old to be maiko.

The remaining seven scenes always go in order from spring to summer, autumn, winter, and then back to spring. The year that I went (2015) the dances included a story about the western goddess and her peach of immortality, a scene from the Tale of Ise, Minamoto no Taiko and the Earth Spider (she had spiderwebs on her obi!) and two lovers traveling in winter mountains. The dancing was incredible, but I would have never understood what was haping without that program!

My favourite kimono! This is the Spider Queen. Check out her obi!

My favourite kimono! The dancer on the right is the Earth Spider. Check out her obi!

The Kimono

What can I say?  The kimono on display were gorgeous.  I loved examining them between the tea ceremony and the dances.  Here’s a sampling of what I saw.

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A unique green kimono!

A unique green kimono!

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Added Bonus!

Here’s a video of the 143rd Miyako Odori, the show that I got to see.

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Maiko Dressup: Take Two!

The second time I did a maiko dressup, I went with some friends of mine.  I didn’t do any of the booking, but my friend managed to find a studio right in front of Kyoto station that included hair, makeup, dressing, professional photography, and a trip outside for about 10,000 yen.  Just a warning, this post is mostly photos.

 

First, makeup!

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My last moments before they start applying the makeup.

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Getting the distinctive maiko neck makeup applied. The cold makeup made shivers run down my spine!

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They applied pink blush under the white so I didn’t end up looking completely like a ghost.

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The “pure white” makeup before they add the details. You can still see a hint of the pink around the eyes.

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Getting the details applied to my eyes.

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Almost done! Just the lips left.

 

After makeup came the wig.

 

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Here, they are brushing out some of my hair to cover the top and sides of the wig so it looks like it’s all my hair.

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Fitting the wig.

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The final product!

 

Finally, dressing in kimono.  They had a good selection of kimono and obi to choose from and they took care of all the dressing.

 

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Starting off with the juban. You can see their selection of kimono behind me.

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Getting dressed up like a doll. All I did was stand there with my arms out.

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Getting kanzashi fitted into the wig. I let the professionals choose them.

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The final product! Two of my friends are getting dressed in the background.

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And from the back.

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I was having so much trouble “smiling” during the professional photos. I always smile, but I know that maiko don’t. I was trying to do a half smile, but it comes out as a bit of a smirk. Oh well.

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All six of us dressed and ready to go.

 

Everybody else went out to walk around town in their kimono.  Unfortunately, I had tickets to see a stage production in Osaka that night and I had to leave early.  It took longer than expected for all six of us to get dressed.  I definitely enjoyed this experience more than my first one.  It was a lot more professional and they weren’t trying to rush us through.

I also discovered a reason why maiko would blacken their teeth.  With all that white makeup on, it doesn’t matter how white your teeth are, they will always be yellow in comparison to your face!

I hope you enjoyed seeing my transformation!  And thank you to whomever was holding my camera and taking pictures.  I know it got passed around a lot.  Miss you guys!

Maiko Dressup: Take One!

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This is a maiko, an apprentice geisha, and it’s a very popular tourist activity in Kyoto for people to dress up in kimono and get their makeup done in the traditional all-white face. There are lots of studios that provide this service, and nowadays you’re just as likely to see these tourists as you are to see an actual geisha or maiko. This is the story of my first experience dressing up as a maiko.

My first trip to Japan was in 2006. I was a solo backpacker with no clue what I was doing. I wanted to go to Gion Matsuri, and during the course of the day, I met two young women who had just returned from a working holiday in Canada. They were planning to do a maiko dressup later in the afternoon and they invited me along.

Now, this was eight years ago. And everything happened very quickly and in a language that I didn’t understand at the time. I don’t remember much about the actual experience. Some things that I do remember are…

I remember that the kimono were old and worn. Mine had some visible wear and damage, but I just chalked it up to it being a rental.

I remember that the wig hurt.

I remember that they had a small garden set up for people to take photos with their own camera.

I remember that we couldn’t go outside.

Here are some of the photos I took that day.

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But what I most remember about the experience was the reaction I got when I got home. I hadn’t told my parents about the photos. I wanted it to be a surprise and see if they recognized me. When I got home, this is the conversation that we had.

 

Me: I met a geisha in Kyoto and she was nice enough to let me take photos of her.

I show the picture.

Mom: oh very nice.

Dad: Looks like a man.

Me: Dad that’s me!

Mom: ROFL

 

Seriously, Best. Reaction. Ever. I still laugh about it to this day. And honestly, I can’t quite bring myself to disagree with my dad. Maiko makeup just didn’t quite work on me.  This time.