Japan, a mysterious country

The word Japan evokes all kinds of associations: the white face of a geisha, centenarians whom stoically endure yet another earthquake, sushi, solemn tea ceremonies, ancient traditions, monkeys in the snow and of course kimonos.

Kimono, fixing the obi
Kimono with musubi

Kimono Day in Japan

The kimono is an iconic garment that was worn for thousands of years by all Japanese. The word means ‘a thing to wear’ (ki- “wear” and -mono “thing”). The Japaneses used the garment everywhere: at home, to work in the fields and at events.

Nowadays it is mainly an outfit for ceremonies such as weddings and important festivities like the New Year celebration and coming of age ritual. Every year on May 29th the kimono day is celebrated. Japanese worldwide share their love for the kimono by wearing it, thus ensuring that this millinery tradition will be kept alive for future generations.

Choosing the right type of kimono requires knowledge of the symbolism of the garment. The way it is worn and the different accessories send subtle social messages: the age of the woman, her marital status and type of occasion for which they are dressed.

Weddings

During a traditional Japanese style wedding the bride changes her kimono several times; for the ceremony she wears a special white wedding kimono (shiro-muku) with a head-piece (tsuno-kakushi), later she changes to a colourful kimono with long sleeves (iro-uchi-cake) for the reception.

Married women that attend a wedding as a family member wear a formal black kimono called tome-sode. Single women dress in a furi-sode. This is also a formal kimono but with long swinging sleeves.

Coming of age

Every year on the second Monday of January, Japan celebrates the coming of age ceremony (seijin-shiki) for those that have turned twenty this year or will do so before April first. It is a big celebration and most of the young Japanese girls wear a furi-sode on this day.

Accessories

The kimono comes with all kind of rituals, features and set methods to tie the different parts.

One of the most important items is the obi, this is a belt which is tied with a knot, the so-called ‘musubi’. Tying and securing the “musubi” requires some additional accessories such as a small cushion, string (obi-jime) and a scarf-like (obi-age). The pattern on this belt varies according to the season, for example, cherry blossoms in spring, water in the summer, maple leaves in autumn and bamboo in winter. The accompanying footwear is a Japanese sandal that is similar to flip-flops, called zouri, worn with special cleft socks called tabi.

As Western dress becomes more and more popular, the knowledge of how to dress properly in a kimono is slowly disappearing from Japanese society. Because it is so complex to dress appropriately and due to the high cost of a kimono, nowadays whole families rely on the help of a specialist to rent and to dress, thus ensuring the old ways are respected.

Zori

Wearing a kimono

A kimono wraps around the body, always with the left over the right side (except at funerals, when the opposite is true). The garment is fastened with an obi, which is fixed at the back.

The clothing consists of several parts, in summer three layers, four in winter. Since the formal kimono is made of delicate fabric, one first wears a kimono-shaped undershirt (hada-juban), covered by a kimono-shaped cloth (naga-juban) that protects from direct skin contact and then the kimono. The naga-juban gives the traditional layered style.

Washing and storing

Even for storing a kimono there is a “correct” method of folding to ensure that the garment is preserved and to keep it from creasing when stored.

In the past, a kimono was often completely taken apart for washing, and then stitched back again by hand. This traditional washing method is called arai-hari. This is an expensive and laborious method, which is one of the main reasons for the declining popularity of the kimono. Modern fabrics and cleaning methods try to stop this trend.

What does a kimono cost?

A decent kimono, preferably made out of silk – is outrageously expensive, think $10,000 and upwards. Note this is the price without accessories.

Fortunately, the size is flexible due to the absence of elastic, zippers and buttons, thus an additional kilo or so won’t break the bank as you won’t need to buy a new one each time you reach another weight milestone. Furthermore, these garments will last for generations because the flexible size and because of the quality of the material used.

Also, if your tourism budget is on the small side, you can still bring a nice souvenir from Japan, a yukata, a casual and cheaper cotton kimono, typically worn in summer to celebrate hanabi-taikai (fireworks festival) or natsu-matsuri (summer festival) and in an onsen (hot springs) after taking a bath. It can be worn direct without layers and a geta is its footwear.

Many thanks to Hitomi and Shihoko for sharing their kimono secrets and posing dressed in kimono.

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