Photography by COO PHOTO
During the Azuma-odori festival of geisha dance, the event’s Shinbashi Enbujo theater venue is transformed into a mega version of a traditional ryotei fine-dining establishment, with various initiatives throughout the event allowing the audience to savor not only its geisha performances, but the best of ryotei culture as well. From famous restaurants vying to offer the most tempting bento boxes, to the finest sake and snacks, tea ceremony demonstrations by geisha, and photos with beautiful performers, arriving at the theater a little early serves up a taste of the hospitality at the Shinbashi Enbujo as it undergoes its remarkable annual transformation into a vast ryotei for the half hour before the curtain goes up, and during the intermission.
Culinary cooperation and competition among Shinbashi chefs
A feature of the Azuma-odori equally renowned as the glamorous geisha performances is the “Shokado bento” served in a ceramic box, created by chefs from five ryotei. A Shokado bento is a bento lunchbox consisting of sashimi, a grilled dish, simmered dish and rice attractively arranged in a box partitioned into four sections; invention of Teiichi Yuki, founder of the venerable Kitcho ryotei, who was inspired by the tabako-bon or smoker’s tray used at tea ceremony gatherings. At the Azuma-odori, the present proprietor of Tokyo Kitcho, Yuki’s grandson, comes up with a list of dishes, which chefs from the famous Shinkiraku, Kanetanaka, Yonemura and Matsuyama ryotei interpret in their own unique ways to produce distinctively individual bento boxes. The Shokado bento boxes must be booked in advance, and diners do not know whose bento they will receive until they take their seat on the day and remove the lid. Making a group reservation and comparing the differences in content and flavor between the different bento adds another dimension to this memorable culinary experience.
A little insider info: up to 20 spectators in the box seats (sajiki) can have freshly made “Azuma-odori Sajiki-zen” meals from Kanetanaka, the ryotei immediately to the left of the Shinbashi Enbujo. These authentic set meals, available precisely because of the proximity of Kanetanaka to this seating, feature generous servings of early summer treats, hot and cold, arranged beautifully with great delicacy. Nothing beats a first-hand experience of ryotei ambience via the combination of premium food and dancing.
Where Japanese cultural classics intersect
Having consumed your delicious bento, the next move is to head for the chic cultural salons on the second floor of the Enbujo, for an exciting, distinctively Japanese cultural experience offering everything from tea ceremony and bar service to a booth serving Japanese snacks teamed with champagne, and purveyors of Azuma-odori souvenirs.
During intermissions geisha appear to perform tea ceremony, allowing visitors to take a break with matcha tea and fresh namagashi sweets while observing their hosts’ graceful ritual gestures. There are also booths where individual ryotei serve renowned sake varieties from their own supplies, accompanied by meticulously prepared snacks, and sushi wrapped in bamboo. Here you’ll find Japanese omelet from six different ryotei for sale in bite-size portions, from the sweetest to the strongly stock-suffused; it is simple dishes like this that distinguish each ryotei, and this is a rare opportunity to make comparisons.
The souvenir stalls sell a range of mementos including the senjafuda cards that serve as geisha business cards, Azuma-odori fans, and original rice crackers from the centuries-old Matsuzaki Senbei. Walking around taking in the scene, one is struck by the lovely geisha chatting with spectators or joining in photographs. A rare souvenir shot with these elusive entertainers is for many, another precious memory of the event.
The Azuma-odori is not just about taking in a show, but enjoying a very special, quintessentially Japanese experience: the chance to immerse oneself entirely in the finest food and entertainment, ryotei style. These dreamlike four days during which the Shinbashi entertainment quarter opens its doors to all in an unparalleled show of hospitality, begin again this year on May 23.
May 23 to May 26
May 23 and 24, Three Acts, Act 1: 11:30 AM–1 PM; Act 2: 1:40–3:10 PM; Act 3: 3:50–5:20 PM
May 25 and 26, Two Acts, Act 1: 1:00–2:30 PM; Act 2: 3:50–5:20 PM
*Doors open 30 minutes before the start of the performance
Tickets available from April 13 at https://www.e-tix.jp/shochiku