Photo: Yuko Takeda

Noh Theatre: an ever-evolving tradition (Part 1)


Written on April 11, 2018 by Yuko Takeda (TEO) 

I was back in my home country Japan for the winter break. During my stay there, I got to experience a little bit of Noh theatre, the oldest existing theatre art in the world. It is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama which has been performed since the 14th century.

Being a Japanese actress living abroad, I’ve often been asked about traditional Japanese performing arts such as Kabuki, Bunraku, and Noh. To be honest, I didn’t know what to say about them because there hadn’t been any opportunity for me to learn any of them. For one thing, Kabuki and Bunraku have been a male-dominant world where a female performer is not recognized as a legitimate professional. But, what about Noh? I wondered. With a little bit of research, I found that there were many schools and lessons available to learn Noh theatre in Japan and that they were open to everyone.

I then contacted one of the Noh actor-teachers, Motonori Umewaka, to ask whether it would be possible for me to interview him about Noh theatre and its training system and philosophy. He graciously offered me a short workshop where he would not only answer my questions but also provide an opportunity to experience the basic walk and the masks. He invited me to his newly built Nishinomiya Noh Theatre for the workshop.

So, on a sunny but chilly afternoon of December 27, 2017, I participated in a 90-minute Noh workshop taught by Motonori Umewaka. There were four parts to it: (1) architecture of Noh theatre, (2) Suri-ashi – the basic walk of Noh theatre, (3) Noh masks, and (4) Q&A. The following is the highlights from each part.


(1) architecture of Noh theatre

Nishinomiya Noh Theatre is located a few minutes’ walk from JR Naruo train station in Hyogo Prefecture. Naruo 鳴尾  is one of the places mentioned in Noh plays. The exterior of the theatre is modern; It has concrete walls with sharp angles. I look twice to make sure if I am at the right place. I’d imagine a Noh theatre to look more organic, for example, a wooden building. Mr. Umewaka says that he wanted to have the modern design on the exterior while keeping the traditional design inside.

In fact, when I enter the building, the atmosphere changes from the inorganic to the organic with most of the construction material’s being wood. After a brief introduction in the dressing room with a few other participants, we are led to the theatre.

As we walk into the space filled with soft, white light and the fresh smell of wood, Mr. Umewaka tells us, “Almost all the Noh theatres built in modern times are indoors, while in the beginning, the theatres were built outdoors. They used to use natural light or the sunlight to illuminate the stage. No wonder about that because there was no electricity back then. When this Noh theatre was being constructed, I specifically asked for it to be facing south with open windows so that the stage can have some natural light in addition to the artificial light.”

(Photo: Courtesy of Nishinomiya Noh Theatre)

Mr. Umewaka then starts to point at various parts of the stage and explains what each of them mean. The architecture of the Noh theatre is universal, meaning that every Noh theatre stage in Japan looks pretty much the same. It’s remarkable that they have been able to keep the design almost unchanged for more than 600 years. Every part of the Noh theatre has a historical and cultural anecdote or more. Here are some of them.

Shirasu 白洲

Between the audience seats and the stage, there is a strip of white pebbles called Shirasu. Its spiritual meaning is said to be the border to protect the sacred from the common world. In a practical sense, it used to function as a natural reflector of the sunlight when the Noh stage was built outside.

Noh stage能の舞台

The theatre is made of Hinoki cypress. Hinoki 檜 is considered to be the finest wood for construction in Japan. It’s often called “the divine tree.” It’s so strong, rot-resistant, and incredibly durable that many temples and shrines built with Hinoki have lasted for hundreds of years without crumbling down. Its aroma is also something many Japanese like and treasure. In fact, when I step onto the stage, it immediately feels familiar and sacred. The stage is indeed treated with utmost care and respect; Everyone who walks on the Noh stage must wear white tabi, traditional Japanese socks that are ankle-high and with separations between the big toes and other toes.

The stage has four areas: Hashigakari 橋掛り, Honbutai 本舞台, Atoza (Yokoita) 後座(横板), Jiutaiza 地謡座.

Hashigakari 橋掛り is a pathway at far stage right where Noh actors enter and exist. The performers are already and still acting as they walk through Hashigakari. At the beginning of it is Agemaku揚幕, the five-color curtain. The five colors represent the Five Elements of the Wu Xing, an ancient Chinese conceptual scheme to explain various phenomena in the universe: Tree (green), Earth (yellow), Fire (red), Metal (white), Water (purple). Everything on earth is born from and comes back to those elements. Thus, the entrance and exist of the actors is made by the opening and closing of the five-color curtain.

Mr. Umewaka also explains the three pine trees placed along Hashigakari. From the main stage, they are called Ichi-no-matsu 一の松, Ni-no-matsu 二の松, San-no-matsu 三の松. The further the tree is from the main stage the shorter and smaller it is. That way the audience can feel a greater sense of distance.  


Honbutai 本舞台 is the main stage area, a perfect square of approx. 30 square meters (5.5m width and length). This area is marked by four pillars: Shite-bashira シテ柱 at upstage right, Fue-bashira 笛柱 at upstage left, Waki-bashira ワキ柱 at downstage left, and Metsuke-bashira 目付柱 at downstage right.  Each pillar is named so for a reason. Shite is the leading role in a play with or without a mask. Shite often stands by Shite-bashira. Fue is a traditional Japanese flute. A musician who plays fue sits near Fue-bashira. Waki is the counterpart to Shite in a play. Waki is always without a mask and often sits by Waki-bashira. Metsuke-bashira (literally meaning eye-fixing pillar) functions as an important guide post for Shite. With a mask on, Shite’s field of sight gets severely limited, which makes it hard to see the edge of the stage. By knowing where Metsuke-bashira is, Shite can walk around the stage without falling off from it.

Mr. Umewaka then points at a metal pulley attached to the ceiling. “That is used only in one play called Dōjōji. A huge bell is hung from there and dropped when it’s time,” he explains. In the Noh theatre repertoire, there are about 240 plays available. 


Atoza (Yokoita) 後座(横板)is the upstage area where musicians and stage attendants sit. Officially the musicians are called Hayashi-kata 囃子方. It consists of three drummers who play the shime-daikoōtsuzumi (hip drum), and kotsuzumi (shoulder drum) and one flutist who plays a Japanese flute (fue) called Nohkan.

“Do you see the ceiling here is angled?” Mr. Umewaka points at the ceiling of Atoza. “It is because we want sound to go out to the audience. The slanted ceiling reflects sound and helps us to project our voices, too” he explains with a gesture. It is yet another creative architectural device from the time when there was no PA system. 

Then Mr. Umewaka tells fascinating stories regarding the painting of a big pine tree on the back wall. The tree is called Oimatsu老松, which means “an old pine tree,” and the back wall, Kagami-ita鏡板, literally meaning “a mirror plate.” Oimatsu drawn on Kagami-ita is not a scenic painting. In the very beginning of the Noh theatre history, Noh was performed for the spirits that were believed to be residing in the pine tree, not for human audience members. There once was an old pine tree in front of the actors. As the human audience came to watch it, they had to still have Oimatsu somewhere. So, Kagami-ita supposedly reflects the image of Oimatsu, which used to be in front of the stage. It is the reflection of the spirits, the primary audience for which Noh exists. Oimatsu has all the needles pointed upward to welcome the spirits.

If you look closer, there are also Ume (a Japanese name for Prunus mume, a species of Asian plum) branches sticking out behind it. The branches have the buds of Ume flowers. Mr. Umewaka’s name also contains “Ume.” So, having Ume branches on the wall is a personal touch by Mr. Umewaka. [In Japan the pine tree (matsu松), the bamboo (take竹), and the plum tree (ume梅) are often put together as the symbol of good luck and happiness.]

“Notice that there is no Ume flower in the drawing. There are only buds of Ume. In the Noh theatre, there must not be any flower drawn anywhere. It is because the actors are the ones who blossom and let the audience experience ‘the flower’ through their performance,” Mr. Umewaka smiles. The real flower should be blooming in the hearts of the actor and the audience.

By this time, I become very fascinated by the rich history of Noh theatre’s architecture. Every detail has a story and careful thought behind it. And the whole structure exudes sacredness and respect for Nature.

Mr. Umewaka opens a small entrance at upstage left corner. “This is the entrance and exit for the musicians,” he explains while going through it. It is too low for him, so he has to lower his head. “It is intentionally low like this so that the musicians need to bow before they enter the stage,” he says.

There is one other entrance on the stage left side, where Jiutaiza 地謡座 is. Jiutaiza is an area for a chorus. The entrance is, however, not for the chorus to use. It is big enough for an adult to go through without lowering the head. Therefore, this entrance is reserved only for the most respected class of people, such as the emperor, comes to watch Noh. “It’s hardly been used,” Mr. Umekawa says.

After we acquaint ourselves with the space, Mr. Umewaka leads us to experience the basic walk of Noh called Suri-ashiすり足.

(2) Suri-ashi – the basic walk of Noh theatre

When you watch a Noh performance closely, one of the first things you’d notice is the way the Noh actor walks. It looks as though he is gliding slowly or fast in a steady tempo without upsetting his upper body. “Noh is often said to be the art of walking,” Mr. Umewaka explains. And this art of walking has a lot to do with Suri-ashiすり足.

Suri-ashi is a term used in many Japanese martial and performing arts. Each art has its unique way of doing Suri-ashi. It is essentially leg- and foot-maneuvering to move the center of gravity in a smooth, straight line without changing the upper-body posture.

Usually, when we stand on the ground, the center of gravity is somewhere in the body. But, in Noh, in the neutral standing position, the center of gravity is outside the body; The body is slightly leaning forward with about 80% of the body weight on the balls of the feet. The upper-body is stabilized and erect by the engagement of the pelvic area, a slightly arched lower back and concentration on a point below the navel.

From this position, you glide the left foot forward, keeping it on the ground until it passes the right foot. Then you lift the tip of the left foot about one centimeter off the ground and put it down. Then you glide the right foot forward, keeping it on the ground until it passes the left foot… You get the idea. All the time, your upper body should be stable and keeping the same level of height.

When I try Suri-ashi with Mr. Umewaka’s coaching, I immediately feel tiny, wobbly movements in my body. It requires great concentration to even move the foot smoothly without tensing up the toes, let alone the stable upper body. But I really enjoy the deep focus it brings to my consciousness. It makes my body enlivened in a way that is very different from a normal life situation. I’m in a state of heightened fiction, I might say.  

Unfortunately, I did not take any picture during the Suri-ashi exercise at the workshop. But if you’re curious to see what it looks like in a real performance, here is a short YouTube clip of Mr. Umewaka performing on an outdoor stage at James Irvine Japanese Garden in California, USA:

To be continued. Click Here for Part 2!