What Do You Know About Noh (Theater)?

Stroll 8 minutes from Higashi-Nakano station, past all the conbinis, and through a public parking lot next to a small Mexican restaurant decorated with totem poles and you’ll find yourself at the hidden entrance to the Umewaka Nohgaku Gakuin Kaikan, a small year-round Noh Theater.

I found myself at the theater on a hot Tokyo afternoon because a co-worker of mine invited me to go to this rare and free Noh workshop that was looking for 10 foreigners to participate in. The only details I had was that we would be learning basics of Noh dancing, singing, and get to walk on the Noh stage, as well as participate in a casual 30 minute interview.

My decision went a little like this:

  • I like learning about traditional Japanese culture.
  • I want to learn more about Noh theater.
  • I’m a foreigner.
  • I like free stuff.
  • I don’t mind doing an interview
  • I’ve been looking for an excuse to go back to Nakano to try the famous Daily Chico 8 layer ice cream…

This was kind of a no-brainer response: signmeuprightnowplease!

 The workshop I participated in takes place fairly often with a larger amount of participants and costs 2,000 yen, or $20, which honestly, I would’ve happily paid to have this experience. It is a really great experience, and I highly recommend workshops taught by Yoko Layer, a Noh performer and instructor, who’s workshops have actually been featured on NHK World. However, the reason my workshop was free is because I participated in the 30 minute group interview, where we gave feedback about the workshop as well as advice on how to attract more people to come to Noh Theater performances, as well as giving people a deeper understanding and knowledge.

For those who haven’t heard of Noh before, you’re not alone my friend. Although Noh Theater originated in 14th century Japan, Kabuki Theater of the 17th century seems to overshadow Noh in realms of modern day popularity. The most common reasons being that the language and movement of Noh can be very difficult for even Japanese people to understand. But also because Kabuki came around during the Edo period, a time when art and learning flourished and was enjoyed by people in lower classes instead of just those within the court. While Noh was protected and promoted by shogunates (war lords), but was threatened at times like the Meiji Restoration and post WWII era.

Okay, so if you don’t already “know” then you’re probably dying to “know” more about Noh. (bah dum dum…)

In its most basic definition, Noh means “talent” or “skill.” It is a type of traditional Japanese drama using masks, dancing, and song. Noh isn`t see as a re-enactment of a story, but storytelling spun in a way to capture a story`s essence; it`s meant to be a simple, subtle, and symbolic form of  story, which creates that divider between itself and most Western drama.

During my workshop we learned a basic Noh song. As someone who has taken classical voice lessons, the Noh singing style felt a little strange. For one, the music is extremely dissonant, but it is also somewhere between a chant and a sustained note with vibrato. You also need to project loudly (because there are no microphones used in Noh theater), so you need A LOT of breathe support. There are also a lot of strange scoops and patterns that were indicated by arrows and dashes instead of notes on sheet music.

With fan in hand we spread ourselves out on the blonde tatami mats and learned the basic Noh stance for walking and dancing. And like all Japanese arts, this stance looks easy, but has a lot going on that you need to be aware of. So you start by standing with your feet parallel and about the width of a closed fan apart. Then clasp your hand like you would a steak knife (with your thumb flat on top of your fist) and lower your hands down with your thumbs facing the ground. You should have a slight bend in your knees and raise your arms to your sides, a bit in front of you, and also have a slight bend in your elbows. Now lean forward onto the balls of your feet. Tada! You are in first position.

From this side view you can see the Yoko’s forward lean 

Once in the stance we learned how to do the slow, graceful Noh walk. The goal is to not have any bounce in your step, so the key is to take small steps. You begin by sliding your foot across the ground, then raising your toes and ending on the ball of your foot in a sort of shuffle. Don`t forget to stand tall, look ahead of you, and lean forward.

Yoko is showing us how to put on a Noh mask. It takes two people to put on the mask. Notice how the mask wearer is only touching the mask on the sides with her fingertips as not to ruin it with the oils on the hand.

I thought walking was hard enough, but once they let us try on a Noh mask and walk I really have no idea how these performers do it. You can barely see anything in those masks. Just think of walking around with your eyes half closed with no peripheral vision. To make things even more difficult you can`t move your head to better your line of sight because in Noh theater the characters only move their heads up and down in the slightest movement to portray emotion. If a character raises their head a bit it means they are happy, if they lower it then they are sad. So the actors basically walk around a raised stage half blind and use the front two poles of the stage to gage whether or not they`re going to fall off.

The Noh stage is characterized by its pillars and rooftop, despite this stage being indoors. Originally Noh was performed outside, so the roof was necessary. Now it just serves for traditional purposes.
The tree painted on this wall is an Evergreen tree and signifies that this theater does performances all throughout the year. In the old days Noh was only performed in the spring and fall because the weather conditions in winter and summer were too extreme
The entire Noh stage is filled with symbolism. Behind the colored curtain is another other-world realm, whether it be heaven, hell, or the moon. The different colors of the curtain represent the elements. Once the actor passes through the curtain they are crossing the bridge between the other world and reality. The big open square part of the stage is reality.

After this I was chosen to be fully dressed up in costume, mask and all because according to Yoko, our workshop instructor, my body type is similar to that of Noh actors and actresses. There were so many layers to this costume, a shoulder wrap and two thick kimonos, along with a headband and mask. These layers were so hot and Noh theaters don`t have air conditioning. So just imagine being wrapped in two wool blankets on a hot summer day and having to sing and dance half blind. Noh one said Noh was easy. 😉


Then had the chance to walk on the Noh stage as well as see Yoko perform a dance. We entered one by one pass through the rainbow curtain, passing from another world, whether it be heaven, hell, or the moon, across the bridge, to the main stage, which represented reality or Earth. She told us to weave our own story in our minds, are we a ghost returning from one of the realms of afterlife, or an angel from the moon? Why were returning to Earth? Without these elements running through our head walking across the Noh stage would`ve been cool, but coming up with our own stories is what made it more surreal.

About to walk onto the Noh stage 





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