This Sunday participants from nine prefectures across the Chuugoku and Shikoku regions got together to celebrate the spirit of Japan and the beauty of kimono by putting half-dressed people on stage and seeing how fast they could make the fabric fly. It’s a little more refined than I make it sound, but essentially it’s both a pageant and a race. This year it was held on a sunny day at an event center in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Seeing as Hiroshima is very easy to access from Matsue on the new highway that opened this year, it was a lot easier to gather a handful of participants to represent Shimane this year (as opposed to the two of us last year in Kochi).

Painfully sunny.

My day began at 4:30am with a light breakfast and applying thick stage makeup. After that, a group of us walked to our hair appointment and had them sculpt hairstyles reminiscent of the Edo era, however many extensions, fluff balls, hair pins, and however much hair spray it took to accomplish that. The bulky nihongami (literally “Japan hair”) accomplishes two things: it adds some shape to your head so you don’t get lost in a flashy kimono, and serves as a base for the multitude of decorations.

Nihongami: The right side

Nihongami: The left side

Since I mostly did my makeup myself, my hair was finished earlier than the others and I walked back to the hotel as the early morning light was hitting the shopping streets. While the streets weren’t very busy at that hour, there were a handful of people who got an amused smile out of seeing the obviously foreign girl in decorated nihongami and makeup walking down the street in otherwise western style attire. I wouldn’t mind doing that more often if nihongami weren’t so heavy.

After dressing in kimono for the first time that day, I arrived at the event center around 8:30am, where it was bustling with activity as people waited for the opening rehearsal. The stage felt very similar to how it did last year, complete with the trumpets and drums that sounded off to add drama to the announcement of the winners. Despite the decline of autumn scenery as we head into winter, the venue was swarming with colors and patterns and nihongami of all kinds further weighted down in creative accessories. I could feel some excitement returning to me–the “kimono are so pretty” excitement. Even being in a fancy furisode myself, I started to feel a little underdressed being mixed up among all the other patterns and colors! And such adorable and artful hair things everywhere! It was a constant day of “look at this!” and “look at that one!” and “it’s so pretty~!” However weary I’ve gotten of speed-dressing in the same outfit, the spirit of kimono and fascination thereof managed to seep its way back in to my heart.

Because this is an annual gathering of regional sodo (the art of kimono) practitioners, it did not only serve as a competition, but as a showcase for creative ways of folding the obi. Like the hanamusubi in the shape of flowers last year, there were other shows put on to entertain the crowd later in the afternoon as the judges deliberated on the winners.

The contest itself was broken in to seven categories, three of which were very crowded: the casual kimono, furisode (fancy kimono for young women), and tomesode (formal kimono for mature women). They required participants to be able to give inspiring 30-second speeches of their encounters with kimono culture should they be selected to speak. Their awards ceremonies were determined in two sets–the first to determine the 22 of them of that will have the chance to go on to the world competition in Tokyo, and out of those 22, the ones who won first and second place in their categories, the queen of the pageant–typically a furisode participant. This year, a participant from Matsue took second place in the casual category–quite a feat when you consider there were over thirty women on stage with her!

The other categories had fewer participants, so they could be introduced individually as they competed, and those who finished earliest would be subjected to questioning–I mean, interviewed on the spot–as soon as they finished and stepped forward to be judged. These included the schools (in which three students, middle school through university, would dress each other in unison), the children (including a 2-year-old this time!), the men (including one whose company has special wafuku days when employees may show up in traditional Japanese clothes), and the foreigners.

There were 10 of us this year, as opposed to 12 last year, though this time it was all women. Because it doesn’t take as long to put on a man’s kimono, it’s tough for the men in the foreigner category. Sure, they aren’t as worried about finishing in time, but that means they have to just stand there and be judged at least twice as long as everyone else does! Although all the women wore furisode last year, this year two were dressed in casual kimono. I had once asked Sensei about doing hakama this year because it would stand out, but she insisted that furisode give you more of a chance of winning. So, furisode it was again, but I did a bunko style bow instead of fukura-suzume like I did last year, and like most furisode participants do in either the Japanese or the foreigner categories.

There was one other furisode participant who had a different spin on the usual fukura-suzume, and her kimono was a deep bluish purple, with delicate gold-lined pattern. Wow. I’ve seen a lot of kimono in my life, but that was a really, really stunning kimono, and it suited her really well. While I was Number 5 in the foreigner lineup, she was Number 4, right next to me. While I’m bringing up kimono admiration, I really liked the wintery white pine motif Number 6 had, too. Part of the fun backstage was talking to each other about how we did or did not pick out our kimono ourselves (many in the foreigner category are just borrowing them from teachers), and how we got into this contest in the first place.

For many, the sentiment is the same: “I wanted to learn how to wear a kimono anyway, so when my teacher gave me the chance, I took it. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.”

The participants who didn’t know each other weren’t especially talkative between the rehearsal and the opening ceremony and our turn on stage to compete. That was probably less a matter of feeling competitive and more a matter of eating lunch, fixing and preparing our outfits, and generally being sleep deprived from having woken up early for hair appointments. Then came our turn, though I had grown a little nervous by that point, I was more relaxed than the year before when I only wanted to avoid making embarrassing mistakes (and made them anyway) and avoid finishing last (which I would have, had the person before me not gone back for an item she forgot to carry).

This year, there was a strange sense of peace as I was folding the obi and fastening the top layer of the kimono. Is this what they call confidence? I smiled just as I planned to, and didn’t make any obvious mistakes that I was aware of as I was doing it. What’s more, I was pretty far along when the first person finished in a little over five minutes–it was Number 4, in the really stunning furisode and clever spin on the fukura-suzume! That was remarkably fast, but I was much further along that I usually am at five minutes–startling so. Had I forgotten something? I must had forgotten something. There must had being something I should had remembered to check but didn’t. I went through the parts I usually check, did a mental checklist of the things I had been forgetting to check on recent practices, but nothing came to mind. I finished fifth, and could have finished even faster if I wasn’t taken my time to check things at the end. For the first time, I wasn’t rushed on time!!

However, finishing among the first people (and being able to speak more Japanese than some) means I was interviewed.

“Is Japanese alright?”
“Yes, Japanese is fine.”
“Oh, your Japanese might be better than mine! Why did you enter this contest?”
“I’ve admired kimono since middle school, so I was very happy to have this chance.”
“And what part of kimono do you admire?”
“Their patterns are very pretty.”
“How do you think you did today?”
“Um… gee, I wonder.”

In my head I immediately regretted not answering in more formal Japanese. Aaahhh. Can’t regret it too much, right?

After it ended I found there was more to regret–the left side of my obi had sunken too low, so the obi-age also fell and wasn’t smooth as it could have been. What’s more, the seam of the back of my kimono was off-center–it’s been forever since I made that mistake, I always at least get that right during my practices! I wasn’t totally pleased with the shape of the wings on my butterfly-like bunko either, but at least I got the hardest part of the bunko right–getting both side to line up with each other without the pink plastic of the biyou-sugata tool sticking out. Perhaps this paragragh doesn’t mean anything without having a little kitsuke (kimono dressing) experience yourself, but this is what I’ve been wrapped up in two or three times a week for the past few months.

I took a peek at Number 4 after we left the stage–not only was she fast, but nothing was noticeably off. If I must lose, I thought, then I want to lose to her. She, like five of the other participants, was studying abroad from China, and there were a couple of high school exchange students from Australia and Thailand in the contest this year, too. We all got to know each other a lot better after we were done competing and just needed to wait for results. The sleepiness all melts away after you really need to be alert.

During the break we had, my Korean CIR friend and fellow representative from Matsue went with me to go take pictures, and Kimono-sensei found us first to notice all of our errors and fix them… over… and over… and over… and over… No regrets, I told myself. No need to regret that detail, and that detail, and that detail, and that really big detail… Sigh. Without fail, you always discover new mistakes to make once you’re on stage.

Between this year and last year, I think the biggest improvement I’ve made was in poise. More experience certainly helps, but so has my tea ceremony training since last spring. For many years I’ve admired and studied 和の心 (wa no kokoro, the spirit of harmony in Japanese style) from the outside, but it becomes a part of you as you practice it. To paraphrase samurai great Yagyu Munenori, learning is merely the gate, and not the house.

Just because I’ve had an increase in poise doesn’t mean I’ve had any decrease in dorkiness, though.

Then came the awards ceremony. By that time everyone in the foreigner category was chattering away together in whatever language suited us backstage. By that time, many participants were of the same thinking: “Forget Tokyo! I’m proud to have gotten here today!” However, this year I really am aiming for Tokyo. Unlike many students who are only studying here until the end of the school year in March, I’ll still be here to represent the San’in region. If I’ve practiced this hard, I may as well go that far! That was the plan when I started practicing again this year anyway.

The Australian student won third place, and then as if according to plan…

Tada! I was pleased with that. After all, I wasn’t surprised in the least when Number 4 took first place. She totally deserved it. One of the nicest things about the contest is that by the end of the day, all the foreign participants are just really happy for each other. We all wanted to win to some degree, and sometimes we’re relieved not to so as to take a break from the tiring practices, but there’s a sense of camaraderie through common experience. (This is starting to sound like a sports manga.)

Twelve hours after waking up that morning, it was finally time to pack up our kimono and unpack our hair to return home to Matsue. I’ll be taking a break for the next month or so, but then I’ll start preparing for the world competition on the NHK in Tokyo. The kimono story will continue!

In the meantime, I think I can rock this post-Nihongami look.