The Kimono, a Japanese Feast of Color

To the Japanese, color is an essential characteristic to express the beauty of their ancient culture. Bold reds, yellows, greens, and blues, as well as the distinctive use of black and white, are present in their art, architecture, pottery, textiles, and furnishings.

Combinations of conflicting color can be seen in temples of the Nara period and in Shinto shrines. Scarlet and black in medieval armor, gold and green in screen paintings, red and white to express auspicious occasions, and dark blue and white in fabrics are all combinations that reflect human sentiment, religious faith, and give form to the use of traditional materials and designs.

Tasai is the Japanese word for the multiplicity of colors, red and white, green, blue, gold, black, and more, that we now think of as traditional Japanese color combinations prevalent at festivals, in exhibitions and at sports events, in the public spaces of towns and cities, and on the kimono, the subject of this photo essay.

The kimono is both a beautiful and elegant art object and a symbol of Japan. Once the clothing of Japanese on a daily basis, today it is worn by locals mostly during formal events, weddings, graduation programs, tea ceremonies, and festivals. These special occasions, called matsuri, always bring out a feast of colors in kimonos and provide a welcome respite from the generally monotonous clothing of the modern Japanese in daily life. Matsuri provide the opportunity to wear the finest formal kimonos and most decorative sashes or belts, the obi.

A kimono, originally a generic word for clothing and translated literally as “the thing worn,” has become the term that describes the traditional Japanese garment. Unchanged in over a thousand years since its origins in China, the kimono, for women or men, are cut and sewn essentially from a single pattern. A kimono is defined by its straight seams, T-shape, and elaborate decorative details. There are several layers to kimonos and a system of knots tying it altogether intended to hide the shape of the wearer and insure that it doesn’t come apart while wearing it. Moreover, there are a number of variations to be considered, depending on the occasion the kimono is to be worn.

The practice of wearing kimonos in layers came into fashion over time. This led to people beginning to pay attention to how kimonos of different colors looked together as they developed a heightened sensitivity to color. Traditional Japanese color combinations developed to represent seasonal colors as well as to distinguish social and political status. A kimono is an extremely intricate piece of clothing to put on as it involves many layers and knots.

One of the reasons why the Japanese rarely wear kimono nowadays is because they can’t put it on by themselves. Someone typically helps put on a kimono, often a trained professional.

There are detailed guidelines to the way to dress in a kimono, from the preliminaries to tying the bustle sash. For women, there are formal kimonos with decorative sashes called obi and other accessories, as well as the lightweight yukata for summer and informal wear. For men, the yukata and the ceremonial kimono are usually complemented by a hoari coat and hakama skirt.

Unless there’s an event, it’s rare to see a crowd of Japanese people wearing kimono on the streets. A full premium kimono set customarily costs a fortune, often up to $20,000. Since they would rarely use it, many Japanese people end up renting since it’s a lot cheaper. Numerous kimono rental shops are spread all around Japan for this purpose. Interestingly, their popularity has spread to include non-Japanese as well.

If you see someone dressed up in a kimono in public, it’s more than likely that the person is either an expat or a tourist. Non-Japanese, particularly Koreans and Chinese from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore or the mainland, have decided to put on a kimono, walk around with it for a day, and be the subject of lots of photos by others and by themselves. To do this simply requires going to one of the numerous kimono rental shops to be fitted, accessorized, and have hair styled and decorated with the appropriate ornaments at a cost of around $50 for the day.

The best places to witness the customers of this rental phenomenon are tourist sites, such as at shrines and temples, which provide traditional Japanese backgrounds. This is especially likely, and most photogenic, during spring cherry blossom and autumn color seasons.

Among the most popular places to be seen and photographed in a kimono is in one of the many shrines, temples, and gardens of Kyoto. The Asakusa district in Tokyo, around the Senso-ji Temple is also particularly popular for kimono renters to display themselves.

The least expensive kimono to rent is the basic informal yukata with a simple obi sash. A more ‘luxurious’ kimono, the furisode is distinguishable by its longer sleeves and is worn by young unmarried women in Japan.

Another piece of traditional Japanese clothing is a hakama. This is often worn by shrine maidens or by students during their graduation ceremony.

For a more special kind of ‘dress up’ experience, there are other shops (mostly found in Kyoto) that can transform renters into an oiran (traditional Japanese courtesan) or a geisha (traditional Japanese entertainer) for around $110 and up. These are normally only worn to be photographed in a studio (for an additional cost) and not worn outside.

This kimono is an interesting contrasting of a red obi with a kimono of white and black. Black, Sumi in Japanese, is the color of mystery, the color of the night. It expresses the unknown and evokes the imagination of a different world and has long been used by the Japanese as a powerful color, pure carbon, the ingredient to produce India ink for creating calligraphy, drawings, and paintings. It is believed black letters and figures expressed on white paper (white cloth in this case) dramatically reveal mysterious existence different from reality.

The special combination of red and white is pronounced as one word in Japanese, Kohaku. Their use together signifies happiness and celebration. Red represents life and vitality, blood coursing through the veins and the sun radiating energy. White has long been regarded as a reflection of sacred glory, the pure color of the gods. These two colors combined are a fortuitous symbolic linking of life’s power and everlasting exaltation.

© Dennis Cox / WorldViews, All Rights Reserved

Published by Dennis Cox

Publisher, Photo Explorer Productions. Award-winning travel photographer who has photographed in 130 countries and territories on all seven continents, including over 50 trips to China, and in all fifty U.S. states. Official photographer and a writer for Stock photo agent, WorldViews/ChinaStock. Designer of custom travel posters, Designer of women's fashions & men's ties, VIDA.

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