Wearing the tradition: the experience of being dressed in a kimono

Kimono is probably one of the most famous Japanese words, an emblem of the traditional Japanese culture worldwide. Consequently, it is very understandable that tourists in Japan wish to try, or even buy one when they are visiting Japan. However, wearing a kimono yourself is not easy if you have not been taught how. On top of that, many places offering kimono rental and dress-up services, by fear of having their products getting stained, only offer a limited, low quality fabric selection.
So when I was offered the opportunity to meet a kimono professional and be dressed in a carefully selected, authentic kimono, I accepted without even thinking twice.

2018-07-06   Araki-Cho, Culture, Workshop, Araki-Cho, Tokyo,


Meet Seina Yamamoto, kimono professional

When I was told I was going to meet a kimono professional, I first thought I was going to meet an elegant old lady, because it is the case for most of them. I was wrong. My kitsuke (that’s the Japanese name for the way of wearing a kimono) teacher was the young and pretty Miss Seina Yamamoto. Despite her young age, Seina has a lot of experience regarding the kimono business and culture.

My first meeting with Seina

Seina is the granddaughter of a gofukuya, the name in Japan for quality shops selling Japanese traditional clothing. She has been raised surrounded by kimonos, and has grown a sharp eye for kimono quality and details. She’s fond of vintage kimonos and knows where to find the best of them; the ones you can casually wear and the ones you wear for special occasions. And, most of all, she can perfectly dress you up in the kimono of your choice in a very short time.

Choosing what to wear

First, Seina made me chose the kimono I wanted to wear. Usually, she will let you choose your preferred one among her pre-selection of 15 kimonos. The designs were so nice, I had a hard time making up my mind. I also had to choose which obi (the kind of belt around the kimono) to wear with it. I’m not very good at mixing colors and designs so I asked Seina what she thought and decided to trust her. She told me that most of her customers, very much like me, are not very confident in choosing which items to wear and often like to ask for her advice.

Getting dressed

I have to admit it was very pleasant to have Seina dress me up in a kimono, for several reasons. Firstly, very obviously, is the fact that I could not do it by myself. It requires practice. I learnt the basics of wearing a kimono when I was an exchange student a long time ago, but I have forgotten almost everything. Secondly, it was a pleasure seeing Seina at work, see her hands tie the perfect knots of the belts or adjust the tiny details of the folding. Thirdly, I have to admit it was very enjoyable to be the center of attention and being dressed while doing almost nothing except enjoying the moment, a little bit like a princess in an old fairy tale.

Seina is tightening up the belts of the nagajuban

There are many layers when you wear a kimono. Court ladies of ancient Japan would wear kimonos with twelve different layers! Thankfully, nowadays there are only two layers when you wear the kimono. The first one, a kind of kimono under the kimono, usually white or pale pink, is called nagajuban. After I put it on, Seina adjusted the collar and tied some cords and belts around my waist. It was a decisive moment: it has to be done tight enough so that the kimono will not fall apart; at the same time, it must not be too tight or it will feel very uncomfortable. For some reason, the carefully adjusted tightness of the ropes felt a little reassuring, like if I was being gently held.

Adjusting the kimono

Then I got to put the main kimono on. Seina took her time to adjust the length for my legs and waist. We need to remember that kimonos were designed and worn by Japanese people from 1000 years ago, with body sizes and shapes different from foreigners and/or from Japanese people today. Seina told me that the trickiest parts of her job were adjusting the waist size for her foreign customers and adjusting the chest size for her younger Japanese customers.

Tying the obi into a beautiful knot

Then Seina rolled the obi around me and tied it in the shape of a bow tie, which is how you do when you wear a ‘casual’ kimono. Kimonos worn for special occasions require a little more difficult folding.

Finally, Seina made up my hair, and I was ready!
The whole process from choosing the kimono to my hair being done took about thirty minutes.

Having a walk in a kimono

Travelling back in time in the small streets of Arakicho

We put on our zori (the traditional sandals), and off we went for a tour of Arakicho. It took a few minutes to get used to walk with a kimono. It was not possible to take big steps or the kimono would open; I had to learn to walk small, elegant steps – something I don’t usually do.

The old little paved streets of Arakicho, full of charm, are a great spot to take pictures while dressed in this attire. Seina usually works in western style clothes, but as I was her only guest this time, she exceptionally decided to dress in a kimono too.
We went around the streets of Arakicho and some historical places, and I was able to hear some anecdotes now and then. Finally, we had a good rest at a café where I could ask Seina many questions about her life and what she thought about the kimono fashion in modern Japan.

Visiting a local Buddhist temple

Keeping the traditional fashion alive

It was impossible not to notice how many surprised looks we got from the locals as we walked by, and I wanted Seina’s point of view about it.
Seina confided that when she casually wears a kimono when she goes shopping or for a walk, people ask her if she works for some high-class establishment in Ginza, and cannot imagine this being her choice of style.
Sadly, nowadays only the older generation of Japanese people or professionals still know how to wear a kimono, and people wearing them casually have become scarce. If the yukata, a light and easy to wear sort of kimono is still often worn in summer during festivals, the habit of wearing a regular kimono tradition is dying.
The kimono, in its more elaborate forms, has become a traditional garment for special occasions such as weddings or the coming-of-age day. It is also a mark of high social status for some women. People often ignore that there are plenty of ways to get good quality kimonos for a cheap price, and perceive them as being expensive, leaving them to the wealthiest to enjoy.

Having a deeper conversation around a cup of coffee

People like Seina are fighting to transmit their knowledge and passion to the younger generation, to show them that kimonos can be worn by anyone, casually, and that it is not as hard as it seems.
If Westerners might be reluctant to wear a kimono, perhaps because they worry about cultural appropriation, the majority of Japanese people, and Japanese kimono professionals like Seina especially, have a very clear point of view. For them, if done with respect, these are clothes that can be enjoyed by anyone. They appreciate that people from all around the world value the wafuu, the traditional Japanese designs and aesthetics. By showing their interest in these traditions, foreigners can help the younger generation reflect on what is good about what they may see as old-fashioned and outdated.

When, to my great regret, I had to go back to my usual clothes and wish Seina goodbye, I was left wondering if maybe foreigners too, can play a part in keeping these traditions alive.

<Special Kimono Rental>
Conditions : Special plan for people staying at Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan only
Time: – Dressing up: about 30mn per person
   - Wearing the kimono: until 9pm
Prices: 8000 yen/person for the kimono rental plan; 10000yen/person for kimono rental + local tour plan
Languages spoken: English, Japanese

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AUTHOR

Amelie

Amelie

Writer / Translator

I’m French but I’ve been living in Tokyo for many years during which I had a lot of meaningful and thrilling experiences. I’m curious and I love learning new things. My hobbies are kick boxing, scuba diving, Japanese traditional painting, etc… As a writer, I’d like to share information about less touristic, more authentic places. I will also write about all the fun and cultural activities unique to Japan.

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Address 12-4 Arakichō, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyō-to, 160-0007