The Noh Stage

April 16, 2007

For people who want to see Noh

by Megumi Matsumura

What is Noh?

Noh is a traditional form of Japanese theater. In some ways Noh is similar to a Western musical or opera, but in other ways it is completely different. Noh actors do not display large and dramatic actions. They wear masks and act through their body, using very minimal and subtle gestures and movements. For people who experience Noh for the first time, the Noh stage may appear to be a very silent world.

Noh plays use two types of sounds. One is called utai: these are Noh songs sung by a male chorus in low and slow voices. The other type of sound is called hayashi: this is the background music for each scene in a play. Both of these sounds are very important to express the mood of a scene or a character’s emotion. Noh music is played with taiko, (traditional hand drums and shoulder drums) and fue (flutes) by musicians (hayash-kata) who sit to one side of the stage. Plays are performed on a simple square stage made of Japanese cypress. There is always a painting of a pine tree on the back wall of the stage.

When was Noh established?

Noh was established in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) by Kan’ami and his son, Zeami. When Zeami (also known as Kanze Motokiyo) was only twelve years old he seemed to be a child prodigy. He was good-looking and had a sense for the Noh stage. One day, he acted in a sarugaku (a kind of folk play that included skits and impersonations) in the garden of Imakumano Shrine in Kyoto. The Shogun at the time, Yoshimitsu Ashikaga (1358-1408), who was famous for building Kinkaku-ji Temple, saw Zeami perform in this skit. Yoshimitsu enjoyed his acting so much that he helped Zeami to establish Noh drama, which mixed sarugaku and dengaku (a kind of harvest dancing). Together they added new things to Noh. One of them was the concept of yugen — a deep and profound flavor or beauty that cannot be expressed in words. Much culture was developed during Yoshimitsu’s rule and this culture became known as Kitayama Culture.

How many Noh stories are there?

There are many kinds of Noh plays: romances, fantasies, ghosts stories, tales of jealousy, adventures, and so on. I will introduce three stories that take place in Kyoto.


One day, a monk from an eastern country in Japan arrived at the Kyoto landmark of Rokujo Kawara-in. He met an old man there who shouldered a tub that was full of seawater. The monk had heard that in olden times the Minister of the Left, Mimamotono Tooru, had made a pond of seawater. Mimamotono had enjoyed drinking on the pond. The old man left the monk to go skim seawater from the old pond again. When the monk waited for the old man to return, the ghost of Mimamotono Tooru appeared before him. Tooru danced an elegant dance, (known as mai ), under the moonlight. At the end of the dance, the ghost disappeared into the moonlight. You can enjoy a mysterious and elegant world in this play.


Once upon a time, Munechika Sanjo lived in Kyoto. He was a very famous and excellent blacksmith. The Emperor ordered a great sword to be made by him. Unfortunately at that time, Munechika did not have a good assistant to help him make the sword. When a blacksmith makes a sword, he needs a skillful partner to assist him.* So Munechika prayed to the god Inarimyoujin. Suddenly, a messenger from the god —a fox—appeared with a sledgehammer. The fox helped Munechika forge a great sword.

*In the art of sword-making, both the blacksmith and his assistant are referred to as “aiuchiwoutsu” . This word means to “nod” in modern Japanese.


Once, there was couple who had just divorced. The cause of thier separation was an affair committed by the husband, so his ex-wife held a deep grudge against him. She prayed to the god Kifune to take revenge on him. Kifune sent her a message that said she could become a demon and wreak vengeance on her husband if she wore a red kimono, made up her face with red, wore a kanawa (an iron ring) upside down on her head with lit candles on its three legs, and had a strong rage against him.

Meanwhile, her husband was having bad dreams every night, so he asked Seimei Abeno, who was the one of the greatest healers in Japanese history, for a divination about himself. When Seimei purified the evil within him, the wife appeared as a wraith and tried to kill her ex-husband. But she could not overcome Seimei’s magical powers and went away.

Why do actors wear masks?

The masks that are used by Noh actors are passed down from generation to generation. To act with a mask is perhaps a means to elevate an actor’s mind. If you put a mask on your face, your vision narrows. Actors cannot see where they step. Noh actors have especially strict training, but they try to make their audience unaware of their hardships. Actors feel the mind of the character they play when they don a Noh mask. The masks are simple and made of wood. Different masks represent the different characters in Noh plays.

Places to see Noh

There are many Noh theaters in Kyoto. Here are a few with directions on how to find them.

Kongo Noh Gaku-dou

〒602-0912 Kyoto City, Kamigyoku, Karasuma Street, Ichijo-kudaru

TEL: 075(441)-7222

Nearest station: Imadegawa Station on the Karasuma line (subway)

Earphone guides are available!

Kawamura Noh Butai

〒602-0021 Yanagi-no-zushicho 320-14

Kyoto City, Kamigyoku, Karasuma Street, Tachiuriagaru

TEL: 075-(451)-4513

Nearest station: Imadegawa Station on the Karasuma line (subway)

There is a total of 320 seats on the first and second floors.

Ooe Noh Gaku-dou

〒604-0944 Kyoto City, Nakagyoku, Baba Higashi-iru, Oshi-Kouji Kayoyanagi

TEL: 075-(231)-7625

Nearest Station: Shiyakusho-mae Station, go west 4 minutes on foot; from Karasuma-Oike Station, go east 5 minutes on foot.

The Ooe Noh Gaku-dou was built in 1908. In 2001 its foundation was rennovated.

Kyoto Kanze Kaikan

〒606-8344 Kyoto City, Sakyoku, Okazaki, Enshouji-cho 44

TEL: 075-(771)-6114

Nearest Station: Higashiyama Station (subway), go north 10 minutes on foot.

Closed Monday

Many performances are held on Saturday, Sunday, and holidays.

Preparing to watch Noh

Noh is very difficult for beginners. Even Japanese have a difficult time following Noh. Please prepare the following things before you go to a Noh play:

• First, it is better to learn about the story you are about to watch before you go to the play.

• Second, get a good night sleep before you see a Noh play, because Noh music produces alpha waves that can invite sleepiness.

• Third, please see if there is an earphone guide service. This can be a great help toward understanding a Noh play.

• Lastly, please enjoy the Noh world.


Noh no Shiki  Author:  Akiko Baba   /Publisher:  Saho Sugita, Tachibana Publish Corporation  Mr. Shinjirou Hukano hatsushite・kokaji’s pictures!     Noh Kokaji     Noh Kanawa  Shakaihoujinn Nohgaku Kyoukai

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