Living in Kyoto it makes perfect sense to wear kimono. Not only is Kyoto the cultural capital of Japan, apparently if you wear kimono in Kyoto you can get discounts in some taxis and other places. There are of course, many establishments in Kyoto that provide rental kimono services for visitors. These are great for tourists who fancy strolling around the city experiencing Japanese culture, architecture, food etc. while also wearing the quintessential Japanese garb in order to get an “authentic” Japanese experience. For long-term residents like me too, however, rather than simply renting kimono, it makes great sense to take lessons in how to put on kimono because there are likely to be numerous occasions where one might be able to wear one. Indeed, wearing kimono as regular everyday wear is perfectly acceptable, too.
At the beginning of 2022, I took a seven-session course with a private instructor, Nakamura Hiroko, to learn how to put on kimono and tie obi etc., and what a difference it has made! For many years I used to try to put kimono on by myself just using instructional videos on YouTube (and there are many great ones, so I’m not knocking them at all), but I just could not feel confident in my ability and very often I found wearing kimono for long periods was tiring ( because I had tied the himo (紐）too tight, for example), or I found the way I had dressed myself was untidy and soon came loose. After taking classes with a tutor who instructed me in all the little details of getting one on it has really made all the difference. I now feel confident and comfortable.
The next challenge is for me to wear kimono as often as possible. Japanese clothes, wasou (和装), I find, tend to be very comfortable when done properly. I often wear samue（作務衣）, literally “work wear”, on a daily basis. In wintertime, the fleece-lined samue are very warm and comfortable. Living in Kyoto, I also do not feel very self-conscious or embarrassed about wearing Japanese clothes. Some people do comment, but so far the comments have only been positive.
Now that the warmer days have arrived, I also like to wear jikatabi, the two-toe or split-toe shoes often worn by the rickshaw pullers in tourist spots, or sometimes by Japanese construction workers who sport them with great pantaloon-like trousers called nikka, which is short for nikkapokka, which comes from the word, ‘knickerbockers’ (There’s a great article all about the construction workers’ garb over on Nippon.com). Some have said I look like a ninja when I wear a black samue with my jikatabi! It’s easy to see why these items are worn by people who do very physically strenuous work because they are very easy to move about in. It is also very easy to put on a samue, much quicker than kimono, of course. As a beginner, it takes me about 40 minutes to put on a kimono properly, so my plan to wear one every day has not yet come to fruition. My mornings are often hectic, so I do not find the time, but with practice, perhaps I’ll get quicker.
One of my favourite places to buy jikatabi is Sou Sou. For a long time, I had wanted a pair to simply match with western style clothes, but coupling the funky Sou Sou designed jikatabi with kimono has also become a passion of mine. As a student, I pined for a pair but they were somewhat out of my budget at the time. Now that I’m working, I feel a bit more comfortable splashing out on a pair. The only problem is that it is very difficult to choose just one pair because they have so many fabulous designs. It must have taken me more than an hour to choose the last time I was at the shop, but once I’d finally chosen, it was at the back of my mind the whole time; “I’ll be back, I’ll be back, I’ll be back!”
I recently had the great pleasure to be able to attend a lecture by the British kimono stylist, Sheila Cliffe. She is the Vivienne Westwood of kimono fashion. Her style is cool and iconic, so getting the opportunity to hear directly about her ideas was definitely not one to be missed. I really learned a lot, but the biggest take away for me was how absolutely vital it is for more people to wear kimono. I had the chance to ask a question after her talk and it was about whether she has been able to encourage some of the students she teaches at university to wear kimono. One of the things I often feel sad about is the fact that so many of the students I teach at university have never had the chance to wear kimono. They do not have family members around them who know how to put kimono on, so nobody teaches them when they are growing up. The girls might have the experience of rental kimono for their Coming of Age celebrations or at graduation, but usually they will go to a salon where a specialist will dress them and arrange their hair, but they have no idea of how to put on the kimono by themselves. Some young women will have put on a yukata for the summer festivals, and they may have even put them on by themselves, but now it is quite common to wear “cheat obi”, which does not involve much tying and is largely just a process of sliding in a ready-made bow at the back of the waistband section. Again, I’m not knocking these things, but it means that a part of the cultural heritage is being lost. It is surely this loss of culture that is the most lamentable aspect of all of this.
Kimono culture is almost literally hanging on by a thread only thanks to some, mostly women, continuing to perpetuate the kimono traditions. But what of men wearing kimono? They are even fewer and farther between. The ubiquitous suit has completely taken over since the emperor Meiji decreed the wearing of western dress in the late 1800s. At graduation ceremonies throughout many universities in Japan, it’s the girls who wear the hakama and kimono, and the boys usually only wear suits. Some occasionally wear kimono, but it is often sadly seen as the person wanting to stick out, as some of my Japanese friends have suggested to me.
When it comes to the summertime, things are a little better, perhaps. In Kyoto, a few more people can be seen wearing yukata, the summer kimono, which is a lot easier to put on than a regular kimono. During summer festivals such as the Gion Festival or Gozan-no-Okuribi, when Daimonjiyama and some of the other mountains surrounding Kyoto are lit with fires to send off the spirits after Obon, as well as the Mitarashi-sai held at Shimogamo Shrine, for example, lots of people, old and young will wear yukata, even the men sometimes! Recently, as part of an ACTR project I am involved in, I invited my kimono teacher, Nakamura Hiroko, to give a guest lecture to my students in a class I teach called, “Eigo de Kyoto”. One of the students in the class kindly acted as a model and Nakamura-sensei demonstrated how to put on man’s yukata. Nakamura-sensei very kindly gave the student the yukata and obi belt he modelled, and after that lesson, I was thrilled to learn that he wore the yukata to the Gion Festival.
My kimono life has only just begun, but I am hoping to encourage a few other people along the way to wear Japanese clothing more often. Kyoto perhaps makes it easier to wear Japanese dress as it is the cultural capital of the country, but I sincerely hope to see kimono in particular, being worn more frequently and as more than just a special occasion piece. In 2022, I am working on the Collaborative Exhibition between the Rekisaikan Archives and Kyoto Prefectural University again. Last year, I was eager to get Nakai Hiromu’s hanging scroll portrait displayed, and I wrote about that here. This year, however, the theme I want to go with is ‘Kimono’, so look out for more information about that here in the near future.