Tokyo is one of the liveliest places on the planet. Contrary to the popular image, the Japanese are not simply a nation of workaholics – they play hard, too. The young in particular are demanding more “lifestyle” time. Traditionally, Japanese gather with like-minded friends at small establishments catering to their interests; as a result, thousands of entertainment venues fill the city.
There’s a mind- boggling range of live music from jazz and blues to pop and techno, and the classical music scene is also very active. Tokyo is the best place to see traditional drama and is well served by touring national and international theater groups. Sports fans can head for packed baseball and soccer games, or sample traditional martial arts including sumo, the national sport.
Local guide Metropolis is a free weekly magazine (and website), published every Friday, with plenty of information on entertainment in Tokyo. Saturday’s Japan Times and Thursday’s Japan News also have good listings. They are often available at convenience stores and station kiosks, as well as book stores such as Kinokuniya, Tower Records, and Maruzen. Information on events in and around Tokyo can be accessed by visiting the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) website
Online sources: Where in Tokyo, Outdoor Japan, Go Tokyo, and Japan Visitor (a calendar of traditional festivals happening in and around the city) are also good places to go for information.
Tickets can go very quickly, so make decisions fast, be prepared for some disappointments, and have an alternative plan. For popular Japanese entertainment (such as Kabuki, Noh, sumo, or baseball) try to book in advance via a travel agent.
In Tokyo two of the main ticket agencies are Ticket PIA and CN Playguide. They can be hard to reach by phone, so it’s often easier to book in person; a convenient office is Ticket PIA at Ginza’s Sony Building. Many department stores also have their own ticket offices. Alternatively, book direct by phoning the venue; you pay when you pick up the tickets.
Kabuki and Noh, the two main forms of traditional theater, are well represented in Tokyo. Many visitors find Noh heavy-going due to the slow-paced action and dialogue in a foreign language. As a theatrical experience bordering on the mystical, however, Noh can be exceptionally powerful.
The National Noh Theater near Sendagaya JR station usually has weekend performances. Tickets vary from ¥2,600 to ¥4,800. It is also possible to see plays at a Noh school. Noh can occasionally be seen as it was originally performed: on an outdoor stage in front of a temple illuminated by torchlight, Kabuki is an all-male flamboyant spectacle with rousing stories, elaborate sets, and amazing costumes.
In 1986 Super Kabuki controversially combined avantgarde ideas and high-tech special effects (such as actors flying through the air) with traditional Kabuki. The reconstructed Kabuki-za Theater is the main venue for Kabuki, with near daily performances starting mid-morning and lasting three or more hours. It is also possible to buy a ticket to see just one act as a taster or if short of time. Prices range from ¥2,500 to ¥17,000, or ¥900 for the one-act ticket.
The National Theater has Kabuki performances in January, March, October, November, and December. Bunraku traditional puppet theater is sometimes staged in the National Theater’s Small Hall.
Kyogen is Japan’s oldest form of drama, and includes acrobatics and juggling. Now played to comic effect, Kyogen is often performed as part of Noh, or as Individual plays between Noh plays. Another theatrical tradition is Rakugo, a form of storytelling which literally means “falling down”.
Dressed in a kimono and using a minimum of props, storytellers sit on zabuton cushions in small theaters such as Suzumoto in Ueno and pass on tales old and new. Manzal, or stand-up comedy, is a Kansail tradition that can be found in Tokyo, with Shinjuku’s Luminethe Yoshimoto a convenient venue.