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12 Cultural Shows to Watch Around Asia

TOKYO, JAPAN 

Tokyo might not have a traditional geisha (traditional female entertainers) quarter like Gion in Kyoto, or a long tradition of bunraku (puppet theatre) as Osaka, but as the capital of the country it does have a strong Japanese identity. Those who are intrigued by the avant-garde art of singing and dancing that is kabuki can go to Kabuki-za to watch the actors and their exaggerated poses and gestures. As they are not interested to give the audience the butchered version of their beloved art form, the show follows a traditional kabuki program which is made up of several acts. If you don’t have a full day to spare, you can avail of a “Single Act” ticket to have a taster.

Kabuki is an art form that is meant to be accessible to everyone, so those who are leaning toward the more exclusive art form might want to opt for a noh performance at National Noh Theatre, famous for its highly stylized aesthetics and subtle word play. Unlike Kabuki-za, the theatre doesn’t have a regular schedule, so do check on their website for special events.

SEOUL, KOREA 

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You can bet that South Korea is serious about introducing its culture to visitors coming to the country what with the abundance of cultural attractions, from the hanbok (traditional costume) experience at Seoul Global Cultural Center to the fusion of traditional Korean music and modern music in Nanta and Gugak B-boy. If you’re into performances, Hwaseong Haenggung Palace offers daily demonstration of 24 Martial Arts (Korean: Muye 24-gi) at 11am, but Saturday starting from 2pm is when they go all out with court dance, rope-walking and other performances.

If you’re looking for something more intriguing, go to Hahoe Folk Village where you’ll get acquainted with hahoetal mask dance drama, which in its original form is a unique and unusual method of exorcism.

HANOI, VIETNAM 

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Fishermen and farmers, dragons and phoenixes, re-enactment of the Legend of the Restored Sword (Vietnamese: Hoan Kiem), and many more. You will learn a bit about Vietnamese myth and culture courtesy of Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. It’s amazing what the puppeteers do with their bamboo rods hiding under the water, but you can’t discount the musicians who set the mood with their haunting melodies.

Those who are curious about Vietnamese traditional music should seek out ca trù, a complex form of sung poetry inscribed by the UNESCO on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. At Thang Long Ca Tru Guild, you will be given explanation and even a quick lesson in which you get a chance to play with the instruments. This will help in understanding the art form better, because ca trù might initially sound dissonant to those who are used to Western-style music.

  • Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre,  57b Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
  • Thang Long Ca Tru Guild, 28 Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

YOGYAKARTA, INDONESIA 

The Ramayana Ballet at Prambanan has the advantage of having Prambanan temple as a surreal backdrop for the show.  It gives the audience an authentic taste of Javanese traditional dance, musical instruments and singing style. The dance-drama is done in the wayang wong aesthetic, combining schools of Yogyakarta (classical) and Surakarta (romantic) styles of dancing.

The Yogyakarta Kraton (royal palace) also has a regular show of wayang wong every Sunday at 9.30am. You might want to coincide your visit to the palace with this schedule: gamelan music on Mondays and Tuesdays, wayang golek (wooden puppet) on Wednesday, dance performance on Thursdays, macapat (sung poetry) on Fridays, wayang kulit (shadow puppet) on Saturdays.

  • Sendratari Ramayana, Jl Raya Jogja – Solo Km 16, Prambanan, Sleman, D.I. Yogyakarta, Indonesia
  • Kraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat, Jl. Rotowijayan, Kota Yogyakarta, D.I. Yogyakarta, Indonesia

KOCHI, INDIA 

The state of Kerala is known as the land of arts and festivals, and visitors to Kochi have the chance to be exposed to the wide variety of art performances available such as mohiniyattam dances,  chakyar koothu satirical performances, and kathakali with its iconic makeup and costume. Kerala Kathakali Centre has a nightly classical dance drama re-enacting various Indian legends and myths. What’s special about the place is that you’ll have the chance to see the actors put on the distinctive makeup and heavy costume, so remember to come well before the show starts.

You can also watch traditional performances at Kerala Folklore Museum with its collection of puppets and masks, traditional costumes, and antique musical instruments from the 15th to the 20th century.

BANGKOK, THAILAND 

Most tourists are familiar with Siam Niramit, a colossal production which involves more than 100 performers in lavish costumes, enormous stage with excellent set designs, and flashy special effects. The culture of the country is compressed into a 90-minute show, which takes the audience on a tour around the Four Regions of Thailand. There are snippets of traditional performances, including khon (masked dance), the crème de la crème of Thai dramatic art forms.

To learn more about khon in its authentic form, head to Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre, whose construction was ordered by King Rama VII in 1932 as a national venue to maintain the authenticity of Thai arts. There’s a chance that you’d find yourself be the only foreigner there, but don’t worry as English subtitles are available on the screen above the stage.

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