Imperial Palace, Kyoto – outdoor performances, open day

January 10, 2012

The Japanese Emperor, from time to time, decrees his Kyoto Imperial Palace be opened free to the public for several consecutive days each Spring and Autumn. Normally visits inside the Palace are restricted to foreigners who need to apply from their homeland before coming to Japan. Such open days are really the only time ordinary Japanese people get to see inside the Palace and its grounds. I notice the Spring Open Days (4-8 April 2012) have been announced.

The crowds follow a set route, more or less in reverential silence, filing through one gate and leaving by another and skirting around the Imperial palace buildings in between. The thing that struck me most was how immaculate the building and grounds were: one gets used to a certain high standard of temple maintenance sponsored by Japanese corporations, but the Imperial Household Agency’s work is a cut above. When I visited, there were several short dance performances during the day; I notice in 2009, the Palace was opened for ten days to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the accession of the current Emperor, and that featured performances of Heian Period “football” or “soccer”, known as kemari (and familiar to temari stitchers because the “te” or hand in temari is said to have originated from the “ke” or foot of kemari/football).

Here are photos I took specifically of the outdoor performance of gagaku in Autumn 2007. While being a foreigner I was reasonably tall enough to take the photos, but plainly not close enough. I took the photos not so much for the gagaku music (specifically bugaku dancing) but for the historic costumes. The historic costumes bear all the hallmarks of the Heian Period (794-1185): silk, mandala circle surface designs, free-flowing outer robes, horse-hair hats).

The dancers on the stage, set under a covered portico (the Shinmikurumayose, a a new carriage entrance on the occasion of the enthronement ceremony of Emperor Taisho in 1915), all wore red silk fabric with gold designs. Note the master-of-ceremonies, dressed in green silk,  with microphone beside the stage.

Here are the gagaku dancers again, but note the line of imperial musicians in their black horse-hair caps on the ground (in the middle ground, past the audience members with their baseball caps). The black horse-hair caps are reminiscent of Korean headgear.

Here the court orchestra is again lined up, with their flutes, drums and Sho wooden mouth-organ:

In this photo, taken at the end of the performance, the musicians are at left (green/orange silk with mandalas) and the dancers are at right (a design of vertical swirling ‘spiritual vapours’ around 4 mandalas)


The Emperor moved to Tokyo in 1868. It’s said that some Kyotoites are still waiting for him to take up residence again, one day, in Kyoto.


For a photo of the 2009 kemari game, see

For background on gagaku, see


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