Nine study-filled years after my first experience wearing kimono, and about 19 months after getting wrapped up in these kimono dressing contests, I participated in the 2014 World Kimono Competition on April 7 at the NHK Hall in the heart of Tokyo. While I’ll probably still wearing more subdued kimono for tea ceremonies and what not, I went into this know that it would likely be my last time wearing such a furisode, the florid style of kimono worn by young single ladies to beckon attention and generally flaunt all the flashiness that kimono can embody. Such a kimono demands an equally exuberant hair style, such as the traditionally bulky-shaped Nihongami (日本髪 “Japanese hair”). I expect this to probably be the last time I sport true Nihongami, too.

While I had very early morning appointments at beauty parlors for the regional competitions in Kochi and Hiroshima, for this competition I instead was assigned a hair stylist and makeup artist to come to my hotel room the night before and morning after. I was a little nervous about not being able to get any sleep with my hair styled like that or that it would all be ruined by the time I woke up, seeing as I do not have the discipline to sleep perfectly still on a wooden block pillow like women in the Edo period used to do. Once I saw how tiny my hotel room–even tinier than I’m used to in Japan–I was a little concerned about how much room the hair stylist would have enough room to work.

I was also concerned about how experienced the hair stylist might or might now be with Nihongami. To be on the safe side, Kimono-sensei gave me a magazine cover to show to the stylist for reference. When the smiling older gentleman came in with his young assistant, I showed him the cover, and he laughed, saying, “I was the one who did this!”

He had been working this competition for years and worked magic despite the tiny workspace, and when I told him my teacher left cloths to wrap the style in a turban as I slept, he replied confidently, “I can fix anything! It’ll hold anyway. But even if it doesn’t, I can fix anything!”

He put in the accessories temporarily to show me and Kimono-sensei, which we were pleased to see in the shape he created, but in addition to the pins holding the style in place, he left in the kanoko (spongy red cloths with a dappled pattern) and the kushi (decorative comb at the top). I wasn’t so worried about the kanoko, but wasn’t the kushi, you know, breakable? I expressed my concern, but laughed it off: “It won’t fall out, don’t worry. I can fix anything!!”

Well, okay! This is the style I slept in…

“I am TOTALLY going to sleep just fine like this!”

…and that’s pretty much how it looked when I woke up, too!! There were only minimal fixes before he finished working his magic. He arrived after my make-up appointment but had assured me the night before that if I didn’t get a good make-up artist, he could fix that, too. On top of all this confidence, he made sure to remind me several times to enjoy myself.

While we’re still on the topic of Nihongami, I’ll go on a tangent here to say that it takes a lot of time and effort to successfully deconstruct this hairstyle so after the contest I simply took out the decorations, changed into Western style clothes. I thought it was too strange to wear Nihongami without any decorations, so my very good friend who came to watch went out and picked out a big bow to stick in it. As we were heading out to dinner, I got my picture taken for a magazine!

Don’t worry, I was smiling for the magazine shot.

The hassle of removing all the pins and handfuls of fluff later made me really, really glad I just walked around in that style for a while instead of trying to fix it before going out.

That is not a mirror behind me. That is my real hair sticking out beside my head.

Okay, that’s enough about hair. You’re all still reading because you want to see pictures of kimono, right? So here are some superfluous photos from before and after the actual competition. I got there at 9am for the rehearsal (and most of us got a little tripped up with the floor of the stage at the NHK Hall started moving), and the actual opening ceremony was at 11am, the international participant category was after 1pm, and the awards ceremony was close to 4pm. That gives you little spurts to slip out of backstage to snap photos, scarf your bento lunch as gracefully as possible, practice or make necessary adjustments, or just chill out and talk with the other participants. By “chill” I mean we all got progressively less and less graceful backstage as we lounged on tatami and waited for the awards ceremony.

Like in the regional competitions, there were three categories for women (casual, formal tomesode, and flashy furisode), and due to the larger participation in these categories, each region may send seven representatives to the world competition as opposed to the three sent in other categories. Other categories were for men, children (boys and girls together–and a western girl joined them in this category), schools (in which a team of three dresses each other), and the international participant category. There were 18 of us this year, but it seems that if they have trouble gathering enough representatives there is always the possibility of being thrown in with the Japanese men and women’s categories. Seeing as there were 12 or so in the regional competitions, 18 was more than plenty. We had mostly women in furisode, but also women dressed casually, and a handful of men. In addition to representing our respective regions of Japan, we represented China, Taiwan, the United States, New Zealand, Vietnam, Canada, Brazil, and Thailand.

A fellow CIR friend of mine was there, as was the girl who won 1st place in the regional competition in Hiroshima–the one in the beautiful deep purple kimono. We sat together and chatted backstage, but besides the men in another room, I talked at least a little to everyone. While in the regional competition everyone is a little surprised how they got themselves into this, in the world competition everyone already has some experience. You still hear all the lauding praise for each other’s style and talent, and everyone still remains rather humble about their own abilities. Truth be told, though, I was feeling a bit more competitive than before.

However, grace before competitiveness! Poise before aggression! And above all else, smile, smile, smile, smile–gracefully!

I was mostly satisfied with how I did on stage, both in terms of skill and speed in putting on the kimono and in embodying the Japanese spirit of aesthetics. I think everyone did really well, and it felt like it went really fast.

At last the award ceremony came, and like the opening ceremony, we had (a large portion of) all the participants in all the categories all fitted on staged together.

No, we did not have representative from each of those countries, but it still adds the “world” competition flair. Granted, as far as I know these contests are only held in Japan.

The dramatic drumrolls and music played for the announcements of 3rd place, then 2nd place, then 1st place of the school and children’s categories, as well as for the reading and presentation of their awards. In the same fashion came the announcement of the international category.

So… yeah… no, I didn’t place among the top 3. I really wanted to write that you would be reading the blog of a world champion, but technically I was in a 15-way tie for 4th place. All three winners were in furisode, with 1st place from New Zealand and 2nd and 3rd from China, including the girl in the deep purple kimono in second place. Once again, she was incredibly fast, despite saying she hadn’t practiced much. That’s just a touch vexing after all the evenings and weekends I poured in practice, but I’m happy for her and the others girls anyway. It just so happens they’re the three I talked with most backstage, and the girl from New Zealand had family visiting and watching in the audience, too. So good for them, and good for the rest of us for getting that far and making it a close match.

The winners among the men were announced, followed by the women. They had actually already been on staged for announcements beforehand, as they choose the top seven women from each category to narrow down who would stand on stage for the final announcement. The other representative from Matsue, who had won first place in the casual category at the regional competition made it into the top seven, but that put here in a five-way tie for 2nd place, seeing as they count that a little differently. There is a 1st place announced in each of the 3 women’s categories, then a special winner in each category for being the most outstanding, and then there is a Queen chosen from among the furisode participants to rule over the entire kingdom of kimono practitioners present on stage.

The Queen was very choked up while giving her acceptance speech.

I came a long way and learned a lot doing this, and though I cannot boast of world championship, I can boast of the unusual skill of self-dressing–without a mirror–in the top layer of a furisode with anyone one of three different styles of obi, all within roughly 8 minutes. Perhaps it’s not the most useful of skills, but I can apply the same basics to dressing myself in more commonly used kimono, and that’s what I set out to learn in the first place, having book-studied kimono for years before that.

Still, though there must be non-winners in any competition, there is the sting of not having something concrete to show for one’s efforts. What was I lacking, I can’t help but wonder, and that makes me not want to look very carefully at the photos as all I’ll see was my errors. Everyone did very well, so perhaps it just came down to the little details and the little impressions people made in their stage presence. Perhaps I really lack the spirit of Japanese aesthetics after all!

I gave grace and poise a good shot. I gave grace and poise a really, really good shot. Maybe I’m just not as suited for grace and poise as I hoped to be.

The rest of my to-do list in Tokyo was a little exhausting, but I felt very refreshed flying home to the little Yonago airport with Kitaro and his ghastly friends welcoming me back. On the shuttle back to Matsue, I got to see a grand view of Mt. Daisen and the late afternoon sunlight reflecting off of Lake Nakaumi. On my walk back home through town, I got to catch one of Lake Shinji’s famous sunset scenes. All seemed right with the world again.

…and then I got to work the following morning, where Araki-san, the cheerful-as-ever old man known his bouncy folk-dance performances around the world, was practically waiting for me. He had a big present, and proudly unwrapped it for me, revealing a snapshot taken from my first Dojou-sukui lesson/performance about a year ago. I’m not sure what photo contest it was, but it seems it won some kind of prize. He continued to go on and on about how I have natural genius for the famously silly folk dance, and how I should continue performing (this is a common technique of sweet old people trying to twist your arm into doing more performances at busy JR stations or for mass media exposure).

I had to back out of the TV appearance he was trying to get me into, but he kept insisting how good my silly expressions and bouncy footwork are, and look! My expressions were so good that I even won a contest!

…crushing irony. Such crushing irony.