Noh Theatre – an ever-evolving tradition

Noh Theatre – an ever-evolving tradition

Written on April 11, 2018 by Yuko Takeda

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 HANSHIN 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-daiko, ōtsuzumi (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


(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:

(3) Noh masks

One of the distinct features of Noh theatre is the masks. There are about 60 archetypes with the total of about 250 variations. Only Shite actors, the ones who play the leading (protagonist) roles, wear masks in plays. With a mask and an elaborate costume on, the actor carries up to 40kg of layers to walk on the stage. Mr. Umewaka shows us several major masks to tell about the details of each.

First, he raises Koomote小面, a young girl of 15 to 16 years old. This mask represents innocence with neatly combed thick strands of hair on each side. In the old days, women used to shave off their eye brows and draw ones on the forehead.

Next up is Wakaonna若女, a young woman. A difference between Koomote and Wakaonna is how the hair is drawn. With Wakaonna, you see three thin strands of hair on each side, expressing more life experience than the younger mask. 

Fukai深井, a 40- to 50-year old woman, has a more protruded forehead and little wrinkles on the cheeks. From the mask of this age and older, the corner of the mouth starts to lower. She does various physically demanding household chores, which has caused the skin to darken, close to the real skin color.

Rōjo 老女is an old woman. She has sunken cheeks and eye sockets, a more protruded and narrower forehead. Her hair is thinner and whiter, internalizing more life experience than the younger ones.

Rōba老婆 is even older than Rōjo. Her eyes are smaller with a softer facial expression. Her hair is straight, meaning that her life experience and wisdom are purified and internalized. 

When you look at all the masks at once, there is a series of beautiful transitions of a woman’s life.

“There are a few female participants today. And they might be mad at me when I say this, but you know that when women get angry, it’s scary,” Mr. Umewaka makes a joke as he moves onto the next series of masks. In Noh drama, there are several plays that depict women who have turned into Oni鬼, a Japanese ogre that often displays evil or demonic nature and has horns. Mr. Umewaka shows several masks for each phase of Oni transformation, from the beginning to the end.

In all masks, the reason or the trigger for women to become Oni has something to do with anger caused by unrequited love or betrayal of romantic nature or profound disappointment in unmet expectations. Her anger, therefore, is rooted in sorrow. If you look closer to the following four masks, you’ll notice how all the eyebrows have lowered curves, expressing sadness. If one is purely angry, eyebrow curves would be raised.

First up is Deigan泥眼, literally meaning “mud eyes.” Her eyes become yellow. The corner of the mouth is lowered even further. Slightly tangled hair strands expressed a troubled mind.


Hashihime橋姫 knits her eyebrows further with their curves lowered. Her skin color changes to red.


Namanari生成 is even a step closer to full-blown Oni. She has tiny horns and fangs. Rough hair expresses the anguish of her mind

The final stage of the transformation is Hannya般若 with full-grown horns, glaring yellow eyes and rough hair.

Looking at them side by side, I am just amazed by subtle yet vibrant details of these masks. 

Mr. Umekawa also shows us two more masks.

Shishiguchi獅子口, literally meaning “the mouth of a lion,” has its mouth wide open as if to say an open vowel “A.” Unlike the Oni masks, Shishiguchi’s eyebrows are raised, expressing mighty anger and masculine strength.

Chorei-beshimi 長霊べし見 is a bandit or theif with his mouth closed as if to say a closed consonant “N.” His eyebrows are also raised. While Shishiguchi’s “A” signifies the maximum external power directed outward, Chorei-beshimi’s “N” implies the maximum internal power contained within.

After explaining the masks, Mr. Umewaka puts one on his face to show how the mask is smaller than actual human face so that the tip of the chin is visible. “Audience members often tell me that after watching and listening to the actor speaking behind the mask for a while, the mask starts to come alive and look as though it was speaking on its own,” he says.

There are several steps to properly wear a mask in Noh. First, you must not touch the front surface of the mask because the paint is not water-proof or coated to protect itself from grease. If it gets dirty, the whole paint will have to be redone. You need to grab it by the side holes where strings are attached. Once you take the mask with your hands, you need to bow to it once before putting it on. It is a gesture of respect. Then to adjust the angle of the mask against the actor’s face, cotton pads are placed on the forehead and/or on the cheeks.

(Photo: Courtesy of Nishinomiya Noh Theatre)

Mr. Umewaka even lets me put a mask on my face and walk on the stage with it. My field of sight gets considerably smaller with the mask on, and my sense of distance needs adjusting to know where exactly I am. “See how different it feels?” Mr. Umewaka asks me as my body takes in a whole new sensation of standing on the stage. And how difficult it is to walk without changing the angle of the mask! No wonder the actor needs to master Suri-ashi. Suri-ashi stabilizes the upper part of the body, including the face with a mask. Without the ability to maintain the mask at a certain angle, the Noh actor would not be able to express various subtle emotions by changing the angle ever so slightly.

(4) Q&A

By the time Mr. Umewaka opens up for questions at the end of the workshop, I have many. The following is the summary of Mr. Umewaka’s answers to my questions.

Q. What does a Noh actor’s practice consist of?

A. There are two things: Utai 謡(chanting text) and Shimai仕舞 (movement forms). There are about 200 songs for Utai in the Noh drama repertoire. We practice the text of a song by reading it at loud, working on intonation and phrasing. Shimai is a movement sequence for a chanted text or a musical piece. We master one sequence at a time.

Shimai is not the same thing as “dance.” The word “dance” in Japanese is odori踊り, which includes some vertical movement of the feet such as jumping and hopping. And it often implies a group of people executing choreography together to music. The “mai舞” part of Shimai, on the other hand, has the verb form “mau,” which derives from the word “mawaru,” to circulate. The movement of Shimai is circular, and the feet hardly leave the ground as shown in suriashi. Shimai is a solo movement, and the mover initiates music, not the other way around.

Q. How do you rehearse with others (musicians and a chorus) for a performance?

A. Noh actors do not “rehearse” the way many Western actors do. Noh actors are expected to be at a certain skill level when they meet the musicians and other chanters. So, they do not “create” the show together. We usually have only one general rehearsal with others. Two at the most. Sometimes we don’t even have a rehearsal before the performance if it’s a well-known piece. “Awaseru” (go or match with others) is all we do in rehearsal to make sure that we are all on the same page in terms of timing and tempo. There’s no improvisation in the performance. Everything has been carefully choreographed, and the forms must not be modified.

However, even though the forms are the same, the performance looks very different from performer to performer because of individual creativity within the forms.

Q. In traditional Japanese performing arts such as Kabuki and Bunraku, many of the performers are born into the families that have been carrying the art forms from generation to generation, or you have to begin learning the art form from a very early age with a master. Is it the same in Noh?

A. Not necessarily. I happened to be born into the family of Noh theatre, so I started learning at the age of three. But I know quite a few people who started later, some of them even started after they’d turned sixty. In Noh, you can begin learning at any age and can establish yourself as a professional without being born into the family of Noh. There are programs at arts universities where you can learn Noh as well. From the 1970s on, women also have been allowed to learn Noh to become a professional. So, compared to Kabuki and Bunraku, Noh is more open to outsiders.

Q. Many Western artists are fascinated by Noh theatre. How do you see their interest in Noh?

A. Yes, I’ve had so many performance requests from abroad. I’ve been to France, USA, Romania, Italy, Bulgaria, Greece to name a few. One time, in Croatia, a theatre festival producer asked us to do Izutsu, a famous Noh play. In Izutsu, there is a part where I sit still for almost 15 minutes, doing and saying nothing. I didn’t think that the Croatian audience would find that part interesting, so I cut it out from the script and sent it to the producer. But the producer asked me to do the whole thing, including the stillness part. So, the foreigners found it fascinating and new about Noh. They also have interesting questions about the dramaturgy of the play, which I’d never thought of asking myself. I guess that they understand and interpret the story differently.

Speaking of interpretation, I always have difficulty answering one question non-Japanese people ask me. It’s the question about the concept of “god” in Noh theatre. In most of the Western world, or in monotheistic culture, there is only one God. But in Japan there are many gods. We regard the differences between gods as the same kind of difference between waves and water. They are ultimately of the same element. It’s pointless for us to discuss which god is better than the other.

Noh theatre revolves around many sacred entities, from spirit animals to gods. Noh actors perform on the stage as if they were in the corner, as invisible gods, whether the audience understands it or not.

Q. The greatest theorist and playwright of Noh theatre Zeami (c. 1363 – c. 1443) left a famous treatise of Noh titled Fūshikaden. I especially like this one verse Zeami wrote about Noh acting technique, “Hisureba hana 秘すれば花 (If it is hidden, it is the Flower).” The metaphor of the flower is very beautiful to me. Could you elaborate on that?

A. To put it simply, a performance would lose its charm if there is not anything “invisible” in it. Hana 花 (Flower) is the invisible that draws in the audience. Without the invisible, there’s no attraction. This is not just in Noh theatre, but in all human relationships, too, I think. No matter how well you know a friend, there is always something you don’t know or see in him or her. That’s what keeps the relationship fun.

In order to have Hana in your performance, you need to plant seeds, which are technique and knowledge. Only after planting the seeds, you can “flower” on the stage. To flower during performance is the ultimate purpose of the actor, and to let the flower inside the audience bloom is the result of great acting technique.

Hana is always temporary. It happens only in the “now.” It’s ephemeral, one-time only. It blooms and withers. Every performance must be different in Noh because not one flower blooms and withers the same way. Otherwise it would be fake. That’s why there’s usually only one showing of one play at a time in Noh theatre. We never do a prolonged run of weeks and months like hit shows on Broadway. Even when we go abroad and are asked to do, say, the same play for three days in a row, we deal with that by changing the cast each day. Using the same cast day after day leads to accidents on the stage. Commitment to one role for a one-time only show requires full attention.

One more thing about Zeami’s treatise, there is another verse: “Shoshin wasureru bekarazu 初心忘るべからず(Never forget the beginner’s mind).” It’s an often-misunderstood saying. It’s not about having a strong goal to achieve a certain skill level in training. It’s about accumulating the experience of new discoveries. Just like you have worn the masks and practiced Suri-ashi for the first time today at the workshop, you have discovered something new, right? You’ve felt something new. That is “the beginner’s mind.” You need to update your sense of wonder for new experience endlessly as long as you learn Noh.

Q. Do you collaborate with artists from different genres?

Yes, I do it frequently. I have worked with classical pianists, jazz musicians, Takarazuka actors (all-female musical theatre company in Japan), modern theatre actors, and traditional Japanese dancers. It’s stimulating and inspiring to work with different artists. I do what I do best, which is Noh. I don’t change my movement or forms of Noh to collaborate with them. By committing to my art form in collaboration, I often rediscover both the fragility and the flexibility of Noh. All in all, I feel its great potential. All it needs is a flat stage for suriashi. Many art forms can co-exist on the stage with Noh.

Q. What is your vision for the future of Noh theatre?

A. I would like to spread Noh to as many people as possible by giving workshops like this. I want people to see the real Noh, which is vibrant and exciting. I’ve opened this venue Nishinomiya Noh Theatre for various traditional arts in Japan so that they can flourish as well. The theatre is an intimate space of one hundred seats with natural light. In this space, Noh becomes something you can “touch.” People are welcome here to access Noh in a personal, intimate way. I’m certain that by opening the space to more people, Noh will be passed on to the next generation. We give performances with educational opportunities, such as a lecture or seminar about the play or Noh theatre before the show.

Ultimately, I would like to create Noh theatre with the audience.


It’s been several months since I participated in the workshop. What an intense, fascinating experience it was. I am very glad that I finally got to rediscover Noh theatre. I feel it very much alive in present time, and its technique could fundamentally enrich the actor’s expressivity in any genre. I am inspired especially by its philosophy of acting. The actor must have the Flower, the invisible in his or her performance and let it bloom in the heart of the audience as well. I don’t think I fully understand the concept of the Flower yet. However, I believe that it is the thing that has kept Noh theatre alive and ever so fresh through all these years. Just like a blooming flower delights the beholder season after season, Noh theatre will keep evolving, and its life force will never go away.

I would like to thank Motonori Umewaka for his generosity and Nishinomiya Noh Theatre staff for letting me use their press material for this blog.


(Photo: Courtesy of Nishinomiya Noh Theatre)

For more photographs of Noh performances by Motonori Umewaka, go to:

Japanese Traditional Art Culture Website (Japanese):


一般財団法人 日本伝統芸術文化財団


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