Kimono in contemporary Japan

July 14, 2009


Kimono are rarely sighted in today’s Japan. So much so, that Japanese will whip out their mobile phones to take a picture of someone in traditional clothing in public. The scene above however excited no such cellphone activity because it was the First Sunday of the month in Kyoto, which is the antiques market at Toji Temple. This is a much smaller flea market than the better-known Kobo-san market on the 21st of each month held at the same temple. The antiques market is limited to vintage textiles, metalwork, ceramics. I found a second-hand dealer in obijime and another in sakiori. Some had odd pieces of shibori and katazome.

And there were a few dealers in second-hand kimono. A group of three young women were out, dressed in kimono, and stopped by at one stall. They decided to stay a while, so sat down to more carefully go through the kimono. Of course of interest to us is the unpretentious, everyday nature of the kimono patterns and the ordinary, everyday shoes – we’re talking young women who are learning about traditional culture and decide to dress up to visit the market. Some young Japanese women these days are fascinated by the culture of their elders and are ‘experimenting’ with the old garments, and finding opportunities to wear them – most often in the context of the ‘old culture’.

Which brings me to the point of today’s post – I can only really think of five or six specific contexts in which women will be spotted wearing kimono around in public in contemporary Japan these days.

1. Weddings, graduations and other formal family occasions, such as important temple-visiting at the time of important rite-of-passage festivals, for example when young children turn the right age (3,5,7 years of age) to participate in the Shichigosan festival in November.

2. Those working the catering and hospitality industries, or in retail where the product is traditional.

3. Attending important cultural events. Older women will dress in kimono as a mark of respect (and enthusiasm) especially if they are going off together in a group tour of something like the exhibition of Shosoin Treasury collection items in Nara.

4. Attending tea ceremony classes or traditional singing group meetings. I came upon such an tea institute in Osaka, with women coming and going in kimono, as well as a large gathering of amateur singers at the Osaka Town Hall, obviously rehearsing for some upcoming concert or other. Women will attend kimono classes where they learn to tie obi and attend properly to the myriad of details associated with putting on kimono. Bookshops will feature how-to magazines such as the one below:


Such magazines are great reading for anyone interested in colour combinations, pattern combinations, obijime designs and so on.

5. Those in the geisha industry. It’s unlikely you’ll see geisha except very briefly in Gion at night-time, the entertainment quarter of Kyoto, but maiko apprentices travelling to morning music classes can sometimes be spotted in Kyoto. Here are two maiko spotted at ten o’clock in the morning near Kiyomizu-dera. Interestingly, they braved the public domain without a chaperone – stopping for photos (mainly by Japanese domestic tourists, let alone any foreigners around) means the poor girls may be late for their appointment, so they often have another woman in tow just to ensure they keep ‘moving’. Woe betide any maiko who stops more than briefly for photos – otherwise she will quickly gather around her a crowd of photo-snappers! These two below were pretty much oblivious to photographers, probably because they were busy negotiating some stone steps…


The elaborate silk flowers that go to make up the hair ornaments are obvious in this shot. I have yet to visit the small museum in Gion, Kyoto, devoted entirely to geisha wigs and hair ornaments.


And what marks this pair off as real maiko, apart from the elaborately-tied obi (notice the butterflies on the one on the left) are the geta – the traditional shoes. How they negotiated steps I have no idea, but their height is useful in keeping the kimono out of puddles. I was surprised to see a man in such shoes once, outside a small eatery – he was obviously a chef or cook – and plainly the height of the shoes meant he could negotiate wet floors. I draw your attention to the traditional makeup, especially around the nape of the neck. Obvious also is the use of red and bright colours which women can only wear at a certain time in their lives – wearing such colours after marriage or over the age of 25 or so would be unthinkable.

Which brings me to the last category I can think of for the moment…

6. domestic Japanese tourists (and foreigners) who want to undergo the Textile Tourist experience of getting dressed up in traditional kimono and (if they dare) walking around the block in public so dressed and made-up. One sees such experiences advertised in the tourist literature of Kyoto, but I happened upon it in real-life in Gion… I spotted what looked like a maiko from afar, but on getting closer, realised it wasn’t actually the ‘real thing’. The women involved were having a great time, photographing each other in the back streets of Gion, some of which have been restored to former glory (notwithstanding the ubiquitous power poles).

On the subject of shoes, I’ll dig up some photos of dancing in similar shoes – photos taken of a dancing troupe from Japan visiting Sydney as part of the Japanese community’s mid-summer public event. The idea of wearing geta is one thing – dancing in them, another!


2 Responses to “Kimono in contemporary Japan”

  1. Carol Says:

    A hair ornament museum?!? More details, please!

    Also, I’ve blogrolled you, Rod.

  2. rodbyatt Says:

    115 hairstyles from Edo to Present Day at Nihongami Shiryokan (Museum of Japanese Traditional Hairstyles) next door to Tetsuo Isihara’s hairdressing studio for a geisha look (hair, dress and makeup, 2hours for 30-30,000Yen). 2F Shirakawa Building, Shijo-agaru, Yamato-oji, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto. Basically the first lane on the east side of the Kamo River in Gion, up from Shijo-dori street. Japanese website, (Source: Kateigaho Int’al magazine, 2007 Spring Issue vo.15)

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