Kabuki is a traditional Japanese performing art, registered as an "Intangible Cultural Heritage" by UNESCO. In Gifu Prefecture, part of the Shoryudo, Central region of Japan (http://shoryudo.go-centraljapan.jp/en/index.html), a couple of hours north of Nagoya, you can experience Edo-period (1603-1868) style Jikabuki or "local Kabuki" theater up-close-and personal. You can even have a chance to watch a local townsperson actor(s) get ready before a performance – makeup, costume, wig, and all. Or, you can even try getting made up as an actor yourself!
At Aioiza, a small museum and shibai-goya or playhouse in the Gifu town of Mizunami, my companions and I watched as makeup was applied onto a local actor by a professional male geisha – one of only seven in Japan, and the only one in Gifu. (The other six male geisha are based in Tokyo.) This same geisha also demonstrated some percussion sound effects used in the various plays, while the amateur actor, whom he had made-up and dressed, showed us some stances and moves.
We were amazed, not only by the transformation of the townsperson into a samurai, but by the paraphernalia used. Aioiza maintains a collection of over 300 wigs and more than 4,000 kimonos! In creating the actor's samurai persona, complex stylized red and black makeup was painted over his white-colored face and neck. This is known as kumadori, and it emphasizes the powerful social ranking and personality of the character.
Gifu Prefecture has 29 traditional theater preservation groups, the largest concentration in Japan. “Mino” was the old name for Gifu during the Edo period, so the Jikabuki in Gifu is often called Mino Kabuki. Aoiza is the best example of Mino Kabuki, because it has complete performance equipment and an authentic stage with manually operated turning wheels that raise and lower actors from the basement backstage into the performing space above. During the pre-performance theater tour, we actually got to try turning the heavy wheel ourselves and watch the floor being raised and lowered.
Kabuki combines acting, dancing, and music. Historically, this high class performing art spread from Tokyo and Kyoto across the countryside by professional itinerant performers. The local, rural people soon learned these plays and started performing them in amateur versions at festivals held at local shrines. In time, the shibai-goyas, such as Aioiza, were established. As a result, Jikabuki was then performed on a regular basis as recreation for everyone.
As local recreation, there are several elements of Jikabuki that make it different from – and more intimate than – big city professional Kabuki. In Kabuki, male roles are called Tachiyakuand female roles are Onnagata. Professional Kabuki is only performed by male actors. However, in Jikabuki, male actors play women and sometimes female actors play men! In addition, one of the major attractions during the feudal Edo period was the fact that it was an opportunity for commoners to play lords and samurai (and sometimes poke fun at them), during a time when a strict class system was in place.
As with a ballet at Lincoln Center, professional Kabuki is austere and sophisticated. You don’t rustle candy wrappers during a performance. However, in Jikabuki, the audience cheers, shouts and even shows its appreciation to the non-paid actors by throwing ohineri (tips) – in the form of money wrapped in tissue paper – onto the stage. Sometimes, by the end of the performance, the entire stage can appear to be covered in ohineri confetti.
Of course, one of the true pleasures of this home-town Kabuki is the chance to try local food and saké between acts. In the old days, theater-goers would actually eat their Kabesu during the performance. Kabesu is a composite word that combines kashi (sweets), bento (boxed lunch), and sushi and refers to all snacks and meals enjoyed during a Jikabuki program. Popular regional kabesu include: gohei-mochi (white rice pounded into a sticky cake, skewered, coated in a sweet miso sauce and grilled), soba (buckwheat noodles), imo-mochi (fried potato cakes), kanten (a vegetable gelatin derived from sea weed), kiku-gobō (chrysanthemum and burdock root stir-fry – an autumn specialty), hōba-zushi (magnolia leaf sushi – a springtime specialty) and hebo-meshi (rice cooked with wasps or wasp larvae!).
Address: Aioiza Playhouse & Museum, 8004-25 Hiyoshi-chō, Mizunami-city, Gifu Pref., Japan
Phone (when dialed from USA): +81-572-69-2126; Fax: +81-572-69-212
Access: From Tokyo, take the JR Shinkasen bullet train to Nagoya (about 2 hours). From Nagoya Station take the JR Chuo Rapid line to Mizunami Station. From Mizunami Station it’s about a 20-minute taxi ride. (The trains are covered by the Japan Rail Pass.)