I’ll mainly be talking about kimono culture, but first I want to briefly mention the festival I referenced at the end of my post last week. That festival is the famous Gion festival. It’s actually celebrated all month long, however our group was encouraged to visit Gion specifically on the 17th to see the yamahoko parade.
Yamahoko are enormous floats that are transported throughout the streets of Gion. They are decorated with Japanese symbols for various gods and folk legends. A great display of strength is seen as groups of men carry and guide these giant structures. The crowd would cheer every time the yamahoko would complete a turn.
Unfortunately, the parade was incredibly crowded. It’s no surprise, given that the festival has been a part of Kyoto’s history for over 1000 years. However, during a heat wave a crowd just isn’t a safe place to be. My group stayed as long as we could, but after watching a few of the floats we had to seek shelter indoors.
Our lack of involvement with the festival was disappointing, but coincidentally another topic I’ve been meaning to discuss had its highlight on this day. So switching gears, let’s talk about kimonos.
Almost everyone has an idea of what a kimono is. It’s the traditional clothing for both women and men in Japan. There are many, many different types of kimono, ranging from formal silk kimonos reserved for weddings, to popular cotton kimonos for summer known as yukatas. The elaborate fabrics are nicknamed wearable art, and indeed the dress is often hung up on walls for decoration.
Kyoto is one of the most traditional cities in Japan, so it makes sense that rental kimono shops are everywhere to be found. These dresses are actually very involved. Several accessories are required, none of which are easy to put on yourself. The rental shops will dress you, often including hair and makeup, and this takes the guesswork out of figuring out how to wear the intricate pieces.
So the big question is, can foreigners wear kimonos too? I was so concerned about this before arriving. In America, there is a growing opposition to something called cultural appropriation. The idea is that things that are important to other cultures (like Indian headdresses for example) shouldn’t be used by those who have no idea of their true importance. Kimonos are definitely a long lived cultural icon for the Japanese. However, I came to Kyoto with the belief that they wanted to share this fashion with others.
I’ve followed blogs from American women who married Japanese men, and they have all spoken about wearing kimonos to formal events and being thanked for following the traditional norms. There have been official sanctioned government events to help promote kimonos overseas. And, as a personal anecdote, when I was 14, I was gifted a kimono to wear by a Japanese dance instructor. She had spent the day introducing me to the dress, and even showed me how to perform a few dances. I never forgot how beautiful the kimono made me feel. That particular one does not fit me anymore, but once I saw how many citizens in Kyoto wore them, I felt that it would be a gesture of goodwill to adorn one for the festival day.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t afraid, in fact, I was terrified. The last thing I wanted was to offend anybody. The shops did have signs in English, and often advertised foreigners wearing the dress. But I was still nervous. I ended up speaking to my well-traveled psychology teacher. Without telling him about my previous research, he shared the same opinion that, as long as care was placed into wearing the kimono, he felt the Japanese citizens would be touched by the attempt. I wasn’t completely soothed, but this final bit of advice was enough to push me to get a dressing done. I ended up purchasing my kimono outright since I was sure I would want to use it again.
I did as much homework as I possibly could. I watched videos on proper pacing, wear to place your hands, and other tips of that nature. My goal was to be as respectable as possible, even though I was way out of my comfort zone. If I could become accustomed to wearing the local dress, then perhaps living in Japan would be easier for me in the future.
After the festival, several of my friends who had seen my attempt were inspired to get fittings of their own. So far, they have all had positive experiences. And how did mine go? Well, I made a video to discuss it…