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The Miyako Odori: Kyoto's Spring Dance


Miyako Odori poster in Gion, Kyoto

In preparation for our exciting interview and blog with the Kyoto geisha and maiko photographer John Paul Foster, I began to learn about kyomai, the 200 year old dance form of the Gion Kobu geiko. I was especially intrigued as I had just bought my ticket for my first view of the dance that heralds spring in the old capital: the Miyako Odori.


The geiko and maiko of the Gion Kobu district learn the exacting dance movements for this one-hour spectacle at the Inoue Dance School in Gion.


My interest in the geisha dance, in part, stems from my early years of dance and ballet. I took weekly lessons from the age of 5 to the age of 13, when I was finally ready to put on my first pair of astonishing pink satin pointe shoes.

Miyako Odori tenugui

Ballet was formative for me: it introduced me to the theatre; I read books about dance and practised, practised, practised. I loved the mournful quality of Giselle; admired Margot Fonteyn; and being on stage in the village shows was a highlight of my young years.


I see movement that reminds me of how it feels to dance in tea ceremony.


And kyomai is fascinating, because it does not follow the Western ballet conventions that are familiar to me.


Miyako Odori finale

Photo: Japan Travel


In my recent visits to the Miyako Odori in Gion, and the Kitano Odori in Kamishichiken, my untrained eye noticed movements of sliding socked feet, and the soft stamp on the stage floor. There were expressive head and eye movements, and dance with beautiful, folded and unfolded fans and branches of cherry blossoms.


Come with me as I learn a little more about this beautiful dance.


 

Discovering Japanese Dance

While learning about the kyomai dance of the Gion Kobu geiko, I was interested to discover more about the antecedents of the dance.


Beginnings

Gion matsuri Yasaka Shrine dance

The very beginnings of Japanese dance occur in Japan's foundational story, where the sun goddess and queen of the gods, Amaterasu, hides herself away in a cave because the world has turned to chaos. She is encouraged to leave the cave by dance.


Amaterasu is made curious by the sound of music and dancing, and she holds up an Eight-Fold Mirror that she discovers at the entrance to the cave. Distracted and delighted by her brilliant reflection, the rock blocking the cave entrance is swiftly removed and the world is full of sunlight once more. The mirror, Yata no Kagami, is one of the sacred Imperial Regalia of Japan.


Amaterasu has a younger brother called Susanoo-no-Mikoto, god of storms - responsible for much of the earlier chaos - and he is enshrined in the Main Hall of Yasaka Shrine.


Yasaka Shrine is a very important shrine in the old capital city, Kyoto, and it is at the heart of kyomai. The shrine was built 1200 years ago to entreat the gods to end an epidemic in the capital. Teahouses served the worshippers and sightseers who came to enjoy the cherry blossoms in the spring. Gion grew around the shrine to entertain the visitors and the pilgrims.


Last summer at the Gion Matsuri, I watched dance performances for the three gods who are enshrined at Yasaka Shrine, before they were carried in mikoshi around central Kyoto in order to purify the district.


Dance in Kyoto is central to communicating with the gods.


 

Noh

Noh performance at Arashiyama Momiji Matsuri


My journey of discovery has taken me to Noh, the classical dance-drama borne out of a shrine and street entertainment called sarugaku in the Muromachi era. Sarugaku had deep ties to the gods - the word 'saru' means 'monkey' in Japanese, and the dance was connected to the Chinese zodiac monkey deity.


Noh is masked theatre. I'm intrigued that the magojiro mask of the court lady retains the ohaguro blackened teeth of beauty.


The softly carved and painted masks bring to mind the painted faces of the geiko and maiko.


The word 'Noh' means skill or ability, and so Noh drama is centred around the appreciation of artistic talent. I was fascinated to learn that in Noh, the stage is where the gods are, and the human mortals are the audience. Being on the stage allows the actor to enter the realm of the gods. The actor uses a Noh mask in order to reincarnate past happenings. That is, the actor wearing a Noh mask is not acting as a modern-day person, but as a spirit.


And the musical instruments are valued for how their sounds harmonize with nature, for example, the kirihiki reed flute is one of the instruments valued for its connection to nature - it welcomes the gods.


According to Zeami Motokiyo, the 14th century actor and Noh theorist, the basic principle of Noh lies in imitation.


In his chapter titled, Zeami on the Art of the Noh Drama, Makoto Ueda describes the term yūgen as 'that elegant, delicate, graceful beauty which was the ideal of linked verse and medieval Japanese culture at large.'


The Noh actor should imitate his object in proportion to the degree to which it has the yūgen quality...


Dramatic scenes from The Tale of Genji feature amongst the listed Noh plays. The beauty of the Heian court lady is considered to be heightened when her suffering is beyond her control - because it demonstrates her humanity. Here, yūgen is exemplified by the contrast of elegant beauty and the sadness of human life. The scene of Aoi no Ue's possession by the vengeful spirit of Lady Rokujou is a perfect encapsulation of yūgen.


The dance of the Inoue School is heavily influenced by Noh. Male members of the Inoue family were celebrated Noh actors. The women of the family were heavily involved in the geisha dance. It was natural that the two cross-pollinated.


Powerful scenes from The Tale of Genji are often included in the annual Miyako Odori.


 

Dance in The Tale of Genji

Masao Ebina Genji dancing

As well as supplying beautiful narratives for Noh drama and Inoue kyomai dance, I turned to The Tale of Genji because dance is memorably described in Murasaki Shikibu's 11th century novel. Gagaku, the elegant court dance music that features in the Genji Monogatari is still performed today.


In this artwork by Masao Ebina, Genji is depicted dancing Seigaiha, the dance called 'Blue Sea Waves'.


Captain Genji danced 'Blue Sea Waves'. His partner the Secretary Captain, His Excellency of the Left's son, certainly stood out in looks and skill, but beside Genji he was only a common mountain tree next to a blossoming cherry.

The Tale of Genji


 

The Shirabyoushi
shirabyoushi dance Kyoto

I was thrilled to see a performance of shirabyoushi dance at the Zuishin-in Hanezu Odori, held in honour of renowned poet Ono no Komachi.


The elegant, swaying movements of shirabyoushi dance are surely connected to the geiko kyomai.


YouTube: お散歩うさぎ


One well-known shirabyoushi turned the head of the powerful Kyoto clan leader Kiyomori:


In our land shirabyoushi dancing

began in Emperor Toba's reign,

long ago, when a pair of women,

Shima no Senzai and Waka no Mai,

first devised it. They wore in those days

suikan robes; tall, black, lacquered hats;

daggers silver-trimmed, hilt and scabbard;

and called this dance of theirs 'Manly Grace'.

But hat and dagger dropped out in time,

leaving only the suikan robe;

hence the current name shirabyoushi.

The Tale of the Heike


shirabyoushi dance

Kyoto's famed shirabyoushi Hotoke Gozen is described at the beginning of The Tale of the Heike. She arrives unannounced and uninvited at Lord Kiyomori's villa. He sends her away, and it is only due to the intervention of his favourite shirabyoushi Giou, that he relents and sees her.


Hotoke Gozen was a true beauty:

her hair, her face, her lovely figure,

her deliciously lilting voice.

Her dancing could not have failed to please.

By the time she had finished her dance -

most unwillingly - Lord Kiyomori,

entranced, could only think of her.


The Tale of the Heike



Lord Kiyomori sends his long-held favourite shirabyoushi away...

Giou leaves after writing a poem of great sadness on a sliding fusuma door.


 



The Poet Ono no Komachi

Ono no Komachi is a poet of such stature, and of such passion, that I was delighted to find her honoured at the dance at Zuishin-in Temple. She lived within the environs of the temple in her later years.


However wildly

this year's cherry blossoms bloom,

I'll see them

with the plum's scent

filling my heart

Masazama ni

sakura mo sakan

mi niwa min

kokoro ni ume no


The Hanezu Odori featured in the video above, is danced by local school girls. They perform a dance that tells the story of Ono no Komachi and her doomed romance with Prince Fukakusa. Ono no Komachi promised to marry him if he courted her for 100 days, but on the 99th day he collapsed in a snowstorm and died.


Beautiful dances like this one retell stories from long ago. Again there seems to be this quality of yūgen, of piercing beauty and sadness. It is not unlike the Buddhist concept of mono no aware which is so prevalent in Heian literature - that idea of a fleeting beauty which cannot be captured - symbolised by the cherry blossoms.


 

Kabuki Dance

And then there is Kabuki, which is a popular and colourful blend of drama, music and dance, which enchants the audience with its beautiful costumes and powerful storytelling.


YouTube: Kan Nishikawa Nihonbuyo


I studied with interest the kabuki dance Fuji Musume - a beautiful dance piece which features a lot of movement, colour, and romance.


Here, we see a young woman dance before she is turned into a wisteria flower, in a tale that is reminiscent of that favourite Muromachi tale, Kazashi no Hime (かざしの姫), The Chrysanthemum Spirit.


The role of the woman is performed by onnagata - just as only women teach and perform kyomai, only men perform kabuki.


 

Becoming a Geiko

YouTube: Kyoto.S


Geiko perform the dance known as kurokami during their erikae, which is the ceremony where they transform from maiko to geiko. I was astonished when I read John Paul Foster's book Now a Geisha, and learned that the dance originates with a tale of longing and love for the Genji Kamakura successor to the Taira clan - the clan who clung to the last graces of ancient Heian Kyoto, and who went into battle with poetry and flutes.


It seems to me that the Noh quality of yūgen - that tension between exquisite beauty and human suffering - is very present in this beautiful dance that is so significant to the geiko community of Kyoto.


 

Discovering the Miyako Odori

Miyako Odori Gion Kaburenjo

The Miyako Odori dates back over 150 years. It is performed in the beautiful Gion Kaburenjo, a theatre built of hinoki cypress in 1912.


The Miyako Odori is at the heart of Gion. It began in 1872, to bring light to Kyoto after it had lost its role as the nation's capital city. It was a part of the Kyoto Exposition, and it was novel to incorporate a group of geiko and maiko dancing together.


All of the geiko and maiko of the Gion Kobu Hanamachi come together to present a dazzling spectacle, choreographed by the Inoue School of Kyomai Dance (Yasaka Nyokoba Gakuen).


Geiko and maiko dressed in seasonal costumes dance as the scenery behind them changes, from plum blossoms in spring right through to snow in winter.


The backdrops are beautifully painted, and feature temple scenes; seascapes, etc to describe the dance before it.


The basic format of the Miyako Odori is the same each year, but new stories are chosen in between the seasonal dances: dramatic scenes from The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Heike feature, as do Hans Christian Andersen stories or historical events from China. Locations alter too: famous Kyoto sites are portrayed such as Ninna-ji and Kitano Tenmangu and are often chosen if there is a particular anniversary to celebrate, for example.


Musicians sing and play shamisen on the right wing of the stage, and musicians play flutes and drums on the left side of the stage. The left side of the stage also features the hanamichi – the walkway where a flurry of geiko and maiko enter at the very start of the Miyako Odori, calling their famous cry, Yo-i yasa-! This moment heralds the start of spring in the ancient capital.



Inoue School of Kyomai

The Inoue School of Kyomai teaches this performative dance only to the geiko and maiko of the Gion Kobu district. It incorporates the graceful dance derived from imperial court culture, such as the dance of the shirabyoushi, and is heavily influenced by the movement and pathos of Noh.


The founder, Inoue Yachiyo, was born in 1767, and she developed kyomai in Kyoto. Her successor, Yachiyo II incorporated elements of bunraku puppet theater and Noh into the foundation of Inoue School kyomai. Yachiyo III was approached to help with the new dance for the 1872 exposition, and she insisted that only her school should teach the dance.


In the Inoue-ryu Kyomai documentary, we meet the previous head of the Inoue School, Inoue Yachiyo IV, who at the age of 95 was still longing to dance. She had begun her kyomai training at the age of 3.


Her early years were fascinating - she worked for ancient branches of the Fujiwara family (the family that held such power behind the throne in the Heian era), and the Sento Imperial Palace in Kyoto (the palace of the retired emperor). She was heavily inspired by the Noh performances that she saw there. It is these performances that have evolved into the Miyako Odori dances, which begin with a silver sliding fusuma door, and which reference the Kyoto court heritage of the dance.


YouTube: Kyoto Traditional Performing Arts Foundation


A few years ago I went to a modern Kyoto hotel to see a maiko dance Gion Kouta. It's a well-known dance and happens to be the first dance that Inoue Yachiyo IV choreographed.


She says in the documentary that 'the image you hold in your heart is most important.' It's not just about the repetition of the movements. If you are looking at flowers, you should see them with your eyes; if the dance is to express sadness you should feel sad in your heart. It is a sentiment borne from Noh, that demanding art which requires an accurate imitation of its subject.


YouTube: Japan Foundation


Yachiyo Inoue V

The dances are in the kyomai style, and the choreography is taught by the head of the Kyomai Inoue School. This is an hereditary position, passed down through the female line of the Inoue family.


The Dance School is currently run by the grand-daughter of Inoue Yachiyo IV. Her name is Inoue Michiko; she has been raised from birth to inherit the school, and she is known as Inoue Yachiyo V.

She is a Living National Treasure in Japan.


There is a beautiful photo of her in the current Miyako Odori brochure (see left).


The physical requirements for kyomai dance are a strong core and a flexible body. It is technically demanding. Necessary for kyomai Inoue style is a low centre of gravity - for this the hips must be kept down. Without a strong core and lower body, it’s very difficult to move elegantly. The dance is characterised by very rigid movements and a tension of the body, while simultaneously creating beautiful images with elegant motions.


Kyomai uses subtle eye and head movements without changing the facial expressions. Props may be used such as cherry blossom branches, or a traditional paper fan. The fan and its movements can represent wind, waves, or water.


Kyoto Dance Schools

Of course, there is more than one geiko dance school in Kyoto, consequently geiko dance styles can vary.

John Paul Foster writes about the different dance styles in his blog of February 4th 2024:


I have photographed maiko and geiko in Gion Kobu dancing Kurokami many times, and Kikugawa’s version of the dance looks nothing like the Gion Kobu version.

Why?

Because there are different styles or schools of dance, and each has its own version of a dance if it is in their repertoire.

Kigugawa explained it to me:

'In Nihon buyo (Japanese dance), there are mai and odori. Odori is more like Kabuki dance, and there are five schools. As for mai, there are four schools: Yoshimura-ryu, Inoue-ryu, Yamamura-ryu, and Umemoto-ryu. I belong to Yoshimura-ryu, one of the four schools of mai.'


Geiko and maiko in Gion Kobu belong to Inoue-ryu, so they perform Kurokami differently than Kikugawa.

When I asked Kikugawa to elaborate, she told me, “My school, Yoshimura-ryu, originated in Goten-mai (a traditional Japanese dance style developed at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto). So it is Gosho-hu (Imperial-Palace-like), in which some essence of Noh is mixed. Therefore, the form is more structured. You don’t jump or do anything like that.'


 


Experiencing the Miyako Odori

Miyako Odori kimono

The experience of the Miyako Odori was amazing. The performance is at such a peak of perfection of beauty it is hard to describe :)


I joined the queue on a beautiful spring day that was spilling from the steps of the Gion Kaburenjo. Just to be in the theatre confines was exciting enough - I've walked past so often and looked across feeling intrigued!


We were shown into the theatre where the vivid blue kimono that are synonymous with Miyako Odori are displayed. The kimono and obi sashes are newly created every year by Kyoto Yuzen dyeing artists and Nishijin weavers.


In the Miyako Odori programme it says that this year's kimono, in order to reflect the elegance and grandeur of the aristocracy in the Heian period, 'features a design that combines a new pattern of gosho-guruma, (an ox-drawn carriage used by nobles in the Heian period) on the hem and a decorative sudare (blinds) pattern on the sleeves with the classical motif of weeping cherry trees on the dancers shoulders. The obi sashes are made with the pattern of hishi, (a diamond-shaped motif) in five colours, as well as the cloud motif which were often used in the Genji Monogatari Emaki (Illustrated Tales of Genji).


There were portraits of maiko in the kimono on the walls and Heian beauties. The poster below immediately drew my attention - it's by celebrated Kyoto artist Insho Domoto.


Insho Domoto Heian lady poster

We queued until we were shown to a waiting area overlooking the beautiful theatre garden.


We began to move upstairs. The excitement was building.


geiko and maiko Miyako Odori

I was briskly shown into a room and made my way to the small seating areas at the front, but I was dazzled by the extraordinary beauty of the maiko before me. Her kimono and obi shone and glimmered, and the contrast of pattern and colour took my breath away! The spring sky blue of her kimono really was stunning, and she was so pretty with a cluster of cherry blossoms and sparkling mirrors in her hair!


The geiko sat very still near to a candle. It was extremely striking and atmospheric, it felt timeless, like I was entering through a timeslip or a painting that had begun to flicker and change. The scene made a deep impression on me - I was deeply moved by the beauty and the flickering flame.


We were served a white mochi sweet with a pink blossom on it, on a small white and blue plate, and whisked green matcha tea. I ate the sweet first as I have learned to do in tea ceremony, and then enjoyed the delicious matcha. We were allowed to keep the plate!


Gion Kaburenjo theatre

I had time before the performance to visit the beautiful garden behind the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theatre. The day was sunny and bright, and people were having photographs taken by a flowering cherry tree.


I made my way into the theatre. My seat was just a few rows back from the hanamichi, the walkway where the geiko and maiko enter.


Dark-kimonoed ladies sat in the wings to the right of the stage, some playing the shamisen and some singing.


Then there was the famous call and a flurry of geiko and maiko came softly onto the stage in their gloriously decorated vivid blue kimono, dancing with bright sprigs of pink cherry blossom and silver fans.


The stage scenery was beautifully painted. The backdrops of the Miyako Odori stage really were outstanding. There were temple scenes, the seascape; cherry blossoms, the palace...


The dance that followed drew my attention as soon as a lady appeared on stage wearing an obi sash with the familiar symbols of genjikou - the incense guessing game that is linked to the 54 chapters of Genji Monogatari.


At that moment I heard the geiko sing that there was once a lady named Murasaki Shikibu... I realised that the lady in the genjikou obi must be Lady Rokujou, and realised I was watching a scene from my beloved Tale of Genji! It was a dance performing the classic scene where Genji's wife Aoi no Ue is killed by a malevolent spirit apparently manifested by spurned lover Lady Rokujou.


There were the angelic dances.


And a dragon god in the sea. There are always dragons to be seen in Kyoto. Dragon Zennyo protects the city from his tunnel beneath Yasaka Shrine. He is mentioned in The Tale of the Heike. In a dance at Zuishin-in Temple a warrior defeated four writhing dragons - it was a magnificent tale!


And then Genji was on stage once more, this time undergoing a perilous journey, arriving on a shore I have imagined many, many times - the shore at Akashi, when he has been banished from the great Capital and sent to Suma. He was there on the stage dancing with his Lady Akashi :)


Lady Akashi and her maidens wore breathtaking many-layered gowns, the juunihitoe. I was entranced by them, realising as I watched that I had never seen anyone move dressed like this before.


In the opening chapter of The Confessions of Lady Nijou, she writes of how her father decorated her room with colourful gowns prior to a visit by the Retired Emperor. When I saw the ladies dancing in beautiful juunihitoe on the stage I could see that Heian aristocratic ladies really were moving works of art!


And it was clear to see that the beauty that had begun with the many-layered gowns had travelled directly down the centuries to the maiko and geiko on the stage in their kimono and their Nishijin-woven obi sashes, their sparkling hanakanzashi hair flowers, their mirrors and ornaments, and brilliant fans.


The geisha and maiko were dazzling, in a way that is difficult to describe. They are luminous, other-worldly, their kimono dazzle - the weaving of their many contrasting robes and sashes gleams with gold and simply is astonishing.


The performance at about one hour is all too brief. It is hard to comprehend how their artistic eye can manifest such an extraordinarily high level of beauty. Those Heian courtiers all those centuries ago, with the time to refine beauty to the peak of perfection achieved a lot for us to be grateful for!


I remember sitting in my seat during the finale as the stage was flooded with dark-dressed geiko, geiko dressed in bright juunihitoe, and geiko in the beautiful blue kimono. There was music and a cherry blossom backdrop, and the suspended lights which looked like lit candles, and I simply did not want it to end.


 


Experiencing the Kitano Odori

Kitano Odori theatre and geiko

Photo: Kyoto City Official Travel Guide


At the Kitano Odori, the finale was of a cherry blossom backdrop, maiko in greens and purples with sparkling mirrors and cherry blossom kanzashi in their swept-up hair. They were joined by beautiful geiko in their dark kimono and elaborate hairpieces, and there were sprigs of cherry blossom suspended too, and drifting pink petals. It was such a beautiful sight!


The Kitano Odori began in 1952 in Kamishichiken as a celebration for the 1050th anniversary of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. The performance consists of dance drama and classical dance. Kamishichiken follows the dance style of the Hanayagi School.


Kamishichiken Kaburenjo theatre Kyoto

Both the Kamishichiken Kaburenjo theatre and the Gion Kaburenjo have beautiful gardens. The Kamishichiken Kaburenjo has the most beautiful entrance - you cross a vermilion bridge over a pool of koi which extends to the rear garden of the theatre. Beautiful chouchin lanterns and silvery papers flutter in the soft breeze.


Kamishichiken Kaburenjo theatre Kyoto

Again, I loved the matcha tea and a sweet with the geiko and maiko. The tea ceremony at Kitano Odori was completely dazzling. The geiko actually out-dazzled the maiko who wore a beautiful green kimono!


I was able to gaze across and study the elegant movements of the geiko as she moved through the tea ceremony. She carefully folded the fukusa cloth and drew her finger across it. She drew the hiragana 'ko' shape on the lid of the natsume that contained the powdered green tea. She gracefully extended her arm and held the hishaku water ladle, scooping water from the kettle into the teabowl, allowing the very last shining drops to fall.


The geiko sat in her black and white kimono next to a flickering candle, and the scene held a continuity that looked like it had been replicated for decade after decade. It was breath-takingly beautiful, and made a deep impression on me.


When I left the theatre after the 4pm performance, glowing lanterns lit my way :)


 
Miyako Odori maiko tenugui

I hope you've enjoyed coming with me on my first

visit to the spring geisha dances in Kyoto.


Thank you for coming with me on my journey of

discovery about the origins of the dance, too!


If you would like to read more about my Kyoto discoveries, you can find my series of Travelling Japan blogs here!


Do share your experiences of Kyoto with us :)


Cathy

xx


Kyoto celebrates its annual spring dances in lots of lovely ways :)


Our beautiful Kyoto tenugui of a maiko performing at the Miyako Odori is available here!


And our little Kyoto washi paper tray featuring the spring geisha dances can be found here!


Miyako Odori spring cherry blossom festival Kyoto

Sources

Japan Travel: Miyako Odori photo

Kyoto City Official Travel Guide: Kitano Odori photo

Shirabyoushi: translated by Royall Tyler, The Tale of the Heike, (Penguin Classics), p.16 and p.18.

Seigaiha: translated by Royall Tyler, The Tale of Genji, (Penguin Classics), p.135.

Japan Arts Council: Gagaku

Ono no Komachi, The Ink Dark Moon

Makoto Ueda, Literary and Art Theories in Japan, (Michigan classics in Japanese Studies), chapter 4.

Performing Arts Network: Inoue Yasuko

John Paul Foster blog

John Paul Foster, Now a Geisha, (IBC).

Kyoto Shinbun


Video

The Japan Foundation: Kyomai, Classical Elegance

Fuji Musume: Kan Nishikawa Nihonbuyo Channel

Discover Kyoto, Kitano Odori trailer

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