I like the traditional kimono. They are beautiful, elegant and distinctly Japanese.
What absolutely drives me nuts is the tourist obsession with kimono hire in Kyoto. I’m sure it’s not a new thing, but the phenomenon now appears to be totally out of control.
When I was a boy…
I hate to be that kind of old man that wishes things to be the way they were back in the day. However, in this case I have no choice but to refer to our last visit to Kyoto.
Sure, there was the occasional Gaijin in fancy dress – wandering through a shrine, desperately hoping for a Zen experience as they took a sudden, intense but ultimately futile interest in Eastern religion as a way of rationalising the emptiness of their meaningless existence…
But they were few and far between. Glimpses of kimonos were rare treats. Most of the kimonos were refined, conservative in their use of colour, intricately detailed and worn by older women with elegance, precision and poise. Essentially, they were worn by women who well-and-truly understood the tradition in which they were participating, and as such, we (the tourist) were rewarded with an ever-so-brief window into another time and a fascinating part of Japanese culture.
Kyoto is a town dripping in history and culture. Because of this, it attracts droves of tourists. For some reason, just seeing the amazing sites on offer is no longer enough for a lot of these people. They feel the need to go a step further and dress up.
Naturally, there is now a booming trade in kimono rental in Kyoto. On every street corner there seems to be a place to rent one. Most of them offer endless options and garish look-at-me designs.
These places are extremely popular, and not just with foreign tourists. Young Japanese women seem to be drawn to the practice of travelling to Kyoto and dressing in kimonos to visit historic sites.
You might think that young Japanese women would able to effortlessly pull off the kimono… but you’d be wrong.
Modern technology and ancient tradition
The main problem (from my perspective) that these young women face is the obsession with the selfie. You see, it’s very hard to pull off grace and elegance when you have a mobile phone permanently glued to your hand and your whole being is dedicated to finding the perfect angle to photograph yourself in front of a holy icon.
The kimono and the mobile phone just don’t mix. They are two very different icons from very different times. As soon as a phone (or any electronic device) is added to the outfit, the whole illusion is shattered and the wearer is exposed for what they really are – a tourist playing fancy dress.
With so many of these tourists on the streets of Kyoto, the glimpse of a kimono quickly loses its appeal and it becomes more comic relief.
With all the tourists in loud kimonos, it can be easy to overlook the real thing. But they are still there and they still evoke a sense of traditional Japan. Keep a keen eye open and you will see them. They are more restrained and far more dignified. Often they are worn by older women. These are the authentic glimpses into the Japanese lifestyle that you are looking for.
The blokes do it too
I can’t tell you how many self-aware, awkward-looking young blokes I saw being dragged along behind their partners, wearing the male kimono.
Almost every one of them had the look on their face that said “I don’t want to be here”, yet there they were… and they were being photographed by people like me, who found the whole spectacle entirely amusing.
One poor young bloke stepped out of the hire shop in a highly conspicuous and not-at-all traditional red outfit, to a burst of laughter from his partner. She had obviously put him up to it, yet there she was, mocking him as soon as he stepped foot outside the shop. Poor bastard.
Then there were the two blokes who were walking along, dressed up together. They had clearly decided to do it for themselves, and they owned it. Every five metres, they stopped and took a photo of each other.
Enjoy Japan as a tourist, by being a tourist
Japan is a wonderful, amazing place. Anyone who asks me if it worth visiting is subjected to at least an hour’s-worth of rambling about how wonderful it is. But part of that wonder is in the observation of the culture – something so far removed from my Australian life that it is fascinating to me.
I go there as a tourist to see it, not to pretend to be part of it. And when others are there and pretending, it muddies the waters. It makes it hard to know what is real and what is dress-up. I want to see the authentic scenes and I feel a little disappointed that those scenes are becoming more and more obscured.