For many travelers, one of the most exciting activities they look forward to doing in Japan is seeing the otherworldly kimono. Sumo wrestlers, older people, and geishas regularly don traditional clothes, but they fell out of fashion around the 1920s. These days, most Japanese people wear one only for formal occasions, holidays, and festivals. Thankfully, there are still plenty of chances for you to see and even experience wearing Japan’s national costume.
In this kimono blog, we’ll go over basic garment variations, styling, and our recommended locations to see or try one on!
Kimonos trace back to the Heian Period (794-1192), but you might be most familiar with the Edo Period’s (1603-1867) rendition. The “T” shaped garment wraps around the body and uses a sash called an obi to close. Depending on the wearer’s age, gender, and occasion, the specific style changes.
These are formal kimono for unmarried women, and perhaps the most famous among foreigners. Furisode means “swinging sleeves” in Japanese―they average between 39 and 42 inches in length. Young women usually wear these for their coming-of-age ceremonies or a family member’s wedding.
In contrast to furisode, iromuji―one color―might seem simple, but their multiple dyeing processes are registered UNESCO treasures. Married and unmarried men and women might wear these during a tea ceremony.
The distinct bottom half resembles a pair of wide-legged trousers. Initially, only men wore these, but recently women have also started to wear them for semi-formal occasions. You might also see shrine maidens or martial arts practitioners wearing hakama.
During a traditional Japanese wedding, both the bride and groom dress in kimono. The bride wears all white and a tsunokakushi hat, and the groom’s hakama is black and white. At the wedding reception, the bride changes into a red furisode―the last one she will ever wear.
Japanese kimono and yukata look similar to the untrained eye, but they’re quite different. A yukata is a modern Japanese kimono made out of cotton instead of silk. Most Japanese people prefer to wear yukata during summer because the material is light, comfortable, and budget-friendly. If you stay in a ryokan―Japanese inn―you’ll get the chance to wear a yukata as you relax.
Like modern fashion, traditional textiles change by season and occasion. The following is a short list of fabric patterns you might see and their meanings.
Cranes (Winter and Weddings): According to Japanese legends, cranes live for a thousand years and migrate between this world and the next. These auspicious birds represent longevity, fortune, and marital bliss.
Cherry blossoms (Spring): The fragile petals represent the beauty and transience of life. They can also stand for renewal and new beginnings because sakura flowers bloom in spring.
Morning Glory (Summer): There are some designs Japanese people wear year-round, such as hexagons, mountains, or city scenes. However, seasonal flowers―like morning glory―usually appear according to the time of the year.
Momoji (Fall): Like with cherry blossoms, the Japanese have enjoyed viewing the leaves changing colors since ancient times. Maple trees (momoji) turn the most spectacular colors, and autumn kimonos often depict their leaves.
If you want to wear a kimono, accessories are a must. You can find sets with matching hair clips, bags, and shoes, or mix and match your own.
Padding: The silhouette is everything, especially for women. To achieve the desirable cylindrical shape, many people use towels or pillows to look rounder.
Obi: The sash not only helps keep your clothes on but also works as a decorative piece. Men wear the obi around their hips, and women wear it between their bust and waist.
Obijime: To help keep the obi in place, some people also wear an obijime cord. The thin rope follows the garment’s color scheme and might have small embellishments.
Tabi: Traditional Japanese socks that have a split toe.
Zōri: Wooden sandals with thongs that match the kimono’s pattern.
Handbag or Netsuke: Your best Gucci won’t do. Bags should match the garment’s design or color. Women usually carry handbags or clutches, and men secure pouches to their obis using a carved button called a netsuke.
Fan: If all those padding and layers make you feel warm, don’t forget your hand fan!
Hairdo: There isn’t enough space in this article to discuss all of the Japanese kimono hairstyles out there. If your hair is longer than shoulder length, you must secure it in a bun or a more complicated updo to show off the collar.
You can easily buy kimonos at department stores or flea markets almost anywhere in Japan. How much a kimono costs depends on its age, fabric, and design. A brand new furisode, for example, might exceed tens of thousands of dollars, while a vintage (and slightly damaged) one might cost less one hundred yen. If you want an immersive experience, check out our recommended locations below.
Kyoto kimonos are among the best in Japan, and Nishijin Textiles is one of the top-ranked companies. At the center, you can watch a fashion show of their latest creations, watch weavers demonstrate their sills, and even order a custom made kimono.
During a tea ceremony, a maiko (apprentice geisha) in kimono prepares a cup of frothy matcha. Maikos wear only the most glamorous fashions with trailing obis and elaborate hairstyles.
If you want to look like a geisha, you can find kimono experiences in Kyoto that include make-up, wigs, and photo shoots. Most shops offer this activity at a reasonable price, but we recommend making a reservation. The staff might even let you walk around the city in full costume. Be warned, lots of tourists will want to take your photo, but you won’t fool any locals into thinking you’re a real geisha.
Near Mt. Fuji, this museum features works by Kubota Itchiku who revived the lost art of tsujigahana dyeing. The main attraction is the “Symphony of Light” masterpiece, which is an unfinished display of 80 kimonos that show Mt. Fuji through every season.
You can find Japanese kimono shops from the fringes of Hokkaido to the Okinawan islands and choosing one can be overwhelming. If you want to try the most luxurious kimono, head to Ibaraki Prefecture to try Yūki-Tsumugi silk. The attendants will teach you how to put on a kimono (left side over right), and you can wear it as you explore the city.