A guide to Tokyo's top theater districts

A guide to Tokyo's top theater districts

There may be no Broadway or West End in Tokyo but there is plenty of theater happening in the city from world-famous musicals to avant-garde experimental plays
Tokyo theater districts
A wall in Shimokitazawa shows what is happening at the neighborhood's major theaters.

First things first. Don't be under any delusions: There is no Broadway or West End in Tokyo. That being said, there's plenty of theater -- both fringe and commercial -- but it's definitely not located in a single part of town. Even when 'theater districts' have emerged, it's not consumer-friendly places like Shibuya or Roppongi, but rather run-down or out-of-the way areas.

Surveying at a glance all the theatres in the city -- from the large blockbuster venues to the tiny karaoke room-space studios -- is an impossible task, and you'd be better off just looking at listings. We should also add that there are a multitude of big commercial theatres like Gekidan Shiki and Akasaka ACT Theater with musicals and shows meant for mass audiences.

But by digging a bit deeper we find some key locations in the city filled with performers and playwrights who are pushing traditional theatrical boundaries, and offer more than just entertainment. 

Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's underground theater mecca

We have to begin here, west Tokyo's Shimokitazawa, with its winding streets and overlapping railway lines, crammed with cafés, clothing shops and alternagirls. Nestled among them is the city's best and probably most concentrated collection of fringe theaters. Though many are tiny, many of the country's top companies bring their work here.

Tokyo theater districtsThe "Geki" Shogekijou in Shimokitzawa.The relatively large Honda Gekijou (Kitazawa 2-10-15, Setagaya-ku, tel. 03 3468 0030, www.honda-geki.com/honda.html) is always at the top of the city's theater rankings. Productions here come from established and successful writer-directors and usually sell out.

The other venues, though smaller (and often tiny), have a lot of rapport in their intimacy, and tickets are cheaper, often between ¥2,000 and ¥3,000.

Even if not attending a show, it can be fun to walk around and watch the crowds milling near the theaters before and after performances. In a city of ever-changing facades and buildings, here is one of the few examples of an urban theater community in Japan.

Train station: Shimo-Kitazawa, Komaba-Toudaimae

Ekimae Gekijou (Taro Biru 3F Kitazawa 2-11-8, Setagaya-ku, tel. 03 3414 0019, www.honda-geki.com/ekimae.html)
Off Off Theater (Taro Biru 3F Kitazawa 2-11-8, Setagaya-ku, tel. 03 3424 3755, www.honda-geki.com/offoff.html)
Geki (Kitazawa 2-6-6, Setagaya-ku, tel. 03 3466 0020, www.honda-geki.com/gekisyogekijo.html)
Suzunari (Kitazawa 1-45-15, Setagaya-ku, tel. 03 3468 0080, www.honda-geki.com/suzunari.html)
Rakuen (B1F Kitazawa 2-10-18, Setagaya-ku, tel. 03 3466 0903, www.honda-geki.com/rakuen.html)
Theatre 711 (Kitazawa 1-45-15, Setagaya-ku, tel. 03 3469 9711, www.honda-geki.com/711.html)
Komaba Agora Gekijou (Komaba 1-11-13, Meguro-ku, tel. 03 3467 2743, www.komaba-agora.com)

Hatsudai: High drama

A trip to the edge of Shinjuku finds Tokyo's equivalent of the Centre Pompidou. Opera City has a gallery and a concert hall, while the neighboring New National Theater (Honmachi 1-1-1, Shibuya-ku, tel. 03 5351 3011, www.nntt.jac.go.jp/english) is Japan's premier public-funded drama institution. Almost all of its productions are in-house: Everything from Shakespeare to ballet to contemporary foreign drama in translation. Its choice of obscure plays (to Japanese audiences, at least) and ambitious classical revivals, however, has led to weak box office -- and even calls from peers for its dismantlement.

Train station: Hatsudai

Ikebukuro: Serious theater in a gritty hood

In stark contrast to the laidback hip of Shimokitazawa, Ikebukuro is an area with a rather dowdy reputation. Toshima-ku is aware of this fact and taking steps to change it, not least helping to organize Japan's main international theater festival F/T (Festival Tokyo). 

Tokyo theater districtsTokyo Metropolitan Art Space.Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space (Nishi-ikebukuro 1-8-1, Toshima-ku, tel. 03 5391 2111, www.geigeki.jp/english) is a short walk from the Metropolian Exit of Ikebukuro station and sits like a glass space ship rising from the concrete. In front is a small park usually populated by delinquents and the homeless. Wandering through the cavernous arches you see a stairway to heaven -- a bizarre, dangerous-looking escalator taking visitors to the top floors. Below is a pit containing two studio theaters often hosting outside productions of straight dramas. The largest hall upstairs normally shows concerts but the West End playhouse-feeling middle hall stages musicals, larger plays and sometimes even Butoh dance. 

Those in the know check what is on at Theater Green (Minami-Ikebukuro 2-20-4, Toshima-ku, www.theater-green.com/), one of the many fringe venues in Ikebukuro. Also, Owlspot (Minami Ikebukuro 4-5-2, Toshima-ku, tel. 03 5391 0751, www.owlspot.jp) often has dance and strong revivals that belie its office-building atmosphere.

Train stations: Ikebukuro, Higashi Ikebukuro, Nishi Sugamo

West Tokyo: Subcultural innovation

As Tokyo's western districts like Koenji provide a strong influence on the city's culture, so too the theater subculture thrives here.

Za Koenji (Koenji Kita 2-1-2, Suginami-ku, tel. 03 3223 7500, za-koenji.jp), opened in 2009, is a spacious, hall-like theater flexible enough to show a wide spectrum of performance. Its two spaces host musicals, dance and also seminars. Continuing along the Chuo Line, Mitaka City Arts Center (Kamiren Jaku 6-12-14, Mitaka-shi, tel. 04 22 47 5122, mitaka.jpn.org/geibun) is far from the station but worth a look sometimes, while Nakano has recently seen four small fringe theaters -- The Pocket, Momo Gekijou, Gekijou HOPE and Theater Bonbon (Nakano 3-22-8, Nakano-ku, tel. 03 3381 8422, www.pocketsquare.jp) -- open in the same complex tucked into a backstreet. 

Train stations: Koenji, Mitaka, Nakano

Sangenjaya: Big ambition in a tall carrot

Keeping with the west-centric theme of the other districts, Setagaya-ku's Carrot Tower might have an odd name but inside is the huge -- in space and ambition -- Setagaya Public Theater, one of the best in Tokyo (Taishiodo 4-1-1, Setagaya-ku, tel. 03 5432 1526, setagaya-pt.jp/en). Here you can catch the occasional musical, classical revivals and two-hander plays. Overseas directors like Simon McBurney and Romeo Castellucci have brought their work to Sangenjaya.

Despite the scale of its stage, the seating rake is tall, making things more intimate than you would expect. And even minimal productions have played here with success.

Across the Carrot Tower complex is the Theatre Tram, a relatively small auditorium hosting dance and plays.

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