Art Culture

An Invitation To Azuma Odori: Tokyo’s Most Authentic Geisha Experience

As the shamisen sounds slowly guide you into the prelude, the white-faced, kimono-clad ladies of Tokyo’s Shimbashi district enter the spacious room, each stepping forward in her tabi, carefully heading to the stage. Their expressions are focused, their moves are precise and you can almost feel their tension — after all, they bear more weight on their heads than their wigs suggest; they carry the responsibility of continuing a nearly century-old tradition. Meet Shimbashi’s renowned geisha, the ladies behind Azuma Odori, one of Tokyo’s most respected historical performances.

© Photo by Kentaro Kumon

Held annually for an exclusive four-day limited period, Azuma Odori is a traditional performance that first took place in 1925 to commemorate the opening of Ginza’s Shinbashi Enbujo Theater, a place built to propagate the long-refined geisha culture. It is said that the performance initially began as a means to attract customers to Shimbashi, which at the time was a largely ignored and understated pleasure district — you see, most people were heading to the Kabukiza Theater just a few blocks away.

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The new show imitated an open “ryotei” (Japanese-style high-end restaurant), which combines good sake, good food and good entertainment. As the years passed, the show became so popular that it not only transformed the district into a favorite entertainment locale but even inspired writers such as Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki to write about it. Azuma Odori survived Japan’s most turbulent years and is to date continuing to entertain people while preserving the otherwise dying geisha culture in Japan.

[Azuma Odori is] an old, history-rich and culturally significant performance that you can’t see anywhere else in the world.

And this May, the show is back even stronger by partnering with local initiatives to provide a fully combined experience of traditional and modern Japan to foreign audiences.

A combination of tradition and modernity

While you can view the show on any of the four days between May 24 and May 27th this year, the show on May 25 is the one that is most worth your yen. Visitors heading to Shinbashi Enbujo on the day will enjoy a one-day tour that combines Azuma Odori viewing, a rare traditional Japanese lunch, and a night tour around several of Ginza’s most culturally important art galleries.

© Photo by Kentaro Kumon

The tour begins with a lavish Shokado-bento lunch at the Theater, a packed meal cooked by one of Japan’s most renowned ryotei specifically for this event. After getting comfortably full, guests will be heading to the main stage at the theater to view Azuma Odori, the main event of the day. The show features a stage performance, a tea ceremony performed by the geisha themselves, live shamisen music and a lot more that we won’t spoil for you. We will tell you, however, that the beautiful, nature-inspired stage will immerse you into an almost time-travel experience as it skillfully manages to present an old, history-rich and culturally significant performance that you can’t see anywhere else in the world.

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Better yet, the best part comes during intermission when the geisha join the audience for a chat and a few photo snaps.

Following the show, guests will be guided on a night tour of Ginza’s art galleries where a live flute performance by Ai Takeyama, the principal flutist at the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra, will also take place.

A rare event that combines tradition and modernity and gives a glimpse of the elegant world of Japan’s still-existing geisha, if you’re a fan of Japanese culture, have guests you want to show the truly authentic Japan to, or  just feel like doing something different for a change, this one-day event is the perfect fit for you.

© Photo by Kentaro Kumon

The Deets

“Azumaodori” × “Ginza Art Night”

When: Fri, May 25. Meet in front of Shinbashi Enbujo Theater at 2:20 p.m.
Where: Shinbashi Enbujo Theater Main Entrance, 6-18-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Cots: ¥13,500 (includes lunch, Azuma Odori viewing, Ginza art galleries tour, flute performance)
Tickets: Book here (in English).

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