Kongo School events – January 2017

2016 was a terrible year in so many ways. What better way to start the new year than with Noh! Here are a few dates you may want to save if you are in Kyoto in January 2017

  • Jan 3 from 09:00 Yasaka Shrine Okina free of charge
  • Jan 3 from 12:00 Kongo Noh TheatreUtai-zome (ritual chanting of Okina, plus maibayashi Yumi Yawata) free of charge
  • Jan 6-8 Udaka Michishige Men-no-Kai Noh mask exhibition, Kyoto Prefectural Cultural Art Hall
  • Jan 17 Yōseikai Young generation series at Kanze Kaikan. Various performances. Free of charge
  • Jan 22 Kongo Monthly performance at Kongo Noh Theatre. Noh: Tōbōku, Iwafune



— Diego Pellecchia

Ominameshi (Kongo Monthly Noh October 2016)

This coming Sunday, 23rd of October Udaka Michishige is going to perform the Noh Ominameshi 女郎花 at the Kongo Noh Theatre in Kyoto.

Here is a summary of the play.

A Traveling Priest comes to Mt. Otoko on the western outskirts of the capital in the autumn and seeing that the area is covered with beautiful ominaeshi or ominameshi (a yellow-flowered valerian), one of the seven autumn herbs, he recalls poetic references to it and decides to pick one. Just as he is about to do so he is stopped by an Old Man. The Old Man explains that he is the guardian of the flowers. The Priest wonders that this particular flower is protected. Exchanges of poetic references with the Old Man convince the Priest that he is a man of feeling. The Old Man then takes the Priest to the Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine where he shows him two graves which he describes as being that of a man and a woman. The woman’s grave is covered with ominameshi and the Old Man reveals that they were husband, Ono no Yorikaze, a man of the area of Mt. Otoko, and wife, a woman from the Capital and that there is a story behind their deaths. Entreating the Priest to pray for their souls, the Old Man disappears.

Later the spirits of the man and his wife appear. They describe how the wife drowned herself after being treated coldly by Yorikaze. When ominameshi blossoms appeared on her grave Yorikaze was overwhelmed with remorse and also drowned himself. He suffers in hell for his unwitting cruelty and prays for deliverance for their souls. (Rebecca Teele Ogamo)



— Diego Pellecchia

[FREE] 2016 New Year Noh performances

Okina - Kongo Hisanori
Okina – Kongo Hisanori (Yasaka-jinja, Kyoto)

The New Year period is a busy time for Noh actors! Augural plays wishing long life and happiness are performed at various locations, especially Shinto shrines. If you are in Kyoto during the first week of January 2016, I recommend that you check out these FREE Noh performances.

Link to a (partial) performance calendar of the Kongo school here)

  • January 1st Friday from 12:30 @Heian Shrine. Ritual Noh performance. Okina. Shite: Kongo Hisanori.
  • January 3rd Sunday from 09:00 @Yasaka Shrine. Okina. Shite: Katayama Kuroemon. Shimai: Tsurukame. Shite: Kongo Hisanori.
  • January 3rd Sunday from 12:30 @Kongo Noh theatre. First performance of the year. Recitation of the chant of Okina, shimai and maibayashi (Iwafune Shite: Kongo Tatsunori).



Noh and Kyogen: Lessons For School Teachers

Teaching Noh and Kyogen at elementary, middle, and high schools is part of a larger plan to educate the Japanese youth in the Japanese classic performing arts introduced by the ministry of education in recent years. This sounds like a good idea, as one of the biggest problems the contemporary world of Noh is facing is its inability to attract young audiences. If kids received more exposure to Noh and Kyogen, they could grow an interest in it, or at least it would not feel as alien as it does to most young Japanese. Teaching Noh at school sounds good… but how? Critics of this educational plan pointed out how school teachers, many of whom are ignorant of the classic arts in general, are in fact the reason why kids don’t get to like Noh and Kyogen. Adding plays to textbooks is not sufficient: teachers need to know what they are talking about in order to make the topic meaningful and engaging.

Kongo School Noh workshop at Uji Shiritsu Nanbu Elementary School

In order to address this important issue the Nōgaku Kyōkai (Noh Professionals Association) has organised educational activities in which Noh professionals visit schools and give workshops both to students and teachers. Last year I attended one of these at the Uji Shiritsu Nanbu Elementary School. The workshop was led by Udaka Tatsushige, who is one of the performers in charge of such activities for the Kyoto area. It was an interesting experience, and he students responded very well to the various activities offered.

Kongo School Noh workshop at Uji Shiritsu Nanbu Elementary School

However, sporadic visits to schools will not yield outstanding results: some Noh groups such as the Katayama family in Kyoto and the Tessen-kai in Tokyo are providing more extensive and regular teaching sessions, specifically aimed at instructing the teachers, who will then be able to lecture on Noh and Kyogen even without the need of specialists. One of these sessions, commissioned by the Agency for Cultural Affaires and organised by Tessen-kai, will take place at the Tessen-kai research office in Tokyo on August 22nd and 23rd from 13:00 to 18:00. This event targets school teachers and educators, who will be able attend the performance of the Kyogen Kaki Yamabushi (‘Persimmon Yamabushi’) and the Noh Hagoromo (‘The Robe of Feathers’), plays that feature current school textbooks. Participants will also join practical sessions on performance techniques, as well as lectures on the dramaturgy and history of Noh and Kyogen. The event is free of charge.


[VIDEO] Comparing styles: Kanze and Kongo

People often wonder what differences are there between Noh stylistic schools, or ryū. In this video Kanze actor Katayama Shingo (on the left), and Kongō actor Teshima Kōji (on the right) demonstrate side by side a number of kata that exemplify various differences between shite dance styles. Ō-tsuzumi (hip-drum) player Taniguchi Masayoshi, conducting the experiment, introduces the two styles according to a well-established view of Kanze style as refined, purified from unnecessary movements, and Kongō style as elaborate, focusing on bodily technique. From 19:14 you can watch the performance of the shimai dance excerpt from the Noh Yashima, followed by an analysis of the kata differences. From 30:00 the chant of the kiri final section of Hagoromo is compared. Again, Kanze is thought to be refined while Kongō is dynamic. Ask anyone in the Noh about the differences between these schools and they will most likely say something very similar to this. I have my reservations about what seems to be an oversimplification or even a stereotype, though I understand why marketing requires (over)simplification in order to enhance penetration. Kongō dance is often more theatrical, featuring wide movements, but Kanze dance can be very elaborate, too. If refined means heavily embellished then Kanze chanting style certainly is refined. However I think that, if properly performed, Kongō school’s more essential chanting style is equally sophisticated. Anyway here is the video – you don’t need to know Japanese to enjoy.

(sorry for the HTML code below the video – I don’t seem to be able to delete it when embedding USTREAM…)

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School or ryu?

When I introduce myself or talk about my training in Noh, I often find myself in need to explain what I mean by ‘Kongō school’ (金剛流 Kongō-ryū). There is a common misunderstanding deriving from the use of the word ‘school’ (or it. scuola; fr. école; ger. Schule – it extends to all European languages) as translation of the Japanese ryū. Since many have asked me to explain what exactly a ‘Noh school’ is, I would like to use this space to clarify a couple of things regarding this matter.

The Kongo School stage
The Kongo School stage

The Kongō school, to which I belong, is one of the five stylistic schools of shite actors (the others being Kanze, Komparu, Hōshō, and Kita). ‘School’ is none other than a free translation of ryū (lit. ‘current’, or ‘flow’), a word defining a performance style peculiar to a certain group of actors who are organised in a ‘guild’, a pyramid structure on top of which is the iemoto (lit. ‘foundation/origin of the house’). These ryū are the contemporary configuration of troupes of performers called za, which emerged in the Muromachi period, and that later underwent a process of professionalisation that led to the creation of ryū specialised in particular roles and instruments. Various styles, or ‘ways of performing’ a specific element of Noh become formalised during the Edo period, multiplying the possible combinations of chant, dance, drum and flute performance when these elements come together on stage. In fact, one of the difficulties performers need to face is getting used to a variety of styles in order to be able to perform with more than one ryū, because all performing roles (as shite actors are grouped in the five ryū mentioned above, waki, kyogen, taiko, ko-tsuzumi, ō-tsuzumi, fue – all have different ryū). For example, a Kongō-ryū shite could perform with a Fukuō-ryū waki or a Takayasu-ryū waki, with a kō-ryū or okura-ryū ko-tsuzumi, etc. (However, ryū are not represented equally across the territory, which makes it so that some ryū always get to perform with a certain other ryū more often than others… it’s getting complicated… I might need to write another post to explain this).

The Noh ryū system

Anyway, each ryū has a iemoto on top of it, and his (male) heirs immediately under him. However, ryū are also composed of other families which have been affiliated with a certain ryū, and might to some extent have developed a particular ‘style within the style’. Although dependent to the iemoto supreme leader, such families achieve a certain degree of independence which has often led (and still leads) to power struggles within the ryū. The obvious example is the Umewaka family, a formerly independent group which were incorporated into the Kanze school at the beginning of the Edo period (early seventeenth century). When, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Umewaka family attempted to declare independence, it was excommunicated from the Kanze school by the iemoto, only to rejoin a few years later. Disputes like this are common in the history of Noh, and still continue today.

In short, a ryū is a conglomerate of individuals, some of whom are descendants of families that have been in the Noh profession for generations, while others are associates of these families – they can be amateur students who turn to professionalism, or relatives adopted into the professional family. The iemoto family, from which the style takes the name, is the highest ranking within the school. The iemoto himself, as the ultimate leader of the school, holds the rights to grant teaching licenses, to authorise performances, to revise and publish scripts (hence to earn publication revenues), to accept and to expel members, etc.

This is to say that a Noh ‘school’ is not an educational institution like a drama academy, with lectures, practice rooms, recitals, etc. Noh actors do practice and perform recital, but their training and performance is not structured and regulated as in a Western-style conservatory. There is no ‘school building’ where all trainees report to in the morning. Most young professionals are either born into families of professionals, or become apprentices (uchi-deshi, or house-apprentice) to a professional. This means they either visit the home/practice space (the two do not necessarily coincide) of their teacher, or else they actually live in the home/practice space. This second option, called sumi-komi (live-in) is normal when the teacher is the iemoto or a high-ranking actor from an affluent family with a long heritage in the Noh profession, simply because these two figures are the only ones likely to own a stage as well as facilities big enough to serve the purpose of training disciples. An additional reason is that proximity to the origin of tradition (i.e. the iemoto) is likely to provide the ‘purest quality of technique’, as opposed to learning from another teacher, whose style will be similar but different from that of the iemoto. Finally, learning directly from the iemoto allows a performer to… well, claim that he/she has learnt directly from the iemoto: it is pedigree. For example, my teacher (Udaka Michishige) was uchi-deshi of the previous iemoto (Kongō Iwao II), which means he had direct transmission, while I am removed by one degree. In a small school like the Kongō school, undergoing an uchi-deshi training period with the iemoto is the only way to ensure a young actor is exposed to all the necessary kinds of knowledge he/she will need in order to become a full professional.

I feel like I have made things more complex than I intended to – feel free to ask for clarification if you need to!

Rare play: Genzai shichimen

Yesterday I attended the last of the Kongō monthly series of the year. As usual two Noh plays were performed, but I was particularly interested in seeing the Iemoto Kongō Hisanori perform Genzai shichimen, a play that has been staged yesterday for the first time in 60 years. The play is currently in the repertorie of the Kanze and Kongō schools only, and its special feature is a costume change and mask ‘change’ on stage (not seven masks, just one – in case you are wondering…) in second half. In this play two masks are donned one on top of the other.

Rebecca Teele Ogamo regularly writes extensive programme notes with detailed costume and mask information every month – thanks to Rebecca’s notes of Genzai shichimen I was able to appreciate the play even more. I did go through the utai of the play with Udaka Michishige-sensei, who was jigashira chorus leader, a couple of times, but the kyūhon ‘old’ cursive utai-bon script made it difficult to follow the story, so I am grateful to Rebecca for that!

The costume change in Genzai Shichimen - print by Tsukioka Kogyo
The costume change in Genzai Shichimen – print by Tsukioka Kogyo

In the play the waki, Nichiren Shōnin (1222-82), founder of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, is preaching at Mt. Minobu (Yamanashi prefecture). A local woman rejoices in hearing the Lotus Sutra preached, and. upon Nichiren’s questioning, she replies that she suffers the Three Burning Torments. Eventually, she reveals her true nature: she is the Dragon who lives in the Shichimen Pond. At this point thunders and lightings fill the sky and the woman disappears. In the second half of the play, a Dragon enters, with a particular costume and mask set up. Though Kanze uses a Hannya mask, the Iemoto chose a terrifying dai-ja (great serpent) mask, of the kind used for the Noh Dōjōji. This mask in the Kongō collection is rather scary due to its asymmetry and grotesque, contorted fanged mouth. However, after Nichiren has recited lines from the Lotus Sutra, the Dragon goes retreats to the back of the stage, where assistants help to change costume and mask. Besides Dai-e, where the shite wears the shaka Buddha mask on top of a beshimi tengu mask, Genzai shichimen is the only other play I know were two masks are worn one on top of the other. I can only imagine how difficult it is to move on stage with such set-up. The Dragon transforms into a heavenly maiden (zo-onna was the mask used yesterday) who then dances a kagura Shinto Dance in thanks for having reached enlightenment, and finally flies away in the clouds.

Nichiren was a militant preacher, advocating the primacy of the Lotus Sutra above all other Buddhist doctrines. His aggressive attitude towards the other Sects, which he deemed responsible for the corruption of the country during his time, was extreme. He founded the first Buddhist doctrine originating in Japan, and could be seen as an precursor of Japanese religious nationalism (though this is usually associated with Shinto). The combination of Buddhist and Shinto elements can be found in other plays, but it is even more justified in this play since Nichiren (as others before him) comprised Shinto elements, such as the Sun-Goddess Amaterasu, within the all-encompassing cosmos of the Lotus Sutra.

The author of the play is unknown, but I wonder whether the various special features – a dragon god/heavenly maiden, an important waki character, special effects such as costume and mask change) – don’t indicate that the play was probably written in the late Muromachi Period. Yamanaka Reiko and Lim Beng Choo have written about plays composed during this period here and here.

10 years of Shin-Kongo Nogakudo

On Sunday 24th of November a special celebratory event marked the 10th anniversary of the construction of the new Kongō Nō theatre, in Kyoto. The old theatre in Muromachi-street was a landmark in the history of Kyoto Noh, as it was the only stage rebuilt after all three main stages in Kyoto were burnt during the the Meiji upheavals. In 2004 the new state-of-the-art Kongō theatre opened on Karasuma street, in front of the imperial palace. I never had the pleasure of visiting the old theatre, but I heard many stories about it from  actors in the school. It still had tatami mats instead of chairs, and large windows that let warm daylight illuminate the stage, across clouds of tobacco smoke lifting from the back seats. There, important guests would be able to sit in privacy, hidden behind lowered bamboo curtains, which they would lift only to watch the performance. Unfortunately the building did not conform to the modern health & safety (and fire protection) standards, and had to be demolished.

The Shin-Kongo Nogakudo

The Shin-Kongō Nōgakudō (New Kongō Nōgakudō) is one of the best Noh theatres I have ever visited. The design style of the building mixes traditional and modern, wood and concrete, in a unique blend that creates an atmosphere that is not too relaxed, nor too intimidating. It has comfortable armchairs (but not too dangerously comfortable), and the temperature usually is just right, unlike other places where you either freeze or steam.

Sunday’s performance opened with a special variation of Okina a ritual performance celebrating long and prosperous life. In this variation, called jūnitsukiōrai, the Iemoto Kongō Hisanori and his son Kongō Tatsunori took the roles of two Okina exchanging verses describing the characteristics of each lunar month. The choice of the variation was excellent because it emphasises the cycle of time and seasons with both the Kongō father and son on stage, symbolising the generational transmission of the Kongō heritage. It closed with a final left-right salutation from Kongō Tatsunori, who will be the future Iemoto.

The Kongo Noh butai

The maibayashi extracted from the Noh Ema featured three of the senior Noh actors in the Kongō school, Teshima Michiharu, Imai Kiyotaka and my teacher, Udaka Michishige, who took the strong role of the god Tajikarao, pulling the Sun-Goddess Amaterasu out of the cave where she was hiding.

Hagoromo (shōgi no monogi variation) featured the beautiful ‘phoenix robe’, a costume only worn by the Kongō Iemoto. In this variation the tennyō (celestial maid) dons the costume while sitting on a stool in the middle of the stage.

Shakkyō (The Stone Bridge) concluded the long day of performances, with Kongō Tatsunori taking the role of the lion (an avatar of the Bodhisattva Manjusri) frolicking among white and red peonies.


Rare Play: ‘Hoso’ 彭祖 to be performed in Kyoto

On Sunday 27th October 2013 Kongō-ryu shite actor UDAKA Michishige will perform the rare Noh Hōso, exclusive to the Kongō school of Noh, as part of the Kongo Noh Theatre monthly programme. The Noh Yōkihi and the Kyogen Hagi Daimyō will also be performed on the day.

Noh: Hoso. National Noh Theatre, Tokyo. Shite: Kongo Hisanori. Photo: Aoki Shinji

Noh: Hōso 彭祖

Celebrations are being held at the court of Gi no Buntei in China and among the many immortals who come from their mountain hermitages to pay their respects is one who appears to be a young boy but calls himself ‘Hōso’, the ‘Prosperous Ancestor’. Asked about his identity, he tells how he was once in service at court but was exiled long ago for the crime of stepping over the Emperor’s pillow. In his compassion the Emperor gave the youth the pillow as a keepsake along with a quotation from the Kannon Sutra. Hōso explains that he was acquired eternal youth by drinking the water from the stream running by his hut. Hōso faithfully copied the quotation on the leaves of chrysanthemums which grew by his hut and dew that fell from them transformed the stream into an elixir. The emperor vows to visit Hōso’s hermitage on Mt. Tekken and later Hōso dances for him there.

Hōso is the sequel to Makura Jidō (titled Kiku Jidō in the Kanze school version) in which the young boy is discovered in his place of exile and he first realises that he has become an immortal, thanks to the power of the quotation he has copied on the chrysanthemum leaves. Hōso is performed only by the Kongō school.

(Text: Rebecca Teele Ogamo)

Kongo Noh Theatre, Kyoto. Monthly performance series (October).

  • Noh Yōkihi: Matsuno Yasunori
  • Kyogen Hagi Daimyō: Shigeyama Akira
  • Noh Hōso: Udaka Michshige

Doors open at 13:00, performances start at 13:30.

Tickets: Advance booking: 5,500yen At the door: 6,000yen Students: 3,000yen

For more information on the performance, or to reserve tickets, please contact me here.

Kongo map english