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Over the course of my four years in Matsue, I put a lot of special effort into art, be it developing my hobbies or learning the ways of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Long-time readers of my blog will probably recall my adventures in competitive kimono dressing with regional contests in Kochi and Hiroshima and a shot at a world championship in Tokyo. However, since 2014, I limited my kimono practice to only occasional refreshers for getting myself dressed for tea ceremonies. Sure, I love the chance to dress up in traditional Japanese attire, be it for strolling around Izumo Taisha during my New Year shrine visit or taking part in Matsue’s early Edo inspired Warrior Parade. However, I chose to dedicate more time to tea ceremony practice.

I still keep in touch with Kimono-sensei, of course. It just so happened that when I called her for advice on behalf of a friend who was getting started with her first kimono that she asked if I happened to be open on May 29th, during the annual kimono show she and her kimono buddies put on at the Matsue English Garden. As luck would have it, I did happened to be open that day, and thankfully there was no prep necessary for showing up on stage as a hanamusubi (folding obi in the shapes of flowers) model.

Knowing this might be one of my last times to wear kimono for a while, Kimono-sensei specifically chose to have me model the tsubaki (camellia), because it is one of the representative flowers of Matsue. It just so happens that I’ve always had a very soft spot for tsubaki, so this made us all happy. After all, Kimono-sensei wanted me to have this as one more memory of Matsue.


Fast forward to June 26th, when I woke up at 4am to get ready for an Asagayu tea ceremony. Because it’s hot in summer, it’s an early morning tea ceremony served with a light breakfast instead of a full fancy meal. Having, yes, even something as humble as rice porridge can be made very, very fancy when you leave the menu to the discretion of an inn that’s been in operation since the Edo period, where even Lord Fumai himself was known to frequent. After breakfast, we had the very formal okoicha (thickly prepared tea) ceremony in a very small, intimate room, and then the more relaxed o’usu ceremony outside in the garden by the banks of where Lake Shinji meets the Ohashi River. The weather was beautifully sunny to the point of being uncomfortably warm, but the tools all had a cool sense to them—the mizusashi for fresh water was made of very clear glass, the dish for the sweets was silvery and reminiscent of the upcoming Tanabata festival, and there was an enormous green leaf across the table to give everything a refreshing hue.

But yes, I mentioned 4am. Because this was a morning tea ceremony, I had to wake up very early to do my hair and make up, and dress in my kimono with room for making mistakes. It was the first time I had used that hydrangea obi since my first tea ceremony in June 2013, when Tea-sensei gave me that obi. I had practiced with Kimono-sensei how to tie a regular taiko obi, but at that time I ended up asking for help after all. Then in June 2016, I had not practiced a taiko obi in forever, and with my busy schedule lately, I barely had tied to do one frustrating practice late the night before. The first shot I took at doing my obi in the morning was a failure, but on the second attempt I tried something else with it which would have made no sense to me before, but somehow trying new things to get the correct form didn’t feel odd. But hey, it worked, and I had about ten minutes of leeway before the taxi came!

Don't mind the snapshot of a laminated photo I received...

Don’t mind the snapshot of a laminated photo I received…

It was also my first time performing the okoicha ceremony. I did really well–almost flawless, with poise and calmness. I’d like to say it was the fruits of over three years of near-weekly tea ceremony practice, but it was mainly due to being so sleepy that I was seriously nodding off in the mizuya (preparation room). I simply was not alert enough to be nervous, so my hands moved automatically. Everyone said the tea was the perfect, too. I know my knowledge and practice of the tea ceremony is still shallow, but hey, I can say that I can practically perform a tea ceremony in my sleep.

This was also my official farewell party from my tea ceremony school. It was very nice to have a formal setting in which many people were gathered so I could express my thanks to them all at once, but I’ll still attend a couple practices before I leave to learn a couple things I should know as an official dues-paid member of the worldwide Omotosenke school of tea. I’ll be able to say a more personal farewell to my regular classmates then. A couple of my other classmates who had taught me a lot arranged for me to go make pottery with a lapsed student of our school who is a professional potter. As of writing this I still have yet to see how they turned out, but it was fun. He helped us make proper tea cups/bowls, and then with the remaining clay he left us to our imaginations. Well……… I’m interested to see how my, erm, very imaginative “flower vases(?)” turn out.


As part of that mid-June day, with off and on rain out in the mountainous area around Sada Shrine, the ladies who brought me along prepared a casual tea ceremony in the display room neighboring the workshop. They borrowed some pieces from the potter, and picked from persimmon leaves to place the summer sweets on, and we casually partook of a couple cups of tea while listening to the alternating sounds of bugs and rainfall and talking about the creativity and craftsmanship of his works and works that he admired other places.

It was one of those “Ah, this is Japan” moments. Or at least, “this is my life in Shimane, when I actually slow down and enjoy it” moments.

My job as a CIR has of course been very demanding at times, with a very wide variety of exciting and challenging work to do. On the flip side, when I haven’t been as busy, I’ve found many opportunities to use my art as part of my work. I made it a point to do this in my first year. I had always loved drawing and had dreamed for years of writing manga professionally, but for some reason it always felt like I had to keep my passion for anime and manga a secret if I ever wanted to be taken seriously. After some self-published manga I made right before I started the JET Program, I knew I wanted to embrace it and let myself put a little more effort into it, which is part of why I started on the Kojiki manga.

Although I saw it as a chance to improve over the course of the years it would take me to write the narrative I had in mind, it turns out I got more and more lazy with it over the course of the project, haha! But I was busy with other projects on the side. Besides the experimental and hastily drawn Tengu manga that won 2nd place in an international contest in 2014, I also fulfilled a long held dream by submitting a short story to a monthly shoujo manga magazine contest last summer. It did not win anything (as expected), but I got professional criticism on it, and was overall very satisfied with the experience. However, I feel it is safe to say that I have worked that dream out of my system—the process of using professional tools and making print-quality manga without assistants and while having a full time job was exhausting. There were many late nights spent on it, and many hours hunched over my work, and the emotional stress of knowing how undeveloped my art skills are due to lack of any practice on the basics. The professional criticism I asked for very aptly suggested I focus on the fundamentals of drawing, and I know myself well enough to know that I’m only interested in doing this as a hobby.

However, it is through actually doing it that I’ve figured this out, which is why I feel very satisfied instead of feeling like I’ve given up. Besides, it already felt I had my “debut” in my 1st year when this article came out in the local Sunday paper about my Kojiki project.


Furthermore, I’ve branched out a lot, and tried out a lot of different styles and subject matters while I’ve made use of here at the office. I’ve become the go-to person for copyright-free illustrations on fliers and newsletters, so much so that when I walked into work one day and was told, “Buri-chan, we need you to draw Matsue Castle real fast,” it was only mildly startling.

A snapshot from my 1st year

A snapshot from my 1st year

I'm really proud of this logo design too. I thought it was only going to be a CIR-made newsletter, but it turns out it's been used in foreign tourism material as well.

I’m really proud of this logo design too. I thought it was only going to be a CIR-made newsletter, but it turns out it’s been used in foreign tourism material as well.

I’m sure I’ll always continue drawing as a hobby, and I’ll likely have opportunities to use my kimono and tea ceremony practice in the future. It may not be quite as regularly as I use them now, but I have attained both deep and wide knowledge to take back with me.

However, the fact that I am leaving Japan soon really hit home when I was putting away my kimono materials after the tea ceremony the other day. I could pack this all up right now, I thought. That was probably the last time I’ll wear one for a while.

Here’s a little update about my progress in the Japanese arts, specifically in managing to put on my own clothes for practicing the tea ceremony.

Spontaneously making a couple cups of tea during Hatsugama (New Year tea ceremony) 2015

Although you may remember that I have participated in competitive kimono dressing (wait, what?! See here, here, and here), I am not that confident in basic obi skills. Or rather, seeing as I have always been bested even by origami, I do not have a natural talent for things like folding the obi. The more basic the obi appears, the more difficult it is for me to do. Unlike the florid designs I’ve done for competitions, basic styles used for tea ceremonies are more subdued, and provided less flexibility in fixing mistakes. By this, I’m referring to the very basic taiko (“drum” shaped) style many people picture when they think of kimono. More specifically, lately I’ve been working on nijuudaiko, which has two layers on the outermost fold of the drum instead of one.

Though I have had lessons for doing these basic styles, I always forget over periods of no use, and try though I might, I often can’t get them to look right and have usually asked for help prior to the tea ceremonies I’ve attended or served in. No, people don’t mind helping, but yes, I do find it embarrassing. By the time I got about two and a half years into my practice, I knew I did not want that help anymore, and did my best to get myself dressed all by myself. Though regular practice no longer fits into my schedule, I’ve occasionally gone back to my old classroom for refreshers.

In September I attended a moon viewing tea ceremony. I had squeezed a couple of classroom practices a few weeks beforehand, as I was losing hope in being able to fold my newly purchased obi on my own with only the Internet to help me. The first time I went I worked with one of Kimono-sensei’s friends who was taking over the class while she wasn’t feeling well, and she found it a little odd to work with (good, it wasn’t just me who thought something was off!), but she taught me a method that seemed a little simpler than standard nijuudaiko, but a simple Internet search is not revealing it as an orthodox method.

For precaution’s sake and because I wanted to say hello to good old Kimono-sensei once she was feeling better, I went to class again the following week to show her the obi in question, which she had already heard about from the friend who taught me the week before. With one look, she exclaimed, “Buri-chan, why do you have a bridal obi?!”

No surprises to justify that, just a simple misunderstanding on the part of the new employee at the used kimono shop who told me it was an obi for nijuudaiko. Kimono-sensei showed me how it was a thinner width than usual, and therefore would look too small for regular use. Having a packed schedule with travel and no time to find a new obi or practice using a new one, I decided to stick with it just for that one upcoming ceremony. After all, it was private (but there were still a number of people I didn’t know through my school) and in low light (but people still had chances to admire each other’s ensembles, which meant I needed to point out the error in my ways anyway so that they wouldn’t be duped like many of us already were by the slightly-too-narrow bridal obi).

The green one is the bridal obi, but most people wouldn’t know that with a single glance. I sure didn’t.

The good news, however, is that I was able to put it on mostly correctly in the very short time I had between getting home from a 5-hour bus ride and catching Tea-sensei’s taxi to the tea ceremony.

My schedule continued to stay very busy following the moon viewing tea ceremony, so once again, I was concerned I wouldn’t have much of a chance to find and purchase a new and appropriate obi, much less learn to use it before serving all day in the Ichibata Yakushi Tea Ceremony in November. That was the first one I had ever served back in 2013, but still being a bit of a newb, I only went back and forth serving and removing cups of tea and sweets for the hundreds of guests we had throughout the day as opposed to performing the ceremony myself. Two years of experience later I felt really good about performing the ceremony portion and making the tea for the guest of honor, but I still didn’t feel very assured dressing myself correctly, especially in front of so many guests in a public setting. Tea-sensei lent me a proper nijuudaiko and assured me someone would be able to put it on for me if I could not, but I promised that I would practice.

And practice I did.

Practice I did, so many times. I consulted YouTube-sensei a number of times, only to find that there were so many methods that differed from what Kimono-sensei had taught me by hand–literally, by grabbing my hands and putting them in the right places. Without having seen the process I did before and without being physically corrected while watching instructional videos, I was frustrated by being unable to compare what was different about the methods in the first place.

There were many weekend afternoons when I quit part-way without having been able to make anything half-way functional, and there were times when I mentally ran away from practicing at all. It would be hopeless for me to teach myself, and actually do it nicely enough to be presentable, especially with all the extra attention I already attract by being the obvious foreign student my tea school. I’m not the only one who is unconfident about putting on kimono, or even in performing the ceremony well, and I’ve put their nerves at ease by jokingly telling them not to worry because I’ll attract attention away from their mistakes. For as many whispers as I hear as I serve in public ceremonies (typically positive and genuinely surprised), I known I’ll not be judged as harshly if I get something wrong, but I still want to get things as close to right as I can. But with all those eyes on me, surely it would be better just to give up on the kimono practice and let someone more consistent handle it while I just focus on practicing making tea, right??

So I said to myself in my head many times when quitting part-way through my self-guided practices, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my schoolmates either by asking for help every single time. That stubbornness pushed me to try the obi one more time each time I wanted to quit, and little by little, I had something that was actually… well… functional?

A little… hmm… fluffy? Balloon-like? Tilted? But functional. Functional is a good start.

I kept at it, and I kept looking for more instructional videos. I’m grateful I can understand Japanese well enough now to listen as I practice instead of depending on subtitles (and that it gives me more options for instructional materials), even though things like origami instructions never even made sense to me in perfect English. Yet at some point, the videos started to make sense. At some point, I saw how the nijuudaiko came together, and it was no longer mystifying. After that point, my functional obi, although not perfect, became closer and closer and closer to… well, if not perfect, then at least reliable.

Come the weekend of the big tea ceremony, I was relieved the day before to see some a lot of nijuudaiko examples in real life for mental reference, and perhaps even more relieved to see that very few people had gotten it “perfect.” Since then, I’ve also caught on that a lot of my senpai who have been practicing tea for years still make appointments at beauty studios to be dressed up before tea ceremonies. When it comes down to it, a kimono is literally a “thing to wear” and before fitting some fanciful ideal, it is a functional garment. Even with well-tailored Western style clothes, we don’t always look like we’re modeling for a catalog when we wear them, yet they serve their purpose in clothing up and making our appearance appropriate for the setting anyway. Kimono are the same, and they are generally put into use away from a competition stage where perfection is of the essence.

I woke up at 4:30 the next morning to get ready, but in one try, my obi and I were ready with time to spare before Tea-sensei and Tea-senpai came to pick me up. Tea-senpai, who also studies with Kimono-sensei and knew how hard I had been working on it, told me right away that it looked great, as did Tea-sensei.

Not actually a photo from the day of the tea ceremony, just one of my better practices in the days leading up to it. The tail under the drum should be a little shorter and smoother, though…

With a near-perfect appearance of grace attained, I then promptly and quite noticeably bumped my head upon getting in the car.

This one was actually taken about 10 minutes before that happened.

“Pride comes before a fall” could describe the rest of that day pretty well too. Although originally scheduled for 13, we put on 15 tea ceremonies, and for the most part, I nailed it every time. Serving the guests directly throughout most of the day (ohakobi), performing the ceremony and making the tea in front of them twice (otemae), and even in my interactions while away from our tea room–not only did my ensemble look praise-worthy all day, but I had the charm to match in my speech and poise.

Just as I was feeling quite caught up in my awesomeness, I volunteered to perform the ceremony in our rather spur-of-the-moment final ceremony, especially considering everyone had already performed it twice. As I confidently started my third otemae of the day, I dropped the hishaku (ladle) on the floor as I was putting down my tools.

Oops. That threw off my groove. In an effort to cover my little mistake, the nice teacher from another school who was giving the welcome greetings and explaining the tools and decor we had that day instead drew more attention to it by saying I was likely very nervous because, as they could see, I was a foreigner. But nonetheless I was very good at the tea ceremony (really, don’t be fooled by that fallen hishaku, which other people had dropped throughout the day too because we weren’t practiced with the kensui that was so slick!), and I was also very good at Japanese, and I was also very good at kimono and put it on all by myself! “So please, don’t judge the poor gaikokujin too harshly!” it sounded like, but that was me being sensitive, and the already curious guests likely wanted to know more about my tea ceremony practice anyway. He summed up his comments with his own sort of experienced grace, pointing out that more and more, the Japanese tea ceremony is becoming an international hobby. He’s absolutely right about that, and in both the worlds of the tea ceremony and of kimono, people recognize the appeal it has abroad and are very, very happy to see that there are practitioners around the world.

I mostly recovered and did things calmly and smoothly but towards the end when I started prepping the tools for the guests to inspect, I started reaching for the natsume (tea caddy) before placing the hishaku and futa-oki in their proper places, and started turning the front of the natsume towards the guests before I had even cleaned it off, which was a silly thing to do that I had never done before. Oh well. My saving grace was that I had mostly made my mistakes with grace, so perhaps people who weren’t practitioners themselves wouldn’t have known any better (or so I can hope).

Although my efforts (mostly) paid off, I am still humbled by how much there is that I still do not know and still cannot do, and how I am at the mercy of people with decades of experience to point me in the right directions and enlighten me. Two of my classmates and I are responsible for putting on our New Year tea ceremony next month, and for the first time, I’ll serve a full kaiseki meal in ceremonious style. It’ll be quite a learning experience.

……..and I still don’t know what obi I’m going to use.

On September 27th, the moon was at its biggest and brightest, the closest it would be to the earth for 2015. On this day, many people in Japan practiced Tsukimi–quite literally, “moon viewing.”

But this story doesn’t take place on the 27th. It takes place on the 26th.

Being a big fan of our closest celestial friend and one to take notice of it at any time of year, I always loved that there are so many cultural activities in east Asia surrounding the act of viewing the moon. I have spent four previous harvest moons in Japan and noticed all the specials in the stores from Tsukimi Burgers (burgers with egg, because the egg is round like the moon) to dango with rabbits on the packages (instead of a man on the moon, the shadows are said to resemble a rabbit bounding rice cake, though please allow me to point out it should be a hare and not a rabbit because rabbits are not native to Japan). However, I had never engaged in the act of offering dango to the moon, appreciating susuki (pampas grass) decorations under the moonlight, or anything the tea ceremony offers surrounding this nature-viewing event.

Unsurprisingly, there are many tools and tastes set aside specifically for moon viewing, or in celebration of the moon. For instance, chestnuts and sweet potatoes are also in season around this time, so they are often incorporated in the decorations or sweets. Furthermore, the containers for tea that might usually have a gold interior instead have a silver interior because the moon is associated with a silver color. Then of course, you have a plethora of scrolls and tea bowls inspired by the moon or by viewing it, thereby making for a wide of array of decorations that are only used at this time of year.

Of course I was looking forward to all of that, but I was not entirely looking forward to the ceremony itself. Or rather, I was not not looking forward to putting on a kimono immediately after returning from a week out of town, fighting with the obi I had been having trouble with, and somehow looking presentable for a five hour ceremony after a five hour bus ride. Ironically, Japan’s “silver week” of three holidays in a row fell into the same week as the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, meaning my plans were stacked right on top of each other. A bit of an oversight on my part, and I cursed my over-confidence in my time management abilities as I hurriedly showered and ironed my kimono and tried to control my not-fully-dried hair. Luck was on my side, however, because I managed to tie my obi alright on the first try and only had the obi-age left to tie in the taxi.

I did not, however, bring a camera. Please bear with my verbal account instead of photos that would not do justice to a the night scene anyway.

We–about twenty people–held the ceremony at a restaurant built in the mid Edo period called Rinsuitei, which has a tea ceremony appropriate tsukubai (water basin) in the garden over looking the mouth of the Ohashi River and Lake Shinji. We heard many stories about this building and its history as the night went on, such as how they had switched to a lower tsukubai in recent years, as the term refers to a place where one must “stoop down” into a humble position as they wash their hands. Originally, they had a tall one in place, as the feudal lords of Matsue would often visit that place. They could not be expected to stoop down. Instead, they would stand there as one servant poured the water over their hands, and another would dry them with a towel. Even in hand-washing, a lord cannot be expected to get his own hands dirty. Obviously.

Our space was spread across enough rooms that we had three moon and moon-viewing related scrolls to view, as well as multiple spots for seasonal plants as decorations—in the waiting area in the hall where gourds were on display, along the hallways where Chinese lantern plants were rich in red and gold tones, in the waiting room where a flush array of wild flowers looked just as wild as if they were still in the dirt, in the alcove surrounded by windows where plump vegetables and dumplings were offered before the moon, and in the ceremony room itself, where there was a hanging boat vase set on the floor of the tokonoma (decorative alcove). I’ve seen these used hanging in the tokonoma, but this one was set with its chains trailing it like waves, implying that the boat had stopped so that the people (or in this case, flowers) on board could view the moon.

We started with the arrangement of the charcoal to prepare for the ceremony, and that is a ceremony in and of itself. This was followed by dinner, and it was the most delicious tea ceremony meal I have had yet. I even enjoyed the sake, which I typically don’t have much of a taste for! I had very pleasant conversation with O-san, the very kind old man who started practicing tea ceremony the year before I did.

While the three hosts who set everything up for us were cleaning up after dinner and preparing for the tea, the rest of us headed back out into the garden and the waiting room. The moon was visible over the roof of the annex next to us, making its only appearance from behind the clouds that we could see. The clouds surrounding it nonetheless lit up just as brightly.

The fourth generation owner of Rinsuitei joined us for the koicha (thick tea, most formal) part of the ceremony so that he could explain the scrolls and their meanings to us. He went us to tell us more about the feudal lords that dined there back in the day, and that the sign with the name of the establishment hanging inside the tea room was the calligraphy of Lord Fumai. O-san and I sat on either side of him, highlighting his words with expressions of “ehhhhhh?” to show our appreciation for the newly acquired knowledge.

“What we really don’t know much about is why my great-grandfather purchased this place in the Meiji Period.”
“Oh? There’s no information about that? He must have been rich to purchase it.”
“Yes, but we have no idea what he was doing before that to have gotten so rich,” he finished with an expression that suggested dubious ideas he may have entertained throughout the years.

The thick tea was extremely smooth and left a sweet aftertaste that spread throughout my palette, and we observed the tools by candlelight. The dim lights highlighted the silent movements of the host preparing the tea, providing just enough illumination to see each other’s faces.

We turned the lights back on during the more relaxed usu-cha (thin tea) portion, so we all got a very good look at the tea cups passed around, the one being served to the highest guest showing off an Edo craftsman’s sense of humor since you had to finish drinking all the tea before you could see the moon (the character 月 written on the bottom of the bowl). Part way through, as often happens in parties for twenty people or so among a school or two, some of the other students were asked to jump in and prepare tea for the other guests so that the busy hosts could have a break. I was one of these, and I could tell by using the tools–the sleek dark tea scoop, the textured tea caddy–that they were of a higher caliber than what I usually use in practice.

We shared the dango which one of the hosts had made as the moon offering, and to wash it down, most of us had second cups of the thinly prepared matcha. Because using and observing a variety of tools and decorations is part of the fun of the tea ceremony, the hosts asked everyone before they set out the second cups of tea before them, “This is different from the tea bowl you had before, right? If not, I’ll give it to the person next to you and get a new one.” I really, really liked the second bowl I used and perhaps took more time than usually granted to observe it, as it was like two bowls in one, or one melted over the first one or something.

The evening ran long, and the shy 14th day moon hid behind the clouds for most of the celebration. Despite all the caffeine, I was feeling much more relaxed at the end of the ceremony than I was when I arrived that afternoon. It reminded me why I was attracted to the tea ceremony in the first place.

It grounds you to the moment, treating each one as something that will never come again. It’s a brief respite from the world, cleansing all your senses with the quiet sounds of water, the sweet and bitter tastes and fragrances, and the carefully selected tools and decor to behold in your hands or just with your eyes. Despite the respite, it grounds you to your place in time and space, and brings you together with good company as you take in the details of the moment and appreciate those details together.

There may be more tsukimi tea ceremonies in the future, but this one is now in the past, a moment never to be repeated, but one I’ll remember for a long time.

“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.”

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.

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.

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.