Why You Don’t Want to Buy a Kimono in Japan

Why You Don’t Want to Buy a Kimono in Japan

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?

Probably not.

At best you’d want to buy a yukata, but even then what you probably mean is a nemaki. Here’s why:

These?

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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

Kyoto - 2011

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.

Osaka - 2011

There are even special kimono for dancers.

 

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

16404010982_a978178e46_o  Kyoto - 2011

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 (): 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.

Kyoto - 2011  Chicago, Illinois

    • 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.

DSC09513diagram

Ise, Japan - 2011

An obi-jime being traditionally woven

 

  • 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 (): 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.

Tokyo, Japan

Kannushi, shrine workers, wearing hakama

 

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.

DSC09516

Kanzashi (): 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.

Yukata

Chicago, Illinois

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.

Nemaki

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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!

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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’.

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Let’s Pin It!

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Do you want to buy a kimono? Do you already own one? Tell me about it in the comments below!

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28 Comments

  1. Kris
    November 21, 2016 / 1:43 pm

    Hi Beth! I wanna ask you something that is really stuck in my head, unquestioned. I’m sure you can help me! But it’s not about kimono or yukata, it’s about hakama. I know people wear them at sports event and graduation but can people wear them at other special occasion like festival or cherry blossom viewing or something, especially for women? If not, please do tell me why. Hope you can help me and have a good day. It was a great read!

  2. Jessica Gould
    November 11, 2016 / 3:38 pm

    I have two vintage kimono I purchased at an estate sale. The only thing I know about them is one still has old string signed tags, they are hand painted, and embroidered. I would like to know of more resources to identify them.

  3. Eileen Greenbaum
    October 23, 2016 / 6:35 pm

    I really like your article. I’ve actually never been to Japan, but there was a woman who would hold a bi-annual kimono sale and we have collected quite a few, including furisode, tomosode, and wedding kimono. It took quite a lot of time to acquired the knowledge of all the different parts, find them, and then learn to put them on. It is very difficult to put it on by yourself, but I learned! One day I hope to actually go to Japan and add to my collection.

  4. September 2, 2016 / 7:08 am

    I went to Japan last year and brought 2 kimonos and 2 yukata. The first kimono was around 2000yen in the second hand shop but I noticed a few stains on it, funny though the second kimono I brought for 500 yen in off house( a really good second hand store) and I prefer this one. The only reason why the other one was more expensive is because it had different types of nice material other than silk where as the other kimono is just made out of silk.
    I learnt how to wear a kimono through youtube and when I was renting kimono in kyoto.
    Now one of my hobbies are trying on kimonos or putting it on others hehe.
    Going to Japan in mid September. I might buy a furious, but of course that will be second hand :)
    Ps I really enjoyed reading your blog.

    • September 2, 2016 / 7:13 am

      Btw my key board doesn’t recognise ‘furisode’ and I forgot to check hehe.

  5. Angela Sanders
    July 11, 2016 / 6:35 am

    My son is stationed in Japan. He wants to get his sister a birthday gift. Which would be the best gift? She is a US size 4. What size should he get?

  6. July 10, 2016 / 10:12 pm

    Beth-san,
    Thank you very much for such a nice article. We were impressed! This is very informative and exactly what we wanted to tell our customers at our shop (but could not well with my English ability.) We always wanted to explain our customers that our kimonos are genuine and all made in Japan. We would like to share this article in our Facebook. Thank you!

  7. June 21, 2016 / 1:07 pm

    Some years ago my husband came home from a trip to Japan (Kyoto) with what I now think must have been a nemaki for me. He’d bought it in his hotel, it was similar to the one provided for him there. It’s blue (indigo) and white with what look like peonies or chrysanthemums on it. I’ve worn it as a summer robe for years (and years). It is now threadbare and beyond mending. Any suggestions on how I might replace it?

  8. Shona McCarthy
    May 31, 2016 / 11:13 am

    I’m sorry, but I think to describe the reaction to wrongly worn kimono as “offense” is a Western assumption. Very few people in Japan know enough about kimono to spot a wrongly worn one. But even then when they do know, the reaction is more like, “Oh dear, that poor person is going around looking silly!” Rather than “Goodness, that person’s a racist!” It’s not like here in the West where we perceive offense in any misunderstanding.

    By and large, the Japanese are very keen to have people buy and wear kimono regardless of racial background. They don’t want the tradition to go extinct and they need to keep making money. So really, when you refuse to wear kimono (correctly or incorrectly) you’re not actually helping Japanese people, you’re harming them.

  9. Maeda Ichiro / Craig Schultz
    February 9, 2016 / 9:18 am

    I’ve been making my own Kimono ever since I can remember. Except when I live in the US, my typical wear in private or business situations is traditional Japanese.

    I learned how to cut and sew Kimono, Haori, Hakama, Tabi, Yukata, Samue, etc. from a number of different sources, some of which were classes I took while living in Tokyo. I’ve also had Kimono made for myself as well as having received them as gifts.

    If I’m buying, I’ll go to kimono recycle shops, of which there are usually a few in every city or town and either buy used men’s kimono of a size that fits or if they have raw uncut material, I’ll buy that and sew my own Kimono, Haori and Hakama if the material is right.

    It’s not all that hard as virtually all the seams are straight seams and something as simple as a Yukata can be cut and sewn in a day if one is practiced.

    I wouldn’t suggest people NOT buy a kimono in Japan but do refrain from doing so unless one knows what one is buying.

  10. Taki
    August 19, 2015 / 5:37 pm

    You don’t really need to be rich to buy a kimono.

    http://www.ichiroya.com

    You can throw together a full set for less than $150. Kimono, Juban, Fukuro obi, obi age, obiijme… well, so long as you don’t mind that it’s second hand stuff.

  11. August 14, 2015 / 3:14 pm

    Great post, Beth! I have read quite a bit about Japan and Kimono and am fascinated by it all. Thanks for clearly explaining it.

  12. August 10, 2015 / 1:34 pm

    Wow, this is so informative! I never knew the differences & uniqueness of their styles of dress…

  13. Kimberly Hunter
    August 10, 2015 / 2:42 am

    Wonderful article! Japan has always been on my list of places to go. Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll make it. As a romance writer, starving artist applies here. LOL!! It hasn’t stopped me from buying a kimono though. I purchased a beautiful vintage pink silk one on eBay a couple years ago. I wanted to wear it to a writer’s con. I’ve worn it twice so far. And yes, I had to learn how to wear it. YouTube was my friend for months. But I eventually got it. Well, as close as possible I hope. Nobody I know owns one or knows how to wear one. Still, I loved wearing it. I felt so…elegant, I guess you say, wearing it. And the kimono itself is a work of art. Pink silk with colorful flowers on half the hem and over the left shoulder and bottom of left sleeve. Even the inner layer has a rind of pink from the dye process and some of the flowers have gold paint on them. It’s also really heavy, no doubt made for the cooler months. I could also see it being worn for formal occasions. I couldn’t find the right obi, so had my mother make one for me. Sage green and cream brocade. I think that was the most difficult part of the process. I tried tying it dozens of times. Still, the outcome was worth all the fuss. I’m hoping to wear it again sometime. Halloween is coming up, after all. ;)

  14. Lala
    June 14, 2015 / 8:30 am

    Great read, Beth. I’m currently in Japan on vacation. I’ve bought a Yakaka, matching patterned Jinbei for myself and my baby boy, as well as a Happi for me.

    I think the Jinbei & Happi will be more wearable with western clothes as the tops can easily be paired with skinny jeans, shorts and even leggings.

    • Beth Williams
      July 10, 2015 / 1:48 pm

      Yes, certainly! I also have a happi that could easily be paired with western fashion. :)

      Also, jinbei are just super comfy! I could lounge around in one all day. I hope you and your baby enjoy them!

  15. June 5, 2015 / 7:21 pm

    Hi Beth,
    About 15 years ago I purchased a beautiful Kimono at a church flea market. I really don’t remember what I paid for it.
    Is is mostly black on the outside except it has decorative patterns starting about half way down the back and front. It’s very elegant. The patterns contain Elk features along with a variety of many other patterns and colors. The inside is all lined with red silk throughout the interior.. There are 5 crests on the Kimono with the required number at the locations to indicate it’s a Formal Kimono. I looked on the web and found a site called Immortal Geisha that described what the crests indicated and it turns out that the ones I have indicate a ( I pasted this from the website). Takanoha (hawk’s feather) is one of the most common crests on modern formal kimono, it serves as an “everyman” crest for rental outfits and people who don’t have a mon of their own.
    Taka are especially common on men’s juban and haori linings because “…falcons and hawks became natural emblems of the Japanese warrior class due to their keen eyesight, their predatory nature, and their boldness.”[5]veryday man ( possibly used as a rental) . There was no specific indication of a family crest so I presume it would be worn by someone who might attend an affair. It is very long and almost touches the floor when I wear it. I’m 5’11”. I bought it because I thought it was so elegant. It’s interesting that the Elk representation indicates that the wearer have luck and the other definition above indicates a warrior….. It’s confusing.. I’m thinking of selling it and am trying to find out what is might be worth. It seems if it was used as a rental then it was probably too expensive for everyday people to buy… I’m by no means an expert. In fact these things I’m telling you about now, I just learned today by researching on the web . Here is a link to the image of the crest – http://www.immortalgeisha.com/wiki/index.php?title=File:Kamon_takanoha.gif
    If you can add any info on this item I would sincerely appreciate it

    I’m happy I found your site… It’s interesting.

    Thank you so much,
    Sincerely,
    Frederic Squires

    • Beth Williams
      June 10, 2015 / 9:13 am

      Hi Frederic,

      Yes! That is quite a common crest and used for those who don’t have a clan to identify with.

      It’s hard to tell if your kimono is the most formal variety, without seeing a photo, because most men’s kimono are black– however if it has five crests (one on each chest, one on each shoulder and one on the back) then it is at least semi-formal! Most kimono that have patterns on them halfway down fall into that category– the most formal would be pure black with only the crests. Either way, it sounds like you nabbed yourself an absolutely beautiful one from your description!

    • chamekke
      August 30, 2015 / 12:20 am

      Hello Frederic,

      From your description it sounds like what you have is a kurotomesode. This (women’s) kimono -is typically worn by the mother of the bride or groom when she attends her child’s wedding. Kurotomesode always have 5 crests and are solid black but have a coloured design arising from the bottom hem that runs all the way around the kimono. This design often has silver or gold threads in it, and in fact when a kurotomesode is worn for traditional purposes, it’s often accompanied by a formal obi that also has metallic threads.

      Because a woman may only wear this once or twice in her life, this type of kimono is very commonly rented. Here are examples of kurotomesode for rent: https://kr-aki.co.jp/products/list.php?category_id=52 . If you look at these images, it should help you to work out whether this is the type of kimono you bought. These kimono turn up fairly often second-hand (for the same reason).

      If the kimono was black with crests but it had no pattern or design whatsoever – i.e. just solid black – then it would be a mourning kimono known as mofuku. Also very limited usage, but for different reasons :-)

    • Faydra
      November 27, 2015 / 3:36 pm

      Frederich from your description you’ve been given good advice.
      I find the color of the lining interesting.
      Is is a red tinted more orange than red?
      In some cases a red lining can be beni bana red and would date your kimono to before WW2.
      You may want to get it appraised.

  16. May 22, 2015 / 1:17 pm

    I agree with you to an extent… I bought a beautiful yukata when I was living in Japan and wore it a few times that summer. But years have passed since then and despite the fact that I’ve carted this thing around to about three other countries as I move around, I’ve never worn it again!

    As far as the cost goes, however, you can find really fantastic bargain used kimono at a lot of second-hand clothing stores. The furugiya in Harajuku stock some amazing retro designs that are extremely easy on the wallet, and if you go out to the sticks, a lot of the shotengai have shops with used kimono (though they’re usually a bit more granny-ish).

    Although I haven’t worn my yukata, I do have a cool haori (bought at a furugiya) that I love to wear out. Obijime can also be cleverly incorporated into a Western-style outfit, and the fabric of old kimonos can be given to a tailor and reinvented into something new. :D

    • Beth Williams
      July 10, 2015 / 1:46 pm

      I just meant it’s impractical to buy a whole kimono set, to use as an actual kimono– because you won’t use it. :)

      Totally agree though about pairing elements of kimono into modern fashion. I think a haori could be really cool to incorporate into Western fashion!

  17. April 14, 2015 / 9:24 am

    Fascinating read Beth! Seems I’ve been very much an ignorant tourist too as had no idea about all these different types of Japanese attire and what can and can’t be classified as a kimono! I’d never be able to put it on properly so I too would admire from a distance but probably opt out of buying!

    • Beth Williams
      April 16, 2015 / 8:47 am

      I’ll be doing a whole other article on the different types of kimono since there are A LOT! It does take a lot of practice to tie the obi properly for sure ;)

  18. April 13, 2015 / 12:03 pm

    Beth, thank you for explaining the differences – I had no idea! We will be visiting Japan in Sep/Oct so now I know what to (and what not to) buy!

    • Beth Williams
      April 13, 2015 / 4:13 pm

      I’m so excited to hear that you’ll be visiting this fall! Let me know if you need any tips :)