The kimono is a lovely and well-known symbol of Japanese culture, a garment of such simplicity and beauty that it’s allure doesn’t fade even after you’ve lost interest in ninjas and anime. The appeal is obvious: soft silk, shining embroidery, colorful dyes and fine accessories are delightful in themselves, but when they come together to form such an elegant garment, they’re irresistible. Although the process for putting one on is so byzantine that even Japanese require someone to do it for them, travelers who want to partake in this singularly elegant feast of fabric will find there are a huge number of shops that rent kimono. One of the oldest of these is Okamoto Kimono in Kyoto, in business since 1830.
We almost missed finding Okamoto Kimono, buried as it is in the ancient spiderweb of Kyoto streets and tucked in with many other shops vying for our tourist money. The only thing that distinguishes the kimono shop from the myriad souvenir and noodle shops in the area is a kimonoed mannequin and a small sign in on a stone patio, an elegant wooden gate standing open to an unremarkable walkway. We followed the path to the shop entrance, all doors thrown open to reveal a bustle of activity inside. Women shuffled through the racks of kimono, brushed their fingers over stacks of obi belts and keenly examined the fine silk and embroidery; employees whisked people up the stairs to be dressed and down the stairs to be escorted out.
The woman at the front counter confirmed our reservation and gave us bags to put our shoes in. In moments she had summoned a small army of attendants. We were separated—me to the women’s side, the boys to the men’s side—and I found myself shuffling through the racks of kimono along with the other women.
Selecting kimono is tough for me; my olive skin seems to clash with every pretty kimono in existence. No greens for me, and definitely no pinks; no whites, no pastels. Dark-colored kimono are my only option, and the only dark color in the kimono pallet seems to be black. I searched for a darker kimono and found several plain, but didn’t fall in love until I found a black kosode with chrysanthemums, perfect for the autumn season. I paired the kimono with a green obi belt and selected a white purse, then carried all to the second floor to be dressed.
The flurry upstairs made the floor below seem sedate. A small gaggle of women rushed back and forth between four rooms, sometimes shepherding a client, sometimes running with handfuls of silk or accessories, sometimes whispering breathless words into a room before running away to another. I’d barely arrived when one of them collected me and placed me in a room. “Clothes off,” she said in English. “Into bag.” She thrust a plastic bag, a thin cotton robe, and a pair of tabi socks at me. “Put on gown and socks. Underwear okay.” She was gone in a moment and the door shut silently.
I did as directed, rushing and worried that she would appear while I was between clothes, but instead she was gone the perfect amount of time: I’d have had time to slip into the cotton gown without rushing, but wouldn’t have been left for more than a few seconds. She announced herself with a quiet knock and I called the all-clear; she stepped forward and led me to another room where three other women stood in various states of full kimono dress. I was positioned before an older woman, my kimono and obi belt handed off to her. She laid them out and began to prepare them. Rather than talking, she positioned my body with gentle, cool hands—arms out; place this hand here; arms down; turn. The other women were similarly directed. In five minutes my kimono was on and three minutes later my obi belt elaborately tied. My dresser spun me around to inspect her work, then released me to the stylist.
The stylist wasted no time in whipping my hair into an offset ponytail of cascading curls, with backcombed volume on the crown and a truly masterful interplay between the long and short sides of my half-shaved style. After letting me select a hair accessory (a fan-shaped, black lacquer hair stick) I was released to remeet the boys.
How dashing! Shannon in a deep purple kimono with a gold obi and brown coat; Jason in steel grey with navy obi and coat; Jeremy in black with a steel grey coat and a grey obi embroidered with black and white dragons. (The kind of thing only Jeremy could pull off, to be sure. They must have been hanging onto that thing for decades just waiting for him to walk through the door!)
They looked fantastic. Literally: they looked like anime characters come to life, or characters from a historical novel about the first Westerns in Japan during the Meiji period. I realized all at once how utterly rare it was to see a bunch of white guys sporting traditional Japanese wear. And I wasn’t the only person who thought so.
We had a quick lunch, then headed to 1200-year-old Kiyomizu Temple, one of the most popular temples in Kyoto. As we walked in, we found that all eyes were on us. As a non-Asian tourist, it’s somewhat common to get some stares when visiting smaller towns, but Western tourists in Kyoto are as common as pebbles in a rock garden. Despite that, some people literally stopped in the street to look at us, while others tried (and failed) to be discreet. Just after we entered the temple grounds, a school girl stepped out of the crowd and asked Shannon if she and her friends could take their picture with us. We agreed and she thrust her camera at a friend as five or six school girls jammed themselves against us for a photo. Picture taken, they stood and thanked us, and a new set of people jammed themselves into position for photos without asking! This continued for three more rounds before we were able to pull ourselves away and get on with our tour of the temple.
I’d walked Kyoto in kimono before but never gotten this kind of attention! As I pondered the difference, it struck me again how novel it was for the men to wear kimono. Generally only foreign women get into Japanese dress; men usually stay out of it. Even I’ve only seen one male Western friend wear a kimono despite plenty of female Western friends doing the same. Clearly the boys were the reason for the wonder and excitement; I was just along for the ride.
The photo requests continued, a steady flow that followed us through the temple at a rate of one request (and three or four non-requests) every few hundred feet. People who probably would have avoided us on any other day stepped forward to speak; eyes that would have slid past us locked on as though seeking us out. One particularly overzealous man literally took the camera out of Jason’s hands in his excitement to get a picture of us.
Address: Kiyomizu-zaka shop: 2-237-1-1 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, 605-0862
Get there: Okamoto Kimono has three locations, all near Kiyomizu Temple. To get to the Kiyomizu-zaka location (where we went) from Kyoto Station, take the 206 bus bound for Kitaoji Bus Terminal or the 100 bus bound for Kiyomizu-Dera/Gion/Ginkakuji. Alight at the Kiyomizu-Michi stop.* Walk southwest on Matsubara Doori for just over a quarter mile. Okamoto Kimono is on the left side of the street. (For a map to the other locations or for directions from other starting points, check out Okamoto’s map here.)
*Note that only the 100 runs from Kyoto Station to Kiyomizu-Michi on weekends; the 206 will not run this route.
Price: For women, prices range from 3000 to 5000 yen (~$25-$42 USD) based on the set you select. Different sets have varying selections of kimono and obi. For men, kimono rental is 4000 yen (~$33 USD). All sets include the dressing service. Women can also select to have their hair styled for 500 yen (~$4 USD).
- Reservations are required. They can be made at least two days in advance online or the day before by phone.
- Check out the site! They have a fantastic English site with rental details, maps, directions, and an FAQ.
- Be careful where you eat. Even a chopstick master can splatter a kimono when eating ramen or other messy food, and you don’t want to walk around with horrible stains on your lovely kimono. Try to stick to rice dishes, sushi, tsukemono, or other less-messy, more-manageable foods.
- Keep your valuables stored or held tight. Although we were lucky the man who grabbed Jason’s camera was only interested in shots for us, it’s entirely possible for someone equally brazen to take advantage of the confusion and grab something valuable to keep. Leave everything you can at your hotel, and hold tight to everything else.
Based on my diary entries from November 14, 2013.