An Otaku’s Day Out in Takarazuka, Hyogo
There’s a city in Hyogo Prefecture called Takarazuka, and if you’re really into Japan, you’ll know that the city is famous for two things, one of them more well-known than the other. If you’re new to Japan, however, and this is the first time you’re hearing about Takarazuka, here’s a multiple choice quiz for you: What is this city most famous for?
If your answer was 1, 2 or 4, you have to continue reading. If your answer is 3, you may proceed to yell:
"It’s not famous for a theatre, it’s famous for a musical theatre troupe!"
Excellent, fellow pedants. You know your Japan. And for those who are wondering, #1 features sobameshi, a ‘commoner’s dish’ of Kobe City; #2 features the gorgeous Himeji Castle situated in Himeji City, also a World Heritage Site; and #4 is indeed a legendary sports stadium found in Nishinomiya City — Koshien, the home field of pro baseball team Hanshin Tigers, and the mecca for every high school baseball player aiming for the National High School Baseball Championships, held at Koshien every summer. All these cities belong to Hyogo Prefecture.
Takarazuka City is, indeed, famous for the Takarazuka Revue. The other thing it is famous for, which I didn’t include in the quiz, is the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum. This makes the city a must-visit for two very different breeds of enthusiast — today I will attempt to introduce the city from this niche point of view.
Firstly, the Revue. The Takarazuka Revue is an all-female performance troupe founded over a century ago by a man who basically wanted to challenge the all-male, traditional concept of kabuki. A hundred years later, with women playing both male and female roles, it has become one of the hallmarks of Japanese theatrical culture despite its productions having a strong Western influence, and has dedicated fans from all over the world.
I happen to be one of these fans. Within Japan, we often call ourselves ‘Zuka-wota’, a portmanteau of the words ‘Takarazuka’ and ‘otaku’ (meaning ‘maniac’ in English, except the word ‘otaku’, often shortened to ‘ota’, uses the alternative spelling ‘wota’ in this case). Fun fact: The ‘-wota’ suffix is commonly used to refer to fans of other entities as well, and isn’t exclusive to Takarazuka. Someone who is a fan of Johnny’s idols, for instance, is often referred to as a ‘Johnny-wota’ (or ‘Jani-wota’, should we remain true to the romanisation of the Japanese).
Because this article is not solely about the Takarazuka Revue I will skip the whys and hows of I got into the fandom — though no article about Takarazuka City is complete without mentioning the Revue, so bear with me a while longer — and go straight to explaining how being a fan of the Revue directly relates to familiarity with the city. To draw a comparison that might be easier understood by the general public: You know those people who go to comic book or anime conventions that they have to travel across the country for, and they dress up and attend meet-and-greets with the people they’re fans of and buy loads of merchandise to stuff their extra suitcase with?
Yeah, that’s me. Except my convention is the Takarazuka Revue.
Every Takarazuka Revue production premieres first at the Takarazuka Grand Theater in Takarazuka City, then has its Tokyo run at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater, located in the Hibiya district. Each run in each city lasts about five and a half weeks — some people travel to Takarazuka multiple times during this period to watch as many shows as they can, while others make a trip out of it and stay there over a few consecutive days to do all the fan-related activities, apart from watching the shows.
There are five troupes in the Revue — Flower, Moon, Snow, Star and Cosmos — and I’ve been a fan of Snow since 2012. Each troupe stages two productions at the two theatres every year, so if you do the math, that’s a lot of trips to Takarazuka.
The Takarazuka Revue is owned by a railway company, Hankyu Railways. Remember the man I mentioned a few paragraphs ago who wanted to challenge the concept of kabuki with the Takarazuka Revue? He was the president of Hankyu Railways in the early 1900s, and a line they owned terminated in Takarazuka City. He decided that Takarazuka, which was already drawing crowds to its hot springs, needed some sort of feature tourist attraction, and since live entertainment that was popular in the West (think old-school Parisian cabarets and revues) was being embraced by the Japanese, something that involved song and dance would attract more people to the area.
That, essentially, is how a railway company birthed one of Japan’s most unique performing entities.
Hankyu Railways is one of the most important private railway operators in the Kansai area, serving multiple prefectures and connecting major cities. The Takarazuka stop is the terminus of two lines, the Hankyu Takarazuka Line and the Hankyu Imazu Line. However, Hankyu wasn’t the first train operator to serve Takarazuka City. Another operator, the West Japan Railway Company (now JR West), opened their stop in 1910, on the Fukuchiyama Line — the Hankyu Takarazuka stop was built 13 years later, just across the road from it. Today, the Hankyu Takarazuka Station and JR Takarazuka Station are still situated adjacent to each other, connected by a sheltered platform.
Because of the connection to the railway company, it’s always a thrill for a Zuka-wota to travel to Takarazuka City on a Hankyu train. I do actually make the effort to stay somewhere with easy access to a Hankyu station that brings me directly to Takarazuka on a Hankyu train. So far I’ve stayed in Juso and Hotarugaike, Juso affording easy access to Umeda Station, where many highway buses terminate, and Hotarugaike connecting me to Itami Airport via monorail. From either station, the journey to Takarazuka takes 30 minutes or less.
At the Hankyu Takarazuka Station (the platforms are on a higher floor), I recommend you turn around to take in the stair art:
This simple touch is what sets Takarazuka apart from other cities for the Zuka-wota. It’s a little bit like entering the gates of Disneyland — an alternate universe, a refuge, the escapist’s dream.
After getting off the train, you might see dozens of women rushing towards the theatre, especially in the morning — they’re likely off to meet the Takarazuka actress they support. The cool thing about the Revue is you get to go up close and personal with the actresses, and that includes joining their fan clubs, earning the right to hand them your fan letters right before they go to work and at the end of the day. (Note: This practice has been suspended due to the pandemic, but it was an important and deeply traditional part of the Takarazuka fan experience.)
This is the path that leads to Takarazuka Grand Theater: the almost-sacred Hana-no-michi (‘Flower Avenue’).
There are several shops and restaurants situated in the Hana-no-michi building. One of them is a sandwich shop, Lemans, famous enough to be featured in major TV programmes that air during prime-time (many Japanese are gourmands; they love their food-related TV).
On the way to the theatre, check out the sculptures on the Hana-no-michi! Takarazuka is a treasure trove of art; you can find many beautiful sculptures dotting this area of the city.
The inside of this theatre is gorgeous, in a 1950s-bourgeois type of way.
The grounds of the theatre are open to the public and even if you don’t have a ticket to a show you are welcome to enter, explore, and take photos.
Not too far away from the theatre (it is a mere two-minute walk, four if you’re slow) is the other famous thing in Takarazuka: The Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum. Look at this sign on the Hana-no-michi:
Being an uncultured swine when it comes to anime and manga, I am hardly familiar with the works of Osamu Tezuka. I have, however, been a Japanophile long enough to have heard of him and know who he was, so imagine my surprise when the Takarazuka that I had come to love was found to be linked to the Father of Manga!
Tezuka was born in Toyonaka, Osaka, but when he was five years old, he moved to his late grandfather’s house in what is now Takarazuka City. He continued to stay there for 20 years. He and his mother were fans of the Takarazuka Revue, and it is said that some of his works, like Princess Knight, even feature characters that were inspired by the Revue.
Since Tezuka Osamu has such solid ties to Takarazuka (both the Revue and the city), it isn’t uncommon for the Revue’s actresses to introduce the museum as part of a PR tactic to promote the city amongst Japanese travelers.
There is an animation workshop where you can learn some simple animation techniques. This was my experience!
Over here, with assistance from the staff, I try a hand at animating something. The assistant asks me to draw a picture on a sheet of paper. I’m no artist, but when I visited, I attempted to draw a penguin.
The assistant told me to place the second sheet of paper over the first sheet and trace over the picture of my penguin, except with a different expression.
The final product is this:
The staff took my drawings and scanned them into the computer. Before long, I saw my penguin on the screen — now animated and waving at me!
The computers handling this process are a bit old, but overall the experience is a fun one. I'd definitely recommend this activity for everyone who visits the museum, not just children. Also, usually there’s a wait for the Animation Workshop, but if you go on a weekday you likely will be able to enter without queueing.
Even if you are the most unfamiliar with anime, there has to be at least one character you recognise in this museum because Osamu Tezuka’s creations are so iconic!
This museum isn't just for fans of the anime adaptations, however. On one of the floors there’s actually a library housing Osamu Tezuka’s manga, and you can sit down and read them for free.
It takes slightly under an hour to cover the entire museum, and after you're done, you can head further south to see the other landmarks of Takarazuka.
I cross the Takarazuka Bridge (宝塚大橋 Takarazuka oohashi) to the other side of the Muko River (武庫川 Mukogawa), an iconic sight of Takarazuka City as the theatre overlooks its banks. These places are also iconic locations for the Takarazuka otaku to visit, for no other reason than how they’re features of the birthplace of the revue. The view of the river from the bridge is picturesque, and there are stone benches for people to rest on and appreciate the view.
The area south of the Grand Theatre is called Takarazuka-minamiguchi (literally, ‘Takarazuka South Exit’) and there are eateries and shops dotting the area right outside the station. It is more homely than the spaces around Takarazuka Station is and there are actually many actresses who live around here, though fans tend to be careful and well-behaved around them.
The Takarazuka Hotel used to be situated in Takarazuka-minamiguchi, but it has since relocated to a closer spot right beside the Grand Theatre. For decades it was known as a symbol of sophistication, luxury and comfort.
Now that the Takarazuka Hotel is beside the Grand Theatre, Takarazuka-minamiguchi is quieter than ever, but there are still places to enjoy, especially as night falls. One worth mentioning is Silvia, a bar-cum-event space where everyone is welcome. There, you can relax and sometimes even meet a Takarazuka actress stopping by for a nightcap. The owner and bartender used to be an actress herself and has many stories to tell. It’s also a place to meet and chat with other locals, especially foreigners who live in the area.
Takarazuka City is truly a place where you can go deep, both culturally, sub-culturally and locally. If you are a Japanophile and have a good grasp of the language, Takarazuka is the perfect place to visit. If you are a casual traveller to Kansai, it is still worth a stop to catch a breath of a different atmosphere that is still uniquely Japanese, though distinctly non-traditional.