Most everyone knows that the kimono (きもの) (着物) is traditional Japanese clothing worn for special occasions and festivals. Although it is worn by both men and women, one rarely sees men in kimono except perhaps at weddings, tea ceremonies, or other formal or religious ceremonies. Often, even then, men are more apt to wear a black or charcoal western style suit. The word kimono simply means a “thing you wear.”

A kimono is distinct from a yukata (ゆかた) (浴衣). A yukata, sometimes called a “summer kimono” is a lighter garment made of cotton or synthetic fiber and tied with a single belt or obi. It is commonly worn after a bath but also sometimes during hot weather. Men and women both often wear yukata. In contrast, a kimono typically has heavier and more layers of fabric, and is festooned with much more elaborate obi.

My mother owns a kimono, but I haven’t seen her put it on in decades. Even back then, she wore it, at most, once a year, and it was so complicated with its many layers and several obi (belts), that she had to pull out an instruction book with pictures to remember how it all went together. Indeed, a friend visiting from Japan told me that it is common to hire a professional kimono dresser for special occasions. Her family hired at least one recently to assist during the wedding of her sister.

I love seeing kimono, and I saw quite a few while I was in Japan. I saw the most in Kyoto, and although I’m shy about taking pictures of people unknown to me without asking permission, I did sneak a few photos now and then. Here is a sampling:

When strolling through the botanical gardens in Kyoto, and surrounded by trees bursting with cherry blossoms, I was very taken by two young women, both in white kimono. Despite the heat and humidity, which kept me in a pretty constant state of saturation, none of the women I saw wearing the multiple layers of heavy cloth seemed to shed a drop of perspiration.

I really wanted their picture, so I asked our friend and tour guide if she would ask them if they would allow me take their picture. She did, but she asked them if I could take a picture with them. I really wasn’t keen to spoil the picture of these two beautiful women in their perfect white kimono, with me, a tall, heavily perspiring Westerner towering between them, but that appeared to be the terms of the deal. So we took a couple with the three of us, and then I took a few of just the two of them. I think most would agree the latter pictures are much more pleasing.

I recently spoke with our guide and translator. She told me that the women were both very pleased to have their picture taken. When asked if we could take their picture, their response was an example of typical Japanese humility. They answered, “oh, are we good enough for a picture?”

Our hostess at our ryokan in Takayama would don a kimono when she served us our meals. Because of the long drape of her sleeves, she would affix straps of cloth over her shoulders and under her sleeves to help prevent them from getting in her way when she passed us dishes and poured our tea.

Kimono are quite expensive, and for Westerners who tend to be taller and larger, finding a ready-to-wear kimono may be out of the question. However, for smaller women looking for a bargain, I saw several second-hand stores (called “recycle stores”) that specialized in kimono. You might be lucky enough to find one that fits both your size and your budget.


Japanese Poetry

I welcome feedback and suggestions to this blog. A reader asked if I had anything to say about Japanese poetry. This entry is my response.

I am a beginning student of the Japanese language, so my ability to read and write Japanese is too limited to allow me read poetry or anything beyond extraordinarily simple sentences, with limited vocabulary and only when written phonetically. My ability is mostly confined to very simple spoken words and phrases. But as a student of many languages, I can describe one aspect of the Japanese language and how it shapes Japanese poetry, even if I cannot read or write a Japanese poem.

First, a very basic primer on the written Japanese language. Japanese has three writing systems, hiragana (平仮名, ひらがな), katakana (片仮名, カタカナ), and kanji (漢字). Kanji are the non-phonetic characters that were adopted from the Chinese written language. Kanji characters can be pronounced in multiple ways, depending on the meaning. So, whereas someone might be able to learn how to pronounce German or Spanish and read aloud those written languages without any idea what they are saying, in Japanese you might be able to look at Kanji, know what you are reading about, but have no clue how to pronounce it!

Hiragana and katakana are phonetic syllabaries. Rather than alphabets, which in Western languages are individual sounds that come together to create syllables and then form whole words, hiragana and katakana are collections of syllables. Hiragana is used to write Japanese words phonetically, and often used to teach kanji. Language learning books may present a kanji with small hiragana above it to indicate pronunciation. Katakana is used to write foreign or adopted words phonetically. So a written sentence or paragraph may contain kanji, hiragana, and katakana all at once. In general, hiragana is written with a more flowing, curving script, and katakana is more straight and angular.

Two paragraphs up, where I introduced “hiragana,” the parentheses that follow the word contain three kanji characters, followed by four hiragana syllables for pronunciation. Similarly, after “katakana” above, there are three kanji characters (note that 2 of the 3 kanji are the same as those for “hiragana”), and then the katakana pronunciation syllables.

The sets of sounds represented by the two syllabaries are identical. 

The basic syllable sounds are:
A, I, U, E, O
“ah”, “ee”, “oo”, “eh”, “oh” 
In hiragana, these 5 syllables are written: あ い う え  お
In katakana, these same syllables are written: アイウエオ

Subsequent syllables consist of the same five vowel sounds preceded by a consonant, sometimes with slight modifications to the initial consonant sound. There are:

Ka, Ki, Ku, Ke, Ko
Ta, Chi, Tsu, Te, To
Sa, Shi, Su, Se, So
Na, Ni, Nu, Ne, No
Ha, Hi, Fu, He, Ho
Ma, Mi, Mu, Me, Mo
Ya, Yu, Yo
Ra, Ri, Ru, Re, Ro
Wa, Wo
Ga, Gi, Gu, Ge, Go
Za, Ji, Zu, Ze, Zo
Da, Ji, Zu, De, Do
Ba, Bi, Bu, Be, Bo
Pa, Pi, Pu, Pe, Po

There are no diphthongs in Japanese, so in reality, there are only 5 vowel sounds to be had. That being the case, writing poetry with the goal to rhyme is so easy that it’s almost completely pointless.

Furthermore, unlike most western languages, there is no variation in rhythm or accent of syllables in Japanese. This variation in other languages can cause a rather sing-song feeling at times, and is employed for that purpose by poets and lyricists. For example, in English, it sounds funny to put the accent on the wrong syllable: e.g., “To put the acCENT on the wrong sylLAble.” In Japanese there no accent, except possibly a slight one on the final syllable. So another pigment from the aural palette common to the poetry of Western languages doesn’t really exist in Japanese.

One key that can be used is simply the number of syllables. The well-known haiku poetry form follows the pattern of three lines: the first and third containing 5 syllables; the second, 7. Rhyme and rhythm do not matter.

I am told (but cannot verify due to my limited language proficiency) that allusion and symbolism play major roles in Japanese poetry. Also, I imagine visual allusions and maybe visual puns may be employed using the kanji. Experts in the Japanese language will no doubt be able to verify and expand on this topic much more than I can. They may also find errors or omissions in my very rudimentary foray into the topic. I gratefully welcome their comments.