When visiting the old capital of Japan, keep in mind that Kyoto offers much more than an abundance of shrines and temples. Since its inception during the 16th century, the tradition of female entertainers, known as geiko (geisha in the Kansai dialect) and maiko (apprentice geisha), and their flamboyant theatrical flourishes has been a huge part of Japanese culture in five districts of the city: Gion Kobu, Pontocho, Miyagawacho, Kamishichiken and Gion Higashi.
The spotlight will be on Pontocho from May 1 to 24, as the Pontocho Kaburenjo, a 93-year-old theater with four stories above ground and one below, is set to stage the 183rd edition of Kamogawa Odori.
First staged in 1872 as part of the Kyoto Expo to draw visitors to the city after the capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, Kamogawa Odori is a long-running two-part show performed by geisha and maiko.
Other than consisting of two separate acts, what makes Pontocho’s event more innovative than geisha shows staged in Kyoto’s other four districts is the inclusion of Western music and revue-style performances, a change that was introduced during the early Showa Era (1926-1989) to make it more accessible for modern audiences. French poet Jean Cocteau and silent film star Charlie Chaplin are among those who have enjoyed the show.
The first half of this year’s program will feature nine geisha in “Haru no Kaze Koi no Itazura,” a dance-drama that is based partly on “Cosi Fan Tutte,” the 1790 opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. However, the musical accompaniment will be provided by female musicians singing traditional nagauta (which literally translates as “long song”) ballads while playing shamisen, drums and flutes.
For the second half of the show, both geisha and maiko will perform “Kyoto Utagoyomi,” a performance comprised of five scenes in which the entertainers will dance in front of moving backdrops depicting beautiful landscapes and city scenes described in old Japanese poems. (Yuki Yamauchi)