“What is the difference between yukata and kimono?” someone asked me recently.

I gave them a rather lengthy answer, but somewhere in my heart the answer was, “Kimono are a pain. Yukata are fun.”

Don’t misunderstand, I do love kimono, and you can have a lot of fun with them. A yukata, however, is not bound by all the same rules as kimono. Although it would not be appropriate to wear them in place of a kimono, you can get away with all sorts of traditional and untraditional patterns, and accessories. It’s a little shocking to older generations to see young women wearing their yukata short with their ankles exposed for easy walking, in some ways it looks like the yukata has evolved into outfits one would hardly associate with kimono, like the shirt-and-pants style high schoolers are sporting lately, and the frilly-dress style things for small children that one could argue are not yukata at all. Although you do need some amount of tools for the typical yukata, you don’t need as many as you’d need for kimono (and in fact, you don’t even have to be able to tie a bow because many of them come with pre-tied bows!). Furthermore, yukata are much, much cheaper than kimono.

On my first trip to Japan I really wanted a yukata, so I bought a relatively cheap blue one. Although things did not work out to go to festival during that trip, I wore it to go do handheld fireworks in the park with my high school friends. To my chagrin they did not show up in yukata as planned, so I was the only one while they all wore t-shirts. Still a fun memory, though.

No, I did not take off anyone’s head!

The following year when I returned for a study abroad program, a Japanese friend of mine gave me a nice black and pink one as a gift. Score, one yukata for me, and one yukata for a friend if ever need be!

Fast forward to my life in Matsue, especially while I was working on competitive kimono dressing. I had gone into a chain kimono store looking for something and wound up signing over my contact information for a mailing list and a raffle, in which I won… another yukata! This one was purple with some hot pink.

Fast forward to the following year, when I won second place at the regional competition. What was my prize? You got it, another yukata. I already have a dark blue one, but I really like the breezy material on this one.

So what do I do with all these yukata???

I get lots of friends to dress up with me to and go to lots of festivals, that’s what.

Here in Matsue, there are other festivals at shrines a little further away, but my favorite ones around the city center that are very easy to get to even while tottering around in a properly worn yukata include the following:

Shirakata Tenmangu Natsu Matsuri: “Tenjin-sai”
Tenjin is the god of scholarship, worshiped at Tenmangu shrines throughout the country. This story behind this god is rather interesting, and although Matsue’s Shirakata Tenmangu Shrine is the better known one, Sugawara Tenmangu Shrine towards the southwest outskirts of town is one of many spots throughout the country that claims to be the birthplace of this god.
The festival atmosphere lasts from the afternoon until very late evening on July 24th and 25th, stretching all the way up and down a shopping arcade that’s been in that spot since the Edo period. Although I’ve worn yukata to stroll and watch the bouncing and shouting parade of o-mikoshi (portable shrines), this year I stirred things up a bit by joining in and going for the festival happi jacket look instead.

At many festivals of similiar nature in Japan, the people carrying the shrines shout “washoi! washoi! washoi!,” heaving it in the air on “shoi.” Matsue’s Tenjin-sai started the same way, but that felt a little too slow, so at some point it changed to the people carrying it and the people around them trading off with “Soya!” “Saa!” “Soya!” “Saa!” “Soya!” “Saa!

As cool of an experience as it was, you know what was really unforgetable that night? The colors of the sunset over Lake Shinji as we carried the shrine over the Ohashi Bridge! I wasn’t exactly able to stop and snap a picture, though… oh well, Lake Shinji will always have other beautiful sunsets.

Suigosai: Lake Shinji Fireworks Festival
Again, every region has a big fireworks festival–or several of them–but this is the biggest in the area, with the added appeal of reflections off of Lake Shinji visible from several directions, and sound echoing even as far as the quiet neighbors of neighboring Yasugi City. Usually held on the first weekend of August or so, they usually fire 3000 fireworks on Saturday night and 6000 fireworks on Sunday night, but last year there was a typhoon so they rescheduled it and fired 9000 in one night later on in the month. I had thought that would be the most amazing fireworks display of my life, especially sitting right by the surface of Lake Shinji, but this year Matsue Castle became a National Treasure. To commemorate this, they fired the usual 3000 on Saturday, and then 10000 on Sunday. It looked like the sky had filled with gold.

Matsue Shinjiko Onsen: Oyukake Jizo Matsuri
On August 24th, people give thanks for the natural spring waters at the north banks of Lake Shinji. And they buy stuff from food stalls, watch stage events, and light some more fireworks. I wrote a little more about this last year.

Tamatsukuri Onsen, on the southern banks of Lake Shinji, also has a summer festivals that lasts for a few weeks, but I have not attended yet (despite how much I always love a good stroll through that onsen area and a dip in the riverside foot baths!).

There are some other shrine festivals I always hear about and have yet to go, and I suppose if I really wanted to dress in yukata for the lanterns floating down the Ohashi River at the end of the Obon holiday on August 16 it wouldn’t be out of place, but I’ve always only stopped by in casual western style clothes.

The other place I’ve been using my yukata this summer is at my tea ceremony lessons. I usually practice in western style clothes, but after accidentally dipping my sleeve in the waste water during this year’s New Year ceremony, I figured I should probably take the chance to practice in long sleeves while I had the chance. Technically yukata are not appropriate for a tea ceremony, but my teacher gave me permission so that I could fit some extra practice in. So far I’ve only dipped the sleeve in the tea cup once, but thankfully it had nothing in it at the time.

Don’t be fooled when people tell you that yukata help you stay cool, though. They are indeed breezier than kimono, but they won’t keep you as cool as lazy western style clothes will! That said, it’ll still be pretty hot in late September when I am planning on attending a private tea ceremony, and I’ll need to be prepared to sweat. Also in preparation for this, I went out to a charming little kimono goods shop a couple weeks ago and found a cheap obi that’ll be pretty useless because it’s okay to use almost any time of year, and because it’s a repeating pattern, it may be easier than my usual obi which have a specific point to center.

To my and my friend’s pleasant surprise, this kimono shop also offered free iced coffee in their cafe area with a view of the garden and soft natural lighting. The coffee–which, even for someone who does not identify as a coffee lover, was delicious–was served in decorative glassware with cute, circular ice cubes. Every detail of this space and the five senses was taken into consideration. It was like being surrounded by aesthetic sense inside and out.

It’s just my observation, but kimono seems to bring out a broad sense of aesthetics, taking into consideration all sorts of surroundings. Season, occasions, company, purpose, age—it pulls all these elements together, it follows certain rules, but expresses creativity within those rules much like you would with a haiku.

But yukata, the rebellious offspring of what we know think of as traditional kimono who is still a good child at heart, is a more accessible aesthetic. Where kimono says “rules and proper sense” yukata says “festivals, fireworks, seasonal junk food, flirting with that cute classmate and hoping you’ll catch him by surprise with your altered look, the chic or sparkly and fluffy finishing touches, and finding your friends in the bustling streets and exchanging “kawaii!” compliments.”

Look! My socks have the White Hare of Inaba crossing the Sea of Japan!

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These were a gift from Kimono-sensei. Water, as a motif, is often expressed in this sort of traditional pattern. The Hare is based on a local legend and is found over and over and over in Shimane Prefecture and still more in Tottori Prefecture. For as much as I am inundated with this White Hare, and for as much as I tend to prefer dull socks over expressive ones, I was excited about these. Thanks, Kimono-sensei! They’ll be a nice San’in souvenir some day.

One of the first San’in souvenirs I got for myself was a magatama–that is, a common shaped bead of ancient, but not precisely known origin. These have been a sign of spiritual power since early times in Japan, and there are large collections of them in museums that have been unearthed from 8th century dig sites and beyond.

While not unique to the San’in region, this area was a major producer of the carved beads, especially those made from agate. The Tamatsukuri Onsen (玉造温泉) area is so called because many magatama were made there (玉造 means “jewel making”). Besides workshops to carve your own magatama, there are many gift stores throughout Matsue–and nearby places like Izumo Taisha–that specialize in magatama and related stone accessories. Although green agate, and to some extent, red agate are most representative of the region’s production, you can find these so-called power stones carved out of many other types of stones as well, varying in quality to suit low and high budgets.

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Although the agate products are very, very shiny, I got a lapis lazuli one to commemorate my stay in Matsue (the stone being one of my favorites, and the shape being characteristic of the region). I like it, but I do feel a little self-conscious when I wear it here. I feel like I’d look more like a tourist than a local…

However, as a local, there’s a t-shirt I’ve had my eyes on for a long time. It sums up so much about the quirkiness of the region succinctly.

Allow me to introduce the best Shimane t-shirt I’ve ever bought in Tottori:

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The scowling character is Yoshida-kun, from Frogman’s flash animation cartoon Eagle Talon. This cartoon is known throughout the country, and although he is not from here, Frogman has a passion for Shimane Prefecture. So much so that he’s volunteered Yoshida-kun, one of the team of characters bent on somewhat Pinky and the Brain style world domination, to be a PR ambassador for the prefecture’s tourism attractions, landscape, and culture. Granted, that means he makes simultaneously proud and sarcastic comments about how well kept of a secret Shimane is.

In a Land of the Rising Yura-kyara, where mascots teetering around with big smiles and silly dances have taken over much of mainstream culture, Yoshida-kun is a refreshing dose of cynicism. No offense to Shimanekko, who is quite adorable and deserves to win 1st place in one of the upcoming national popularity contests, but the landscape of local mascots could stand to have more characters like Tottori’s Katsue-san, a starving mascot who represents a 16th century historical event.

Shimanekko, who also has the best dance! Click for source.

Besides Toripy, Tottori’s office bird-pear (or is it pear-bird?), the least populated prefecture of Japan has an unofficial mascot who has had a place in the hearts of the Japanese public since the 1960’s, long before happy, round mascot characters began their dominion over the islands. That is none other than Kitaro, as well as much of the rest of cast of Gegege no Kitaro. This is because the creator, folklorist and adventurer and historian and story teller and veteran and one-armed artist Mizuki Shigeru, is from the port town of Sakaiminato on the western tip of Tottori. The city is laden with reminders of this.

In addition to my Yoshida-kun t-shirt, there is a partner t-shirt featuring Tottori and Kitaro, captioned “Tottori is to the right of Shimane.”

However, long before that, I picked up a Tottori souvenir featuring another iconic member of the cast: Medama Oyaji (“Old Man Eyeball”), Kitaro’s father.

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There’s no shortage of clever Medama Oyaji products both in Sakaiminato and throughout the San’in region, and there is no shortage of other Gegege no Kitaro t-shirt designs. Actually, there are a number of nicer shirts and ties with more subtle use of the ghastly cast, so you could get away with looking very dressed up until people take a double-take at the spooky imagery.

Granted, you can get away with anything on a tie, I guess. The Shimanekko ties are not surprising in the least, but a co-worker’s Hello-Kitty-meets-One-Piece tie did surprise me a little. It might still be a little while until we see Yoshida-kun ties or Shimanekko kimono accessories, though. When it comes to items I wouldn’t just wear around the house, there are still many options, such as traditionally dyed indigo items or even Orochi Jeans. Next I think I have my eyes on a peony-dyed item from Yuushien Garden, because there’s nothing like Daikonshima in spring.

I’ve had the pleasure of borrowing many different kimono get-ups throughout the years, notably the fancy furisode I wore for the kimono dressing contests (I would put a list of links here, but there have been a lot of entries about those–probably best to click on the kimono tag on this entry to browse through them). I also had the fortune of attaining a very cheap washable kimono that was subdued yet nice enough to use for tea ceremonies, as I knew I did not want to be stuck having to borrow kimono every time I might need one. I still have to borrow accessories to make them seasonally appropriate sometimes, but thankfully finding obi and other items at used stores and then matching them to the kimono is a lot easier than buying the kimono in the first place.

Although they were thought of as a one-size-fits-all item, such that a well-maintained kimono can be passed down from generation to generation and fit everyone just fine, particularly round or tall people might find that they cannot attain the right shape with a kimono meant for someone of more standard size. Thankfully I’m mostly standard size, but my limbs are rather long.

This make my cheap green kimono a little problematic for the tea ceremony, in which you make frequent use of your hands before your guests. Mine tends to show more wrist than kimono, but nonetheless, I’ve use it for three tea gatherings (with three different obi to adjust the overall effect, though I’ve bought two more to match with it while getting lucky at used shops).

However, for the Grand Tea Ceremony at Matsue Castle (aka Daichakai), Tea-sensei hoped that I might find something a little nicer.

I had been looking–how I had been looking! But most kimono simply are not meant to fit my arm length! After many searches on my own or in little shops and bazaars with old ladies to help me, many kimono looked beautiful but still fell too many centimeters short to justify purchasing them. I had also looked into how much it would cost to have one adjusted or even have one custom ordered, but those costs were quite prohibitive as well. I really wanted an iromuji, a kimono with a solid color on quality silk and with no family crests, as that would be the safest choice for tea ceremony use to try to make sure I would always have something appropriate, but also nice enough that someday I’ll have something pretty if the need for a kimono get-up arises.

Kimono after kimono after shop and after shop, I finally found it mixed in with a bunch of other seemingly unused iromuji kimono that been dumped at a chain used goods shop. What’s more, it was a little less than $50! For a kimono of that quality in a color I liked and a length and width that was just enough, it was a stroke of extreme luck. However, that the extent of my luck, as it turns out I was 200 yen short that day.

Nervous though I was about losing it, I still managed to attain it, and when I showed it to Tea-sensei everyone ooh’ed and ahh’ed at how nice the silk and color was. The problem was that I had only one obi that could be paired with it, and it was a little too wintery for a large event in early October, especially one in which I’d be attracting a lot of attention no matter what I was wearing. However, with Tea-sensei and Kimono-sensei’s help, we were able to put together an ensemble featuring a festive pine motif on the obi (quite appropriate given the “Matsu” (松)in “Matsue” (松江) refers to pine, one of the symbols of the city).

Looks like this when you lay it out…


…and it looks like this when you put it on.

And this is what it looked like on the day of my Daichakai debut, the first time I did the full temae (preparing of the tea) in public.

Shortly after things had settled down from the Daichakai, I started the next step in my tea ceremony studies: o-koicha, aka, “the thick tea”, aka, “this is the true way of matcha”, aka, “what is good about this ugh it’s like drinking paint and bitter bitter bitter uuughhh what was that.”

That last title is an amalgamation of many people’s reactions when they first try koicha, though I had some similar reactions the first time I drank usucha seven years ago. I was not even a sencha (regular steeped green tea) drinker back then, so I supposed my lack of taste for it was unsurprising. I never would have expected that I’d someday be able to appreciate the taste, texture, after-taste and lingering aroma of koicha. As I do not typically take breaks in my practices to photograph each cup of tea and adorable wagashi we partake of, I do not have my own photos to share for comparison, but Green Tea Chronicle has a very good article about it, including photos that show how the differences between these two types of matcha and how very, very green koicha is.

Making koicha is similar to making usucha, like I had been doing for a year and a half, but getting the right consistentcy is more difficult, and you use much fancier tools. In general I use Tea-sensei’s array of tools, but there are some personal tools that we have to purchase ourselves. Granted, purchasing them ourselves doesn’t always mean picking them out ourselves–in general, Sensei has picked things out for me, and I bought them from her. Perhaps it’s because of my age, but she picked out a lot of cheerful colors and patterns for my tools when I first started, although all women practicing the Omotesenke school of the tea ceremony, whether they are preparing thick or thin tea, use an orange fukusa, a cloth used to clean tools and handle hot objects during the ceremony. Men use a dark purple cloth, and other schools use other colors according to their own rules.

In preparing the extra special thick tea, though, you have a decorative fukusa to serve along with the tea, which each of the guests use to hold the cup when they drink from it. It becomes one of many pretty objects and classy tools that guests may observe closely and ask questions about, which is why you have to remember a lot the names and makers of the tools you use.

Allow me to introduce you to my fukusa that Tea-Sensei picked out for me. It is called Souka-Tsunagi, “Pairs of Linked Flowers” like the pattern embroidered into it.

Now hopefully I can manage to make some tea that tastes as good as the ceremony looks.

Many people across Japan are familiar with the basics of the tennyo (heavenly maiden) legend, and there are a lot of fun ways to read into it, and compare or combine it with the legend of the star-crossed lovers–including another heavenly maiden–who meet on Tanabata. Although commercially celebrated on July 7, the celestial activity it actually celebrates was on August 2 this year. Next year (2015), it will be on August 20.

This particular version of a well-known legend takes place in Kurayoshi, Tottori Prefecture. The kids of Kurayoshi still keep the associated drum and flute traditional alive, as you can see on their blog.

Click for source

A very, very long time ago, in the land of Hoki, a young woodcutter was going about his usual work when he discovered something hanging on a boulder which he had never seen before. It was a beautiful, pure white and transparent folded cloth. Something like this must belong to a heavenly maiden, he thought, and then took the garment home.

That evening, as he was eating dinner, there was a knock at the door. There, he found a frantic but very beautiful maiden. “I cannot return home. Please allow me to stay,” she said sorrowfully.

“Not to worry, come on in.”

The maiden went on to explain, “I am a heavenly maiden. The gods sent me on an errand to the land of Izumo, and on the way back I stopped to bathe. I lost my heavenly robes,” her voice began to waver as she succumbed to tears, “Now I can never return to the heavens.”

Upon hearing this, the young woodcutter decided to hide the robes and never tell her that he stole them.

The heavenly maiden remained at his house, and at some point she became his bride. She gave birth to two sons, and when they grew older, she taught them to play the drums and flute*, and the sounds reminded her of her time in the heavens.

The years passed, and one summer night her sons went out to the mountain to gather bamboo for Tanabata decorations. In light of the holiday, she decided to prepare a feast, and starting pulling out all of the dishes she would need from the cupboard. While searching for some misplaced dishes, she discovered a dark corner of the cupboard where there was a wrapped package.

Finding it curious, she opened it and was shocked. “Why, it’s my heavenly robes!”

Nostalgic over seeing her garment again, she immediately put it on, and her body became light and fluttered off the ground, lightly rising toward the sky.

Her sons returned from gathered bamboo and noticed her up above them. “Ma!” they shouted. “Where are you going? Ma!!”

They called and called, but her form grew further and further away and then disappeared from sight, and she never returned to them.

Since then, it has been said that you can hear the sound of drums and flutes coming from the mountain. This is the voice of the two children calling out to their mother in the heavens. At some point, they started calling the mountain Utsubukiyama* because of this. How pitiful! Even today, you can sometimes hear the sounds of the drums and flutes riding on the wind.

Click for source

*The name “Utsubukiyama” can be broken down as follows:
The verb for beating a drum is 打つ (utsu)
The verb for blowing a flute is 吹き (fuki)
The word for mountain is 山 (yama)
Utsubukiyama: 打吹山

It has been said that in Japan, people dress for the calendar date instead of the weather. I’m inclined to agree.

When traveling or living in another culture, it’s always worth taking note of how your wardrobe compares to the level of modesty and neatness of those around you so as to be respectful. When preparing to live in Japan, one piece of advice I heard here and there is that people will not tell you directly if you’re showing too much skin, but instead will ask if you’re cold as an indirect way of saying “cover up! That’s not appropriate!” In my experience, I’ve been asked this a few times when wearing short sleeves, but I think the surprise is less about it being immodest and more about how no one else is doing it–at least not on that particular date. This is very different from the culture in which I grew up, in which dressing in layers for the sake of being able to add and remove layers so as to adjust to changing temperatures indoors or outdoors is commonplace and considered practical. In many places around the world, however, practicality is not of prime importance when it comes to fashion choices (especially if kimono are any indication of that).

Furthermore, when it comes to the calendar date, it’s not just clothing that adjusts to fit the theme. In the tea ceremony as well, there are a lot of tools used seasonally, or you switch between summer and winter tools at specific times of year. They don’t match up exactly, however–it’s more chic in Japanese aesthetics to use a motif of some occurence in nature that hasn’t quite started yet. For instance, wearing a kimono or using a tea cup with cherry blossoms in full bloom is a way of saying “look what’s coming soon!” but if you were to use them in full bloom, it would feel a little like you’re trying to upstage nature. Furthermore, using them just after the event would just make you look like you’re behind in the season. Keep in mind that these are general ideas, not hard and fast rules, and there is a lot of flexibility allowed in appropriateness. However, in part due to the tendency to use motifs a little in advance, and in part due to the one-month speed-up of the old holidays with the new calendar, you find some seasonal changes being made long before it would make practical sense to do them. This especially drives me a little crazy towards the later parts of summer and winter, when the tools have already changed before the weather has, which means we’re using tools for hot weather when it’s still chilly outside or using tools for cold weather when it’s still hot and humid!

But alas, practical sense and aesthetic sense are not always in agreement, though it’s especially nice to appreciate both senses when they align on the right calendar dates.

Be on the look-out for some spring-themed entries coming up, full of snapshots… however fashionably late they are.

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.

With this likely being my last kimono competition, I changed things up with a slightly new style again–yet again of my own creation, now that I’m getting the hang of how this works. While I had already mixed things up a bit by doing a bunko style bow to try to stick out among a lot of the participants doing fukura-suzume style, I wanted to make sure I’ll really stand out on the NHK stage in April.

“Sensei,” I said, “I want more black!”

We discussed the prospects in a way that sounded like a teen arguing with their grandmother about wearing so much black. “More black!” and “Yes, I understand you like that, but…!” Her hesitance was less about how much many more cheerful colors there are to wear instead, and more about how you don’t typically show very much of the reverse side of the obi (belt) unless it’s a somber occasion, whereas the swinging-sleeves furisode style kimono is for very festive occasions. By the way, that fukura-suzume? It’s as festive as you can get, even if it’s comparatively easy to construct. However, getting to the world competition means I have a little more room to take a risk, and seeing as the proper side of my obi is rather light-colored, I want to make sure it will make more of an impact. Plus, the reverse side has a butterfly pattern I like, though that’s all for my own personal satisfaction.

As we experimented during one of the regular lesson times, we asked the opinions of other practitioners present, and as much as fun as Kimono-sensei was having with it, she still wasn’t sure how far it would be okay to stray from commonly accepted ways of doing things. She called another Kimono-sensei for a second opinion, who said, “Sure! Sounds innovative! Go for it!”

So we’re going for it.

Green circles: Ideally, these points should poke over my shoulders just a little so they are visible from the front view–but they should be as even as possible.

Pink circle: Showing this much black as an accent is unusual, which is why I’m hoping it will catch the judges’ attention. The folds should be obvious and provide an interesting texture, so that it would show I’m not just able to innovate, but I’m able to innovate well. If you can’t see the folds, it will just look weird and halfway done.

Yellow circle: As much as possible, these two sides should be even. I pulled part of it a little too low–oops!

Blue line: The line where both side of my obi meet each other will be a crucial point the judges are looking at on a bunko style obi. They should create a smooth line along the bottom, there should be a clear diagonal line where they meet, and the plastic piece of my biyou-sugata tool I use to but it on shouldn’t be visible. This is very hard to get right! Many people choose to do a fukura-suzume style because this part is completely covered up, so you don’t have to worry it.

I’m very pleased with the style we came up with, which I have since experimented more on so as to be able to do it faster (it usually takes me about 2 minutes and 30 seconds, give or take).

What I’m not pleased with is everything that still goes wrong when I’m practicing, like how my collar always falls forward as I’m leaning over to fold the obi.

Or how the velcro on some of my tools tends to stick to the wrong tools.

Or how the snaps on the biyou-sugata sometimes come undone.

Practicing takes a lot of time out of my schedule since the prep and clean-up take so long (though the part I’d do on stage typically takes me 8~9.5 minutes). I’m trying to enjoy it rather than let the frustration get to me, because as much as I would have dreamed about ten years ago (or even five, or three years ago!), I never thought I’d wear a furisode, much less any kimono quite so often. After I give my borrowed materials back to Kimono-sensei in spring, I may not have such an opportunity again. I owe it to my teenage and college and grad student self to make the very most of this.

Tiring though this sort of practice can be, sometimes all it takes is a peek at the hair accessories to get me excited for this experience again. As much as I can complain about nihongami (and that I’ll have to sleep with it partially sculpted the night before), it’s not worth complaining because I’m really looking forward seeing the ensemble all put together. Perhaps some of the reason I get a little burnt out with it is because I’m always practicing in fully festive furisode but with normal hair, so it lacks the full punch it should have. Trying it out with a dangling hair accessory was exactly the inspiration I needed! It’s sort of large, so I hope I’ll be assigned a hair dresser that won’t hold back on sculpting the look. I want to have as much fun with the furisode aesthetic as I can, pushing the boundaries of hanayaka (florid showiness) without crossing into “weird” territory, especially since I will once again be surrounded by many other people’s unique and gorgeous ensembles.

And, yeah, winning a world competition would be pretty cool too. I’ll keep doing my best with these last weeks of practice.

With any luck, the cherry blossoms will be in bloom on the day of the contest.

I am currently on vacation and will return to reply to comments and provide new content later. Until then, please enjoy an excess of doodles and comics about my daily life in the San’in region. See you in mid January!

You must never doubt the consideration that goes into any given piece of cloth in Japan. Even if they aren’t as fancy as the furoshiki (which are coming back into fashion as eco-gift wrap instead of just an appropriate way of carrying clothes), the tenugui has uses not limited to the martial arts, and can come in any kind of print and pattern. There are proper methods of caring for them if you want them to stay usable for years and years to come, especially if you receive them as gifts (which, thus far, I always have).

Speaking of, this is one I received from one of my naginata instructors, printed in Izumo region style with an Izumo Taisha and Yamata-no-Orochi design.

tenugui

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.

I remember taking–or rather, voluntary sitting in on three mornings a week–an elective class about kimono from a guest professor. I was so excited that the class offered because I already loved kimono and had (been) dressed up in them any chance I could get, but I wasn’t especially knowledgable about them. Early on in the class, the teacher admitted than she didn’t really like modern kimono partly because they’re such a pain. Hearing that dampened my spirits a bit. Aren’t art forms like that worth being a little fussy about? (Say I with my lazy comics like this one.)

Now I think I understand what she meant. There is a fascinating history behind kimono and a complex world of them them in modern Japan that is not limited to old ladies and tea ceremonies and coming-of-age ceremonies. I have ever-deepening admiration for the people who choose to wear them and incorporate them into their lifestyle and innovate with them. However, yes, they can be a bit of a pain.

This contest is a special case because I don’t get to take my time to make sure everything looks nice (in the case of a tea ceremony, I give myself lots of time to do it over again if I think that’s necessary). I’m doing this for the sake of kimono culture instead of wearing kimono for the sake of doing other cultural things or just for the sake of wearing clothes. I’ve been practicing a very specific method on a tool for such an occasion, and it is a method which is not widely applicable, and sometimes it feels a little silly.

Sometimes I really don’t want to practice, especially when it means it takes me an entire hour to do a single practice. By that, I mean 9 minutes for the actual practice (should be aiming for 8!), and 51 minutes for setting up and putting things away. Hence, I try to practice three or four times every time I have to do all that preparation. With the exception of the plastic bag under the zori sandals, I walk out on stage with all 33 of these items on my person, of which only 11 are visible (or supposed to be visible, anyway).

And this is before you add hair accessories! Not to mention hair product and make-up…

Furthermore, I was doing really well with my practices until last week. At one of the beginning stages of folding the obi, I need to grab a specific point to set the length of the part of the belt that goes around my waist, which I had been doing automatically until I tried to adjust the length. Then I started overthinking it and have gotten stuck at that early point every time! Now I’m also dropping the finished obi when I try to mount it on my back, and turning parts of it inside outside while fixing it. As the contest draws closer, I’m getting more and more creative with my errors.

There is a part of me that can’t wait to be done with this contest, but I still have my own casual kimono for normal tea ceremony use. It still requires many parts, but while I’ve been borrowing items from my teacher(s) I’ve slowly been able to assemble the other necessary pieces, as well as mix and match with a few other used obi for different seasons. I keep an eye out for sales. Even when I find a really big sale on them, though, I am reminded of how much financial commitment a kimono lifestyle requires. I’ve admired kimono since middle school and dreamed of the chance to own my own, however simple. Myself of only a few years ago would be estatic to know I’m dressing in such nice furisode at least once a week, and would have been sad to hear me whine about how much time and effort it takes. When I think about how this competition might be my last chance to wear such a nice ensemble, the tiredness melts away a bit and I start growing fonder of it again.

Pretty. Pretty, pretty silk. Pretty patterns. Pretty much a giant hassle, but pretty nonetheless.

The Shikoku-Chuugoku region competition is on Sunday. Wish me luck! I’ll post the results after I have a chance to organize the photos.