Ever since reading Memoirs of a Geisha as a teen, I was fascinated by the mysterious lives of geisha. The descriptions of fine silk kimono were palpable and I wanted to touch and wear one myself. Kimonos are rarely worn nowadays and are reserved for special occasions, though I have seen women wearing them around town, presumably on their way to a wedding!
Now that I’m living in Japan, it became a mission to learn more about kimono. So I was ecstatic when I read about a kimono experience for foreigners here in Nagoya.
Scheduling via phone was a 15-minute battle of broken English and extremely limited Japanese (as in I only know numbers and a few phrases). About ten minutes was spent trying to have her write down my phone number. I said each digit in Japanese and she proceeded to repeat each one back to me in Japanese and/or English.
On the meeting day, I waited at the agreed point with my book and umbrella when two tiny old women approached me about the YY Club. We smiled and bowed a few times before sauntering over to the center, a good 20-minute walk in the rain. I’ve always been impressed with the active lifestyle senior citizens lead in Korea and Japan.
Four other women were in the traditional Japanese room waiting for me. Quintessential paper walls divided the minimalist room. The women warmly greeted me and pointed out the array of kimonos on the floor. I admired each one and their delicate colors and patterns. Not surprisingly, I was drawn to the one adorned with red leaves.
Putting on the kimono was an event in it of itself. What a process! First, I changed into a slip and put on tabi, which are socks that divide the big toe from the rest. Socks with sandals is still a trend here (as evidenced by my students sporting socks with Crocs, Chacos, Birkenstocks). Perhaps it stems from tabi and geta, the wooden shoes worn with kimono!
Next, I put on a delicate pink nagajuban, a kimono-shaped robe, and tied it with a string. The beautiful leaf kimono came on next. She wrapped the collar around properly – the left always goes over the right! The other way is used for corpses to prepare for burial.
Up to four women were simultaneously pulling, tying strings, and meticulously putting everything in place. The process is lengthy; I never experienced wearing something so complex!
The obi is a long sash that wraps around the kimono. It’s embroidered in fine detail and often more expensive than the kimono. I was already wearing a tight belt that sucked my stomach in; the obi made it more difficult for me to breathe when it was fastened. A few accessories were added to set it in place, such as obi-ita (cardboard that keeps the obi flat), obimakura (a pillow that shapes the knot in the back), obijime (a rope that ties around), and obiage (a scarf that covers the pillow). Phew!
The whole process took a good 20 minutes. When it was finished, the women ooh-ed and aah-ed and had me do a mini photo shoot with their flip phone cameras. They pulled out mirrors and encouraged me to check myself out. It felt like I was a bride and it felt a little uncomfortable. Wished there were other foreigners to take the attention away from me!
Wearing a kimono forces you to maintain proper posture and walk in itty bitty steps. Trying to walk down the stairs and kneel down for a photo raised my bodily awareness because I couldn’t flail around like I usually do. While I admire the aesthetics of kimono, I do not enjoy wearing such a heavy and ornate garment. I’m so simple that I don’t even like to wear jewelry (besides the leaf necklace my friend, Daisy, gifted me!). Comfort is of utmost importance when it comes to dressing myself.
After the kimono, the women encouraged me to try on a yukata, a casual summer kimono. During a visit to Kyoto or a festival, you’d certainly come across women sporting their yukata. Putting it on was relatively easy with just two ropes and a simple obi. Two women taught me how to tie it properly, but I still had a few mishaps. The final knot that I did myself came out a little discombobulated compared with the perfect knot the women tied the first time. But that’s just the way I am-always a little crooked.
We kneeled around the table to sip on green tea and snack on watermelon rice cakes with a tiny fork. We chatted about Japanese/American culture as well as learning English. Every woman brimmed with smiles and giggles. They were polite and inquisitive. It was such a pleasure to be around them! Hanging out with them was so different from spending time with Korean women their age, who tend to be less formal.
It was time to go, so I carefully changed out of the yukata. By the time I came back in my ordinary dress, the women already folded a few origami cranes. I learned from my students that you make these cranes to give to people who are sick to wish them good health.
Kimono, yukata, tatami, paper walls, tea and rice cake, origami, lovely polite women… what a day full of Japanese culture and hospitality! Thank you for the experience, YY Club!
Want to experience kimono in Nagoya?
The YY Club does this event on the second Saturday of the month. There is no website, so you must call ahead (052-681-9414). The woman does not speak much English, but you can get by with signing up for yourself. It starts at about 1:00pm.
To get to the Atsuta Shogai Gakushu Center (熱田生涯学習センター), take the Meiko Line to Hibino Station. From exit 1, walk straight. Pass a Mini Stop (which is on your right) and make a right at the traffic light. You should see signs for Nagoya Congress Center. Walk straight for about 10 minutes. You’ll pass Nagoya Gakuin University. You will see a slow food restaurant on your left with pictures of snails on it. Cross the street and the building is on your left. Take the stairs up to the second floor and the door is on the left of the staircase.