Mother bought me a kimono of my own for my birthday. When she understood my love of Japanese dance and my deep and growing interest in Japanese culture, she wanted me to have a kimono. She had one.

Or at least she had, had one. When she lived in Japan in the 1950s a group of women provided her with an ensemble. A lovely flower-patterned kimono in deep red with a solid orange haori jacket. They were kind to tailor an obi sash for her that was already pre-tied. She did not need to fuss with the difficult knot. The obi was a light pink with red brocade.

My mother had dark chestnut hair at the time. The rich reds must have looked stunning on her. But in hindsight, it was rather strange for a married woman and the mother of three children to wear such a colorful ensemble. I never saw her in her kimono. But I have it now.

The cut of the kimono, the length of sleeves, the pattern, all reflected the frugality of the immediate postwar. They would not have been appropriate for a young woman in the mid-1970s. So, Mother took me to the fifth floor of the Iwataya Department Store in Tenjin (kimono are always sold on the fifth floor of a department store), and explained my need to the sales women.

Or maybe I explained. By then I was more proficient in Japanese than my mother, who was painfully shy in any language. Just our luck, they were having a sale. (Probably, it wasn’t luck. Probably, Mother knew and that is why we went.)

The sales clerk pulled one kimono out after another unfurling them to hold up to my shoulders checking the color, not the size, the size was mostly uniform once we had established the length. We selected an orange kimono with a pretty pattern of white and yellow flowers. Mother always chose orange for me. My hair was dark brown, too, though not as dark as Mother’s had been, and she always said orange complemented my coloring.

The kimono was synthetic, not silk, and therefore affordable. Now I know that the kimono we purchased was a komon—or patterned kimono—and therefore not appropriate for formal wear. But at the time I was none the wiser. I thought it was the most beautiful garment in the store, and I loved my mother beyond measure for her kindness in buying it for me.

On the left, in my first kimono.
I am on the left in the orange kimono my mother bought me for my birthday. 1977 Fukuoka, Japan

A kimono needs an obi, and so that was our next purchase. Unlike Mother, I had learned to tie my own obi—as well as to wrap and fold my own kimono—it had been a requirement of our dance lessons. Prior to each lesson we changed into our practice yukata and likewise after our lessons we folded and put away our yukata and obi. My teacher was very precise about how we were to accomplish these tasks. If done correctly, the garments would not wrinkle. I can still remember Ura Sensei going over the folding with me again and again until I got it right.

“The collar is the most important point,” she showed me with a patience disguised by abruptness. “No, like this.” She carefully made a v-shape with the collar and smoothed the seam down with her firm hands. “Now your collar will not be crooked when you put it on next week.” She unfolded what she had just folded and had me do it on my own as she watched my clumsy fiddling with a stern annoyance.

To this day, whenever I come to the collar of the kimono I am folding, I think of her. She was so beautiful. So, proud in her art. After I left Japan, the summer following the recital, I wrote letters to Ura Sensei. We stayed in touch for a year or so. And then the letters slowed. I entered graduate school, and the letters stopped. I recall seeing her one more time when I visited Fukuoka for one of the holidays. I apologized for losing contact with her and promised to do better.

But I didn’t keep my word. I lost touch with her completely. Lydia kept up with her longer. Now even Lydia doesn’t know what has become of her. She has disappeared only to return to me each time I fold the collar of a kimono.The obi we purchased that spring to go with my orange komon kimono was cut in the Nagoya style. That means one end of the long bolt of fabric is folded in half and sewn together. Nagoya obi are much easier to knot, especially when tying the obi in a standard taiko musubi or drum knot.

Years later my second dance teacher, Nishikawa Senrei Sensei taught me how to tie a fukuro obi. She was so pleased with my efforts, she gifted me a long fukuro obi. I learned to tie it properly, but it took many attempts to get it right, so many that my arms ached afterward. I haven’t worn that obi for several years now and don’t think I could manage the knot today. It has become harder and harder to get my shoulders to twist and turn the way they need to in tying the knot behind my back. But, the obi awaits, folded smoothly in its soft washi paper wrapper.

Photo by Bruno Aguirre on Unsplash