I'd like to see live performance of traditional Japanese culture. For example, watching noh theatre or bunraku, as opposed to merely seeing artworks or pottery. Unfortunately, my Japanese is fairly basic, and I'm typically travelling by myself rather than with a native speaker of Japanese.

What options do I have in order to overcome the language barrier? For example, do some theatres provide English librettos? Are there some types of culture I can experience that don't rely upon language?

  • You can ask an expert Japanese translator and pay him/her to translate for you the play or in any other place where you need a help to communication. You can find them all around the world. Mar 5, 2013 at 3:02
  • @user37324 when I had dinner with maikos near Kyoto, the tour guide translated between me and two other westerners and the maikos. But in most other circumstances, I'd assume translators wouldn't be willing to do this kind of service for a reasonable cost.
    – Golden Cuy
    Mar 5, 2013 at 3:19
  • While you guys are trying to be helpful, please keep chatty comments to the Travel Chat. Thanks!
    – Mark Mayo
    Mar 5, 2013 at 17:23

2 Answers 2


Traditional Noh and Kabuki theater are, and specially the Noh theater, often incomprehensible by simply listening to it for Japanese people as well. They use very much modulated sounds, ancient characters that are only understood 100% by scholars and people mostly understand it because they are familiar with the famous storyline.

Many big theaters in larger cities offer printed translations and even live audio translation in several languages to make you understand the text spoken in real time. See this guide for availability.

Other types of traditional culture you can enjoy are traditional sports such as Sumo and Kendo fights. Since neither of them require a lot of language, they still have a large importance in Japanese culture. On top of that there are many many festivals every month showcasing local traditions in many Japanese towns that are very much worth watching. Some of them involve break-neck speed racing of heavy festival carts through cities - even in winter, half naked - and many other race/sports like activities you will only see on one day of the year in one small town.

What is interesting to know I found is that those theaters when performed for nobles used to last a whole day where people came in and left as they pleased to see special scenes that they liked most. Still today you will see people walk in and out of performances as if nothing happened. Same by the way for Sumo where a sumo match could go on long into the evening if the fighters chosen to start the fight used delays as a psychological weapon to grind down the opponent. Only the advent of modern schedules and in case of Sumo of the evening news on TV made those traditional performances shorten themselves down to a couple of hours (in case of Noh 1.5 /Kabuki 3) or a whole day until 8:00 in case of Sumo.


If it is a popular event in Japan, I think you can even just ask someone who is local and can speak English well enough to go along with you. All you have to do is pay for their ticket rather than paying the translator fee as well. It is also cheaper just to read up about it before going, since there are usually plenty of information online or in print.

  • 2
    This is a formal, traditional theater. You will most likely get kicked out if someone continuously would be talking during the performance. Further, I would be highly surprised if a skilled translator that can translate historical drama on the fly would be willing to do so for 1.5 hours simply to be able to sit next to you and instead of enjoying the show, translate it.
    – uncovery
    Apr 24, 2013 at 14:18

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