JAPAN is the 26th safest country in the world, with a historically low crime rate, so you can imagine the shock when the couple on my right begin stealing the crockery and slipping it into the woman’s handbag.
We are sitting in a large room, partaking of the tea ceremony that precedes the geisha show in Kyoto’s Ponto-cho Kaburenjo Theatre when this brazen heist takes place. It’s the middle of the afternoon so this is, quite literally, daylight robbery.
Beautifully garbed, white-faced geishas are serving matcha tea and manju (a sweet red bean pastry) with all the gentle elegance for which they are renowned and this middle-aged couple – who look as if wasabi wouldn’t melt in their mouths – are trousering the plates.
I look across at my friends, from whom I was unavoidably separated in the foyer, and give them an outraged ‘are you clocking this?’ stare while surreptitiously nodding sideways at the arch criminals who look like getting away with it because they are now on their feet and heading to the door.
Anywhere else you’d jump to your feet, point an indignant finger at the miscreants and shout ‘J’accuse!” but this is Japan something more restrained is called for.
I am handing back MY empty plate, prior to grabbing the bloke’s hand like Scott Morrison in a bushfire, when the geisha makes it clear that the plates are souvenirs we are meant to keep.
Having narrowly avoided an international incident, we make our way upstairs to the auditorium, accompanied by the gentle tinkle of crockery in handbags.
The Ponto-cho Kaburenjo Theatre opened for business in 1927 and today exudes a combination of modern and traditional Oriental styles that’s pleasingly retro. It sits in the Gion district, a famous geisha area, and fronts on to Pontocho Alley.
This narrow, pedestrianised passageway runs parallel to the west bank of the Kamo-gawa River and at night transforms into a magical, buzzy, lantern-lined alleyway full of shops, jazz bars, nightclubs, pubs and restaurants in traditional wooden buildings.
The audience in the theatre is mostly Japanese, with a smattering of Westerners, and there’s very little in English to explain what’s happening. This is not necessarily an issue as I’ve had the same problem watching Shakespeare.
I am seated next to a small gentleman with sparkly eyes and a kind face. He is, I discover, in town from Kobe. This is either the place that the beef comes from or a Star Wars planet because the bloke has a marked resemblance to Baby Yoda.
The show starts with a love story that is, if I’m not mistaken, Shakespearean in its scope and tragedy. I hope to God it wasn’t a comedy.
The costumes are magnificent, the scenery even more so, and before long we are swept up in the spectacle of two star-crossed lovers as they screech at each other over the objections of, er, two other people who I think were his/her parents.
What follows is an amazingly colourful entertainment that’s part pantomime, part Carry On film, and part drag show – a feast for the eyes and ears full of bombast and bling and all performed in the best possible taste.
I am too frightened to leave during the interval in case I discover another ‘crime’ and end up in jail. A few patrons do get up and leave the theatre for a while, possibly to put cotton wool in their ears.
The second half surely sets some sort of record because it somehow manages to make the first half seem soporific. Now there is an orchestra to boot. To the untrained ear it might sound like someone torturing a cat to death and then using its guts to make music but it’s worth it for the opportunity to experience what is essentially a Looney Tunes cartoon come to life.
At the end, my lovely neighbour asks in halting English: “Did you understand what was happening?”
I have to admit it: “Not a clue.”
He grins infectiously and says: “Me neither.”
Keith Austin was a guest of Inside Japan Tours and Cathay Pacific
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