Loosening up pandemic restrictions brought refreshment to Gion Kobu—after seven years, Miyako Odori is back at Gion Kaburenjo!
Miyako Odori 都をどり is an annual spring dance performance held in the top geisha district of Kyoto, Gion Kobu. The stage performances are organized daily for the whole month of April. It is the most challenging time for every geiko and maiko of Gion Kobu. There are up to four full performances per day and, afterward, usual entertainment job engagements at the teahouses’ banquets around the town that last until late at night. Some of the fresh maiko and shikomi (maiko-to-be) find Miyako Odori too demanding and quit meanwhile.
April is not the only busy month related to Miyako Odori. Intensive dance practice starts around November of the preceding year and finishes on the last day of March. Sometimes, the roles are swapped unexpectedly due to a sudden illness or retirement.
Miyako Odori was established in 1872 as a promotional campaign for Japan Expo in Kyoto, intending to revive the rigid city since the capital was relocated to fashionable Tokyo. Geiko and maiko of Gion Kobu presented their dance and musical skills on a big stage for the first time. Around that time, an official dance school was decided for Gion Kobu. 井上八千代 Inoue Yachiyo III (the head of Inoue-ryu) and 杉浦治郎右衞門 Sugiura Jiroemon (the ninth head of Ichiriki-tei, the most influential teahouse in Gion Kobu, then called Man-tei) lobbied for the Inoue school to become the official canon. It survived until today as a specific form of dance, 京舞 kyomai, taught and studied only within the precincts of Gion Kobu.
Inoue-ryu has a strong connection with the Noh theatre. It is expressed in delicate and repetitive hand gestures with deep meaning. The leading motif of each year’s Miyako Odori is four seasons and famous places in Kyoto, shown in the interlude scenes performed by geiko and maiko wearing uniform blue kimono.
Miyako Odori always starts with a traditional shout: “Miyako Odori wa… Yoi-ya-saaa!” performed by geiko and maiko. Photos and videotaping are not allowed during the performance, though it used to be acceptable to photograph even in the early 2000s.
Gion Kobu Kaburenjo’s building is a former 清住院 Seiju-in temple of the nearby Kennin-ji. It was adapted as the local theatre for maiko and geiko to host the second Miyako Odori in 1873. Completed in 1913, Kaburenjo got registered as a tangible cultural treasure of Japan. Stage performances ceased during the II World War, and when Miyako Odori returned to Gion in 1950, it was held at the Minamiza kabuki theatre. It gained nationwide attention, culminating in the current Emperor, Naruhito (then crown prince) ‘s visit in 2001. Before the war, many famous artists connected with Kyoto and Gion contributed to the excellence of Miyako Odori, with poet Junichiro Tanizaki as the primary writer of Miyako Odori songs.
The distinctive blue kimono used by the chorus dancers changes its bottom part’s motif and obi every year. Each time, the kimono are recycled into merchandise that can be purchased at the souvenir shop inside the venue. Some of the garments are saved as souvenirs and exhibited on various occasions. Every piece is a fabulous example of the craftsmanship of the old capital’s kyoyuzen dyeing and nishijin weaving techniques.