There’s no denying that a Japanese kimono is a thing of beauty.
It’s elegant, traditional and more than just a little bit cool. But there’s one thing that a kimono is not.
A kimono is absolutely not easy to put on, as I learned when I visited Kitsuki Castle Town in Japan’s Oita Prefecture.
This town, an old samurai village that’s also home to Japan’s smallest castle, is one of the best places in the country to get dressed up in traditional Japanese attire and go for a stroll.
There’s a rich cultural history to be explored, and part of that is learning how to wear a kimono like a local.
After arriving in Kitsuki, I was taken to Warakuan, a kimono rental shop where you can be dressed by locals who are experts in this ancient skill.
I was completely blown away by the process of getting dressed in a kimono, and I was in awe of the women who dressed me, who are able to dress themselves in a kimono in just ten minutes.
Trust me, that’s mind-blowingly impressive!
So if you’ve ever wondered how to wear a kimono, here’s the step-by-step process I experienced in Japan.
Step 1: pick your kimono
Warakuan has so many kimonos to choose from, it’s almost impossible to make a decision.
I went with pink, and then had to choose my waistband from another huge selection. I balanced out the delicate pink kimono with a bolder, navy blue waistband and was then ushered into the changing room.
Step 2: undress
You don’t want any unnecessary layers, so strip down to your underwear – trust me, you’ll understand why when you’re through.
Step 3: wear thermals, because it’s snowing outside
Okay, maybe this was just me.
After donning the traditional Japanese socks – you know, the ones where your big toe is separated from the rest of your toes so you can wear the wooden flip flops – I was given some thin thermals so I wouldn’t freeze to death in the snow outside.
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Step 4: pad out that waist
I do not have the figure of a Japanese woman.
My shape – best described as hourglass – was something of a challenge to the woman dressing me. To combat this, she wrapped what can only be described as a hand towel around my waist before adding any other layers.
Step 5: start with a simple cotton kimono
Underneath the main kimono is a simple white cotton version, which helps with warmth as well as shape.
Step 6: add cords and pins to secure cotton kimono
Nothing stays in place on its own in this process.
The white base layer was secured with pins and cords, and it was then that things began to feel…snug.
Step 7: secure waist with velcro strap
Things went from snug to rigid after a thick velcro-bound strap was wrapped around my waist.
My posture magically began to improve and my belly lost a few inches, which was making me feel pretty smug. And we had so many layers to go!
Step 8: add outer kimono
Time for the look to start taking shape.
All those inner layers are there so that the real kimono hangs just as it should. But the work’s not over yet.
Step 9: hold kimono in place with clamps
As with the cotton version, the outer kimono will be held in place with clamps so it doesn’t slip around as the length is being adjusted and the waist nipped and tucked.
Step 10: shorten kimono using endless straps and cords
I am short.
My kimono was long.
With some expert nipping and strapping and tucking, the extra length magically disappeared and my kimono just brushed my feet.
Step 11: lose track of the number of cords tied tightly around your waist
I think, in the end, there were about fifteen different pieces of fabric wrapped around my waist at various stages of this process.
But honestly, I lost count.
I don’t even know what they all did, or why they were necessary, but the end result was stunning, so I’m not about to question it.
Step 12: add pretty waistband
The navy blue waistband I selected at the start was finally wrapped around my midsection, with some fancy tying-up happening at the back.
And no, I have no idea what that expression on my face is about.
Now you’ll really start to feel like you’re wearing a traditional Japanese outfit, and the whole effect is just breathtaking. It’s even more unbelievable to know how much work has gone into creating the look.
Step 13: be interviewed for local news channel
Pretty sure this was a unique experience to me, but within seconds of the waistband being attached, a local news camera appeared and I was interviewed about what it felt like to wear a traditional Japanese kimono.
I just couldn’t stop gushing about how complicated the process was and how talented the ladies dressing me were. It really was amazing!
Step 14: add a few more cords, just for good measure
Just one more, in fact. A braided cord that went around my middle, over the waistband.
Now my look was complete. Almost.
Step 15: get your hair done
My hair was expertly pulled and rolled and pinned into place with a gorgeous floral comb.
Step 16: pose for photos. Bring faux fur.
Still fearing the snow outside, I was given a faux fur wrap just for good measure.
It was then time to pose, together with the journalist I was travelling with, complete with a samurai sword.
Step 17: walk around Kitsuki Castle Town in the snow
Kitsuki Castle Town is full of old samurai homes, and visitors can look around these houses, complete with stunning gardens, to learn what life was like back in the Edo period.
You may or may not be there when it’s snowing. I have to admit, the absence of shoes (I just had thin socks and sandals) made for a very chilly stroll, but the layers I was wearing meant I was warm everywhere except my hands and feet.
Step 18: play a harp in a samurai home
While you’re in a kimono, you might as well try some traditional Japanese activities.
I sipped hot green tea, and then tried a traditional harp-like instrument. The most difficult part was sitting down, and the second most difficult part was getting up again. Kimonos aren’t exactly conducive to movement.
Step 19: undress, admiring the imprints left on your skin by the cords
Getting dressed probably took half an hour.
Removing all of those layers and cords was a five-minute exercise, at the end of which I had some pretty deep imprints in my stomach. Kimonos are not for the faint of heart.
Step 20: remember what it’s like to move again.
Changing back into my jeans and jumper felt like slipping into pyjamas. My clothes have never felt more loose and casual than after taking off my kimono.
Still, even after knowing how restrictive these traditional Japanese garments are, I’d do it again in a second.
Dressing in a kimono is an incredible way to understand a tiny slice of Japanese culture, and it’ll give you an appreciation for this item of clothing like you’ve never had before.
Plus, if you’re going to dress in a kimono anywhere, do it in Kitsuki. The setting is unbelievably beautiful, and so perfectly preserved that after a few minutes you might actually believe you’ve stepped back in time…
Thanks to Tokyo Metropolitan Government for inviting me to visit and experience what it’s like to dress in a traditional Japanese kimono. It’s an afternoon I’ll truly never forget!