A Lesson in Noh: Ancient Japanese Theater in Sendai
There is an unassuming building in the business suburbs of Sendai that, not knowing the treasures that are held inside, you would walk right past without a second glance. But inside that plain metal warehouse lies one of the most intimate experiences you can have with one of Japan’s oldest performing arts: Noh.
Operated by the Sendai Tourist Information Desk, and run by Noh Box, this tour takes a small group of theater-goers 10 minutes out of Sendai to the Noh Box center for a hands-on workshop on the 650-year-old tradition of Noh.
Noh, like its counterpart Kabuki, is a traditional Japanese theater performance. Originating in Japan in the 14th century, it is performed by a small ensemble with minimal decoration (though the costumes are ornate and special masks are often used) on a minimal stage. The sparse decoration leaves much of the detail up to your imagination, a concept that is pervasive throughout Noh; the music and movement are deceptively simple but loaded with meaning. But the most interesting thing about this particular tour is not the architecture of the stage, the actors, or the songs, but the fact that you will actually be able to step into a pair of tabi, walk onstage, and learn to perform Noh.
The tour starts in downtown Sendai at the Fujisaki building, where the Sendai Tourist Information Desk is located. There you will meet your guides and the other participants and then it’s a short subway ride and brief walk to the Noh Box building. During the subway ride, you will be provided with some pamphlets on Noh, describing the history, stage, roles, and musicians. Additionally, a summary of the performance you will be learning is also provided to give you the necessary background.
On arrival at the Noh Box, your first introduction to the world of Noh is putting on the tabi, thick, high-ankle, toe socks with a slight sole. Though the building itself is industrial, tatami mats are laid out in a path from the chairs to the stage, and since you never wear shoes on tatami, the tabi are worn to protect the tatami and the stage itself. It helps to be prepared with your shoe size (in centimeters) to make sure you get a pair of tabi that will be comfortable. Once the group has managed to slip into their tabi (the buckles can be a little tricky!) the workshop begins in earnest.
First up is an introduction to Noh with a brief slide presentation on the history and some of the major components of a performance. While the presentation and the Noh workshop are conducted in Japanese, the Sendai Tourist Information Desk provides excellent English translation throughout the afternoon. After the introduction, the lights are brought back up and it’s time to delve into the first aspect of Noh performance: the songs.
Handouts are provided with the lyrics (in kanji and romaji) so that you can follow along. In a “call and response” fashion, our instructor first sang through the portion of the song that we would be learning as an example, then as a group we repeated each line after her. Once we had studied the song, it was time to step onto the stage and learn the accompanying dance. Each participant was given a fan, and special instructions on how to open it. In Noh, something as simple as opening a fan must be done in a very precise and deliberate way.
After we had mastered the fan operation, we learned how to move across the stage, finally coming into a kneeling position where we would sing the stanzas we had just learned. Luckily for the wholly-uncoordinated (such as myself) in this particular performance the singing and dancing are not done at the same time. Once you have sung the first stanza from a kneeling position, the remaining portion is sung by the chorus at the rear of the stage, while the actor then dances.
Finally, after learning the motions and putting it together with the song, under the guidance of our very helpful sensei, we were able to perform. The portion we performed lasted only a few minutes, but after only about 30 minutes of instruction, we had successfully performed Noh just as it would have been centuries ago! As a reward for our efforts, once we had completed our performance (and I use the word “performance” liberally) we were treated to the entire Noh program performed by our amazing sensei.
I’ll have to admit that Noh as an artform is somewhat of an acquired taste. It’s not as animated as Kabuki, the decoration and costumes are sparse, and you certainly won’t leave humming any showtunes. But what it lacks in glitz, it makes up for in a rich history. The Noh performances are basically unchanged since they began over 650 years ago. When you watch, or are lucky enough to actually participate, there is an unavoidable connection to the past. The movements and music are hauntingly beautiful and the whole experience was one I will never forget. If you have the opportunity to see Noh it’s definitely not to be missed. But being able to actually learn this ancient artform, unchanged since the 14th century, was unforgettable and a highlight of my time in Japan.