It has been 150 years since Japan’s emperor ordered his citizens to dress in western style, but the kimono refuses to die. While the overwhelming majority of Japanese consider it impractical and too uncomfortable to wear in daily life, the kimono retains a powerful hold on the Japanese heart and mind.
From the shopping arcades of Asakusa in Tokyo to the sakura-covered walkways of Ueno Park to nearly every street in Kyoto, women – and many a man – still can be seen wearing the heavy, layered robes, especially when temperatures in April tumble to early March levels.
My recollection of Japan in the 1990s was that plenty of women still dressed in kimono for shopping or visits to the shrine, but they were almost exclusively elderly or older middle-aged women.
There are still plenty of aunties decked out in traditional garb today, but they’ve been joined by large numbers of young women and girls – and even their boyfriends – who have undoubtedly decided that dressing up retro-style and going for a walk under the cherry blossoms is the most-romantic thing imaginable.
Their kimonos are not like their grandmothers’, however. Traditionally, kimonos always were drab; intricately detailed, but painted with muted colors. A rusty orange was as loud as it got.
The bright hues – purples, teal and reds – were reserved for yukata, the light summer robes worn to festivals, as well as around houses and hotels. Even 20 years ago, young women regaled in yukata during the warm seasons, but put them back in the closet when the weather turned cold.
Today, the kimono worn by the young – and by tourists – are as bright as the rainbow. Colors splash across the thick women fabric as they washed across the cotton sheets of summer’s yukata. For merchants, the new style has meant big revenue, but, for purists, they’re not the real thing.
Tourists, however, don’t care. And in Kyoto, it’s almost entirely the gaijin visitors wearing them.
If, in Rome, you do as the Romans do, then in Japan, you kick off the jeans and Doc Martins and go geisha. Or even samurai.
While there were a scattered bunches of middle-aged American women and strikingly tall Italian signoras in full-blown period dress at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera and in Gion during my April visit, it was far and away the Chinese who became Japanese for the day, either oblivious to or unconcerned about Japan and China’s tortured history.
There also were South Koreans and even some Thais who had traded in their floral Songkran shirt and water gun for a tightly wrapped robe and obi.
The old joke that even Asians can’t tell each other apart actually held true this day. But one sure way to pick out the Japanese women was to look for kimonos with subdued or relatively plain designs.
While the Japanese woman likely own their robes, all of the tourist kimonos were rented. And renting kimonos is big business in Kyoto.
I spoke with the owner of Kyo no Miyako, the closest kimono-rental shop to Kiyumizu-dera, probably Kyoto’s second most popular temples. She said she rents out about 20 kimono sets per day – undergarments, socks, sandals and top robe. Most the women also have their hair set, with a few even going for the full-on white geisha makeup.
Despite the stratospheric purchase cost of a genuine, traditional kimonos, lavishly colored tourist robes are relatively affordable to rent. The average price for a woman’s kimono at Kyo no Miyako is about US$78 (2,500 Thai baht). Hair-styling will set you back another $46 (1,500 baht).
Of course, with the amount of walking required to see Kyoto’s various attractions, walking in tight robes and wooden clogs can’t be comfortable. But if you must have that Instragram shot of you in a scene straight out of Shogun at an 11th century temple, it’s worth the pain and cost.