Friday, May 4, 2012

Let's Appreciate Kimono!

The liaison between our base and the Japanese public is also a tea master of the Urasenke School Of Tea.  She works around her packed schedule to provide private lessons for military spouses (like me!) who want to learn more about this ancient art.  Since November, I have been taking weekly lessons.  It is a struggle to settle my heart and mind to remember which intricate step follows which intricate step.  But my teacher is patient (as is my much more advanced fellow student) and this past weekend we were privileged enough to perform a small section of Tea Ceremony for an event.  

When performing Tea Ceremony, one wears a kimono.  The kimono is so profoundly complicated and meaning-filled (haha, understatement!) that I cannot even hope to crack the surface with this post.  In fact, I have bought a couple books about it, so as to understand it even slightly. For this post, I will confine myself to my specific kimono, and its specific items.  So, let's appreciate my kimono!

When I get dressed in my kimono, I put my tabi on first.  Anyone who forgets this step will soon understand why...bending over, once the obi is bound around one's waist, is troublesome. 

For an event, brand-new tabi are preferred. 

Next, I put on my zori.  This is to help gauge the proper hem length for the kimono.

Zori.  For my specific kind of kimono, brocade straps are most
appropriate.  If you are purchasing a kimono, you will be least
likely to mess this up if you just ask the shop assistant to pick
out your shoes for you.

My kimono is a formal kimono called iro muji.  An iro muji is a solid-colored kimono that is completely pattern-free, with the exception of a small crest centered between the shoulder blades.  To the American eye- especially compared to the ornate kimono we are so used to seeing in museums and textbooks- the iro muji is bland.  But to a Japanese eye, that small crest puts this kimono at the highest level of formal kimono wear (not to be confused with ceremonial kimono.  Those are for another post).

Underneath the kimono, white undergarments are worn.  Split into two sections, the undergarments follow the general shape of the kimono.  These are tied securely in place with long strips of cotton.  Depending on one's body shape, pads of cotton are then placed to fill out one's form. Pads go on top of sloping shoulders, fill in thin, upper chests, or smooth out the small of very curved backs.  A thin towel may then be wrapped around the entire waist to attain the desired tubular form.  Breasts are absolutely not a focus of traditional, Japanese clothing; in fact, they spoil the line of the kimono.  Wearing two, modern-day sports bras takes care of that!

The crest on my kimono  features three pine trees.  These
 crests are traditionally associated with family names.  Too bad
I haven't found any Fox crests!

After the underwear and kimono have been yanked, pulled, and cinched, the obi (belt) and its accoutrements are next.  The obi of yore used to be a monster piece of fabric, twice as wide as mine.  It was folded in half and then wrapped around the waist.  Due to expense and impracticality, the obi shrank to the modern version seen here (and an even smaller version, the Nagoya obi).  The only trouble with this new version is that it can't be flipped around and worn on the other if I stain it, I'm sunk!

My obi, pictured with the obijime (red cord).  The obijime is
the final touch on the whole ensemble. My obi is twice as long
as pictured here, but I folded it so as not to drag it on the ground.
My tea instructor tells me this is a traditional pattern representing
shooting arrows. It is appropriate for a happy occasion!  An obi worn
with a formal kimono must ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS be brocade.
Here is my obiage.  This is the long, fluttering strip of silk that is tucked
between my obi and my kimono.  Obiage are usually solid-colored
or decorated with a very subtle pattern.  It is extremely delicate.
Too much pulling and the silk strands will ripple.

After underwear, cotton padding, kimono, straps, towels, and a plastic stiffener are all in place, the obi is tied and the obijime and obiage are added as final touches.  The placement of each item, the way the kimono is worn, and my kimono itself all send very specific signals.  My relatively short kimono sleeves proclaim me to be an adult female; only young and teenage girls wear the long, swinging sleeves.  The placement of my collar, obi, obiage, and obijime all advertise my age and marital status, as well.

Collar: I am married, so my collar is wrapped  high, with a deeper V. 
Young, unmarried women wrap their collars with a slightly wider V.
Obi: Tied in the exact middle of my waist. Young girls 
wear their obi higher, older women wear their obi lower.
Obiage (piece of silk):  Just barely peeking over the top of my obi. Younger girls 
show their obiage a little more, and older women show their obiage hardly at all.
Obijime (cord):  Tied in the exact middle of my obi.  Younger girls wear
 theirs a bit higher, older women a bit lower. (Dalby 197-203)

The age differences are signaled by a mere inch or two of movement.
To a Western eye, the difference is almost imperceptible.  
While wearing kimono, one becomes very aware of several things.  Like the sudden inability to breathe.  Or walk quickly. Or lean back in a chair.  Wearing kimono for any longer than an hour becomes uncomfortable.  After two hours, painful.  After four hours (I was in this kimono for six) the pain is excruciating.  Back muscles, when finally free to move after hours of stiff confinement, are in agony.  Being beautiful has never been this tough!  I told my instructor that I needed to become more Japanese in order to comfortably wear a kimono, and she responded that modern, Japanese women find it just as painful.  Of course, it's possible she was just trying to make me feel better.

My obi is tied in a "butterfly" knot. My kimono's
crest is visible at the top of the photo.

Wearing a kimono isn't a large part of a Japanese woman's life anymore.  None of my friends or English students know how to tie their own kimono. Maybe some of their mothers can. Salons do a very brisk "kimono-dressing" business for women who don't know how.  Often, my friends will just rent a kimono, if they don't have a proper one for the occasion or don't want to risk damaging their own kimono.

My kimono is also used. New kimono are shockingly expensive!  Even used, I still spent the price of a prom dress on the kimono alone (I comfort myself with the thought that my kimono is 100% silk instead of acetate).  Buying a used kimono presents difficulties, because I am 5'6".  I am only a little taller than the average Japanese young woman, but I am at least a head taller than older Japanese women.  Used kimono are, of course, usually discarded by older women.  Purposely designed with a hem that is too long, extra kimono fabric is folded up underneath the obi to adjust the skirt length.  So kimono length is usually fine. The tricky part, for me, is sleeve length.  A proper sleeve length extends to just above the wrists...most older kimono sleeves come to just below my elbows.  On my kimono shopping expedition, I was only able to find two used kimono with sleeves that were long enough.  I am too tall for Japan!

When I wear my kimono, the first thing an English-speaking Japanese passerby will ask me is, "did you dress yourself?"  In fact, Youtube videos have made it possible for Americans to learn, and my fellow Tea student has become proficient. I'm nowhere near that advanced level.  For Tea Ceremony last week, I was definitely dressed!

If you are interested in reading further about kimono, I recommend Kimono: Fashioning Culture by Liza Dalby.  She is an anthropologist and the only Western woman to attain the rank of geisha, while completing her PhD.

There are two shops in Yokohama Train Station that sell used kimono.  Try looking in Sogo department store, and in the small kimono shop that is tucked in the underground shopping between the station and Sogo.  Shrine sales, recycle stores, and flea markets are also good places to look.  Measure your arm span, on top of your shoulders and from wrist bone to wrist bone, before you shop.  That should give you an idea of  the sleeve length that you will need.

Disclaimer:  I do my best to make sure all my information is accurate.  However, details may change or I may just be flat-out wrong.  Please let me know if something needs a correction.  Thank-you!