Turning Japanese

by Jennifer Morton


“No photos with coat,” she instructs my photographer husband with a smile. The petit, pigeon toed, doll-like figure clad in a silky red, black and white kimono is ever so polite but adamant about him not taking any photos of me while I am wearing the box-shaped overcoat.

Photos in the kimono are allowed and encouraged but almost forbidden if the kimono-clad woman is wearing an overcoat. I bow slightly and smile while nodding affirmatively. I feel and look like a modern version of an obedient Japanese woman.

It’s my 40th birthday and I’m about to hit the streets of Kanazawa, the small castle city on Japan’s main island of Honshu that is northwest of Osaka. I am a bit nervous to be going out amongst the Japanese people: a Westerner with pink hair wearing the beloved kimono.

So you probably want to know what I am doing in the kimono under an overcoat in Japan, and who says I can't be photographed in an overcoat. Actually, it started two hours ago. When I arrive for my one o'clock appointment, I notice the foyer is lined wall to wall with shoes and slippers, like many Japanese households. It is customary to remove footwear and swap your shoes for a pair of slippers before entering.

Haruka, the young owner of the kimono rental shop greets us with many bows and the familiar “Irrashimasse” (welcome), a word that is used by many shopkeepers as you enter their shops or to entice you to enter their shops.

We duck through the noren (door covering), and enter the main sitting area. A low set table with red cushions as seats is in the middle of the room. Pictures of kimono-wearing woman, mostly Japanese, adorn the shelves and table tops.

Haruka shuffles through the paper-panelled sliding doors and disappears up a dark staircase. I follow her, using my hands to climb my way up the steep passageway. The room at the top is bright and airy. This is where the kimonos live.

The shelves are covered with delicate fabrics and laid out in color–coded piles. Haruka points out which ones are for springtime--pastel pinks, soft blues, yellows and purples; some with delicate features or intricate designs lie before me. I’m drawn to the pinks.

I choose a soft, pink silk kimono that gradually darkens as the material reaches the calf area. The fabric is designed with sporadic branches and leaves, similar to sakura (cherry blossom). I feel like a little girl playing dress-up.

Back downstairs in the dressing room, Haruka shows me the other accessories I need to choose. Before I undress, Haruka bans my photographer husband from the dressing room. “No photos; no man,” she says shyly as she closes the sliding doors leaving hubby to wait in the main lounge.

I strip down to my underwear and Haruka passes me a thin, t- shaped cloth gown called naga juban (underwear) to cover all bare skin. I slip on white tabi socks, the ones with a single split in the middle of the toe section, perfect and necessary for wearing with Japanese sandals known as geta.

Once all exposed skin except for the hands and neck IS covered, hubby is allowed to re-enter the dressing room to take photos of the time-consuming gear-up.

A beautiful, baby pink kimono with embroidered cherry blossoms around the stiff collar is the second layer. This kimono acts as a layer of warmth in the colder seasons and may double as pyjamas.

I am padded with hand towels around my chest and shoulders to give a flatter, more streamlined look. As Haruka points out the straight lines of the kimono lapel and the stiff collar that reveals some bare neck, she explains, “This part, very sexy.”

A plain pink waistband is pulled tight to hold the first layers on. Although I’ve never worn a corset, I can imagine it produces a very similar feeling. My back is forced in an upright, stiff position and I feel like my body is being mummified. Next, Haruka drapes the outer kimono over me.

A yellow scarf is secured around my waist before Haruka carefully lays the shiny red, gold and silver obi (large waistband and back piece of the ensemble) over my left shoulder. I hold it in place as she wraps it tightly around my midriff before bundling it in the back to appear as a cushion.

A golden obi-jime (cord tie) goes on the outside of the obi to act as yet another security measure. More wrapping, tucking and folding takes place before I am sealed into three layers of dress. It’s no wonder kimono wearers shuffle when going from place to place. I’m bound so tightly, it’s hard to move at all.

Somehow, I manage to wiggle myself to the make-up room and sit in front of the mirrored vanity. Having make-up and hair done is optional but a great way to complete the dressing ceremony. I feel pretty and shy, like most Japanese girls.

Back in the lounge area, Haruka and hubby take many pictures while I pose and giggle. It’s just past three o’clock, time to get out on the streets in search of blooming sakura before returning the kimono at six.

As I venture out of the door, the sky is the colour of the sidewalk and the wind is cool. Haruka gives me a matching overcoat to protect me from the impending rain. The coat is a gorgeous pink with a plaid-like pattern and large buttons down the front. The lines are very straight and the coat has no shape at all. It is for warmth and weather protection only and it is unfortunate to need it on such an outing.

So that's the background to my being in a kimono and coat in Japan. With Haruka’s pleas for no photos with an overcoat still fresh in our minds, we make our way down the narrow back streets to the busy main road that will take us to Kanazawa station then onto the city’s garden park, Kenroku-En.

Barely a block from Kokoyui’s door, hubby takes several photos: coat and all.


Jennifer Morton is a freelance writer, keen traveller and Canadian expat based in Australia. She writes about parenting issues, food, health, wellbeing and travel. You can follow her adventures at www.kaichronicles.wordpress.com or check out her website www.jennifermortonwriter.com





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