“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.”