People often ask me about buying kimono in Japan, and as much as it makes me cringe, who can blame them? A quick Google search proves it’s one of the most popular questions asked by tourists about to embark on their first adventure to Japan.
So do you want to buy a kimono in Japan?
At best you’d want to buy a yukata, but even then what you probably mean is a nemaki. Here’s why:
These are not kimono.
Sure, many popular Western clothing brands are hopping on this new trend of selling “kimono robes” or “kimono jackets”. I get it. They’re chic and stylish, and comfy to boot for lounging around in. Even I’ve given in to buying kimono-styled fashion from the likes of Victoria’s Secret and Express.
Keyword being kimono-styled. Meaning, they kind of, sort of resemble Japanese kimono. However, this does not make them kimono.
Not even close.
Sure, you’ll find some cheap Chinese-made silk robes being sold (yes, even in Japan) because it’s what tourists come looking for. However, these are not nemaki, they’re not yukata, and they’re certainly not kimono.
The Japanese Kimono
Ki (着), Japanese for “to wear” and mono (物), or “thing” , a kimono (着物) is just that– a thing to wear.
While most foreigners probably couldn’t tell a difference, there are many different types of kimono. They range from casual to formal and from expensive to take my first-born child expensive.
Different types of kimono can be used to indicate the occasion, your place in society and even your marital status. Casual ones are typically made from synthetic fibers, while formal ones are made from silk and brocade.
Kimono, while once used as everyday attire, are now mainly reserved for weddings, coming of age rites, tea ceremonies, and other special occasions. Unless you’re a sumo wrestler– they’re required to wear a kimono whenever in public.
A single kimono may easily exceed thousands of dollars, and can reach up to $20,000 once you add in all the needed accessories. Which there are a ton of.
Nowadays many Japanese women may only own yukata and will often rent formal kimono when needed since they are so expensive. That, or they buy secondhand. Secondhand kimono shops are extremely popular and can be found all over Japan.
This is why kimono do not exactly make tourist-friendly souvenirs.
Plus, then there’s the whole challenge of actually knowing how to put one on. Did you know if you put one on wrong, you could actually offend someone?
Wearing a kimono is not the time to become a trend-setting fashionista. Always cross the left side on top of the right– the reverse is for dead people. And don’t decide to turn your obi bow to the front– that’s for prostitutes.
The goal when wearing a kimono is to be perfectly shaped and parallel. No curves allowed! Women will buy all sorts of padding products or wrap their body with towels and sashes in order to be completely flat and even, as this is considered most beautiful.
The traditional way to wear a kimono is to pull the collar low, away from the neck. The younger one is, the lower it can be worn, but don’t wear it too low as it begins to be considered “risqué” with more neck showing.
That’s because the neck is considered the most sensuous part of the body, so is always displayed with hair pinned up and neckline low.
Parts of a kimono
I’m not going to list every part of a kimono, because that would take me a lifetime.
While not all of these parts of absolutely necessary, here is what one would typically wear with their kimono:
Nagajuban (長襦袢): A kimono-shaped robe worn under the actual kimono. As kimono are hard to clean, this prevents any actual contact with the skin. Only the very edge of the collar should show from under the kimono.
Date-jime (伊達締め): A wide sash used to tie the nagajuban and the outer kimono to hold them in place. It should never be seen.
Koshi-himo (腰紐): A thin silk sash used to keep the kimono in place and adjust its length. Also, not seen.
Obi (帯): The large, outer sash worn with kimono. This is often the most expensive part of a kimono and there are many different ways to tie obi.
- Obi-age (帯揚げ): The scarf-like sash is knotted above the obi and then tucked into the top of the obi. It is customary for a young woman to let her obi-age show from underneath the obi in the front. A married woman will only allow a little to show, as it is considered “underwear” and can be provocative if seen.
- Obi-makura (帯枕): A small pillow that can be used to support and shape certain styles of obi knots. This is most commonly used with the taiko musubi knot.
- Obi-ita (帯板): A small stiffener that helps keep the obi flat.
- Obi-jime (帯締め): A cord tied at the front of the obi. Some cords are round, some are flat, but they are completely decorative.
- Obi-dome (帯留め): A small accessory that is fastened onto the obi-jime for even more decoration.
- Puchi heko obi (プチ兵児帯): An additional soft obi, made typically from tulle or puffy material, that is tied around the waist in addition to the traditional obi. This is popular with young girls as it makes your obi more cute and frilly.
- Obi-kazari (帯飾): A strap or decorative chain that can dangle from the top of the obi (this is sometimes pre-attached to modern obi-ita).
Hakama (袴): A pleated skirt, that resembles wide trousers. Although traditionally worn by men, they are now often worn by women over kimono at university graduation ceremonies and by shrine maidens or anyone involved in budo arts.
Haori (羽織): A kimono jacket.
Geta (下駄): Wooden sandals worn by both men and women.
Tabi (足袋): Ankle-high, divided-toe socks worn with geta.
Kanzashi (簪): Hair ornaments, including: silk flowers, wooden combs, and various hairpins.
Kinchaku (巾着): A draw-string bag, which is used as a purse by both men and women when wearing a kimono.
If you ever visit Japan in the summertime, you may notice everyone wearing colorful garments that look like kimono outside to festivals and temples. These are called yukata.
This extremely popular summer-kimono of sorts dates back to the Heian era, when people would take steam baths dressed in robes. The robe was called a yukatabira, from yu (“bath”) and katabira (“under clothing”); although today it’s been shortened to simply yukata (浴衣).
Yukata are no longer just used for bath houses, they’re a must for attending any Japanese summer matsuri, or festival. However, there is clear distinction between yukata worn outside and ones worn inside (keep scrolling down for nemaki).
Unlike kimono, yukata have very few variations. The collars are never wide with billions of layers, the sleeves are never elongated and the designs typically tend to be bright and cheery– perfect for summer. They’re also considerably less expensive, costing (usually) less than $250.
While dark blue and white are the most classical of colors for yukata, you’ll find plenty of vivid colors all donning fun floral or geometric patterns.
The main similarity between yukata and kimono are the accessories. Almost all of the accessories listed above will also be worn to fancy up a yukata– although all that’s really needed is an obi to tie it shut.
Luckily, yukata also don’t need to be fitted like kimono, so they’re easy to quickly pick up at any department store. So long as you’re not visiting in winter, you’ll find yukata stocked everywhere in Japan, even in discount shops like Don Quixote.
The nemaki (寝巻) is often confused with the yukata, because, well, it’s a type or subset of yukata.
Meaning sleepwear (sleep = ne; 寝, wear = maki; 巻), those yukata I mentioned that should only be worn at bath houses or inside for lounging? Yeah, these are those.
Unlike yukata, they usually only have small geometric patterns and are blue and white in color– yes, these are indeed common yukata colors, which is why it can be confusing. Their light cotton material is sometimes lined with gauze, making them super comfy to use as pajamas or bathrobes.
The telltale difference between the two, is that the nemaki is tied shut with a very thin belt, often made of the same fabric or a slightly thicker variation.
You’ll typically be provided them at ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), bath houses and even at hotels. It’s perfectly acceptable to wander to and from the public baths while wearing only the nemaki– just don’t wear them outside!
This isn’t to say that foreigners should never buy kimono or yukata.
If it were, I’d be a hypocrite as I own multiple yukata and am planning to buy my first kimono soon! It’s just that for the every day tourist they’re impractical and will probably never leave your closet. So why waste the money?
Of course if you have reason to buy it, such as for attending festivals or weddings, becoming trained in Japanese arts, or are just really rich, then go for it!
Otherwise, I’d use that valuable suitcase space for more practical souvenirs. Because let’s face it, kimono take up a ton of precious suitcase space! I’m just sayin’.