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.
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
What a colorful kimono! I enjoyed your story about learning to fold the kimono just so. That reminds me of how shikomi (girls in training to become apprentice geisha) must learn to fold their elder sisters’ kimono. This art of folding reminds me, too, of Marie Kondo and her emphasis on folding–though I can’t imagine one would ever fold a kimono to stand up.
It’s so interesting to hear about learning to fold the kimono was a required aspect of your dance lessons. It sounds like an excellent first step in learning about the Nhon buyo world.
It seems that one feature of studying the Japanese arts is that you start slow and are expected to master the most basic moves first–like folding a kimono. From my American point of view, what did kimono folding have to do with dance? I wanted to learn those steps! I didn’t understand that the kimono is part of the dance. Without an appreciation of the tools of your art form, you cannot succeed.
You share lovely insights to a world that is unfamiliar to me. Thank you.
Thank you so much for following my blog!
All of these essays are jewels. I really admire your writing.
My wife and I went to a one-time class for making wagashi. The teacher was a retired wagashi maker at the shop, and was as kind and patient as he could be with his two clumsy students. He told us something similar to your story: when he apprenticed with his master, his master refused to talk to him or show him anything about the art. He said he couldn’t see anything either because the master kept his back to him, and he hardly moved even his shoulders, so he couldn’t discern anything except when he was walking by taking out the trash or some other chore. He would just catch glimpses, and then taking that information along with hours and hours of practice, he gradually figured it out.
I think there’s a sense of apprenticeship. The apprentice has to learn to endure. But there’s also the importance of creating a kind of “physical knowledge.” Just the other day I was explaining to my theater class that training in traditional arts is less about learning the external form and more about internalizing the essence. But I guess that’s true of any art. You can intellectualize the movements all day long, but you only learn through your body. This is a rather pedestrian example, but I’m always reminded of “Karate Kid” and the way Mr. Miyagi had Daniel wax his cars and clean his deck. Daniel thought he was being exploited until he realized Mr. Miyagi was training his body. “Wax on, Daniel-san!”
I didn’t know the history of our mother’s kimono until reading this beautiful memoir.
Let’s look at her kimono the next time we are together. I will bring it (if I don’t forget!)
How natsukashii (nostalgic) your mention of Iwataya Dept Store makes me feel, Rebecca! Many of my kimono and obi come from that store, since I lived in Fukuoka until I was 26, and after I moved to the U.S. my mother sent me either a kimono or an obi for my birthdays and Christmases.
Your description of your dance teacher reminds me of quirks and wisdom of all my teachers of traditional arts.
Thank you for the lovey and insightful blog! I enjoy reading it so much.
I’m so happy to hear of your connection to Iwataya! I spent so many hours in that department store the year I lived in Fukuoka, exploring all the different floors. But my favorite floor was the fifth, of course! And I liked the shopping arcades in Tenjin as well. I hope to return to Fukuoka soon. The last time I was there (fall 2019), I felt so bewildered by how much it had changed. I need to relearn my way around!