A Guide to Traditional Japanese Theater Forms

Noh is one of the oldest theater forms in the world
Noh is one of the oldest theater forms in the world | © Vassamon Anansukkasem / Shutterstock
Alicia Joy

Tokyo Writer

Japan is home to some of the oldest forms of classical theater in the world that are still performed today. While they may not be the trendiest form of entertainment, UNESCO declared them all Intangible Cultural Heritage, helping to preserve them for future generations. So, if you ever get the chance, be sure to check out some of Japan’s unique traditional theater forms, from classical dramas to the lively geisha dances.


Noh is a musical dance-drama with serious plots often featuring supernatural beings, heroes, and gods. Masks play an important role in Noh theater, and nearly every character, aside from ordinary men, wear one. Many of the masks are extremely versatile; with just a slight tilt of the head, the actor can change the mask’s expression from angry to happy to sad. Noh is the oldest type of classical Japanese performance art still alive today.

Noh is one of Japan’s oldest theater forms



Kabuki is another type of musical dance-drama and the most well-known classical Japanese performance art. Instead of masks, kabuki actors make use of elaborate makeup, wigs, and costumes. The stage of a kabuki performance is large and filled with interactive props, such as trap doors. The stories are lively, and the actors are energetic, with exaggerated facial expressions and outlandish behavior.

Kabuki is Japan’s most iconic form of traditional theater

Bunraku (ningyo joruri)

Bunraku or ningyo joruri is traditional Japanese puppet theater. The puppets are incredibly detailed and intricate, with many requiring multiple puppeteers in order to operate. The use of puppets in Japanese theater is believed to have originated with Noh, but the plots of ningyo joruri plays have many similarities with both Noh and kabuki. Along with puppets, this type of theater usually features a single narrator to chant the characters’ lines and a shamisen player for musical accompaniment.

Geisha dances

Long ago, geisha dances were mainly a private affair, performed during parties and events as part of the entertainment. During the 1870s, the geiko of Kyoto were asked to perform publicly the Miyako Odori (in Gion) and the Kamogawa Odori (in Pontocho) to raise the city’s spirits and liven up the economy after the country’s capital officially moved to Tokyo. Now the spring geisha dances in Kyoto are one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

Edit article