Visit Yachiyoza Theatre in Kumamoto for a Traditional Japanese Theatre Experience

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  • Are you a theatre enthusiast who loves to see plays and performances of all sorts? If so, consider paying a visit to Yachiyoza in Yamaga (Kumamoto Prefecture). This theatre has a long history and will enable you to glimpse into the past as well as catch some up-to-date performances by top modern artists.

    History

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    The Yachiyoza Theatre was built in 1910, a time when the city of Yamaga was a prosperous centre of commerce in Kumamoto Prefecture. At that time, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry were seeking a place to take their clients out to – a place where they could show off and have a good time together. That, coupled with the local people’s interest in the theatre and creative arts, was what prompted the building of Yachiyoza.

    It was built in the Edo Period style of old Kabuki playhouses, in a part of Yamaga which remains traditional to this day. The Buzen Kaido street is famous for its traditional look and atmosphere. The theatre opened in 1911 with a sensational performance by the Matsushimaya family.

    Heyday and Comeback

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    The theatre was a roaring success from the start, with its heyday being in the 1920’s and 1930’s with many famous performers travelling to Yamaga. The theatre’s popularity was declining rapidly by the time the 1970’s came around. New forms of entertainment such as television were entering people’s lives and as such people went to the theatre less and less. The theatre closed in the late 70’s.

    A serious leak caused by rain threatened to collapse the old theatre building; an incident which ending up being the blessing which saved it. This incident kindled nostalgic feelings for days gone by in the local people, who rallied together and raised the money to repair the theatre. The roof was repaired in 1987 and the theatre opened again, with notable early performances including a dance by the famous kabuki actor Bando Tamasaburo in 1990, who continued to make regular appearances at the theatre. This performance revived the popularity of the theatre and it once again became a success. More repair works were done in the late 90’s and it was reopened most recently in 2001.

    The Theatre Layout

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    With a capacity of an audience of 700 people, this is a good-sized theatre, particularly for being in a small place like Yamaga. The stage has been constructed with several clever features to be incorporated into performances. In the centre of the stage is a section which revolves, useful for scene changing in dramatic performances. The rotation is produced by manpower alone. There are also several trap-door type features which allow actors to spring suddenly onto the stage as if from nowhere – a useful feature for actors playing the part of a ninja.

    Foreign guests to the theatre might be surprised to find that they will be sitting on the floor – rather than on chairs, guests are allocated a ‘box’ which allows them a space in which to sit on the tatami-clad floor, four people to a box. A little lower than the stage itself, spectators sitting on the sloped floor will feel right in the action of what they are watching.

    One of the most interesting parts of the theatre is the ceiling. If you look up, you will be treated to a view of a chequerboard of pictures – each one represents an advertising picture board. This sort of decoration is unique to playhouses in Japan. You may also notice the chandelier – the original one was lost during the war when it was compulsory to donate metal to the war effort, but the new chandelier has been modelled on photographs of the original.

    The Yachiyoza Museum

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    If you want to find out more, you can visit the Yachiyoza Museum (known as Yumekogura) which is located next door, in a building much older than the theatre itself. As well as an informational short film about the theatre, you can see old props, costumes, posters and records of performances in the museum.

    Summary

    If you are interested in seeing the theatre, you can either arrange a tour through the museum (available at certain times) or go to see a performance there. Performance details can be found on the theatre’s website and tickets can be booked over the phone. Performances include popular music shows, concerts of classical music and plays as well as traditional kabuki.

    Yachiyoza Website

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    The Charm of Noh: Japan’s Oldest Traditional Performing Art