"Although artistically and technically one of the most exquisite national costumes in the world, the kimono radiates its true beauty only when worn," writes Norio Yamanaka, author of The Book of Kimono.
Mineko Ukai, a teacher of kimono for almost 40 years, is known for her skill in braiding and weaving the cord for the "obi" - the kimono sash - creating unusual obi designs and hand-sewing new kimono. Ukai and members of her Motomi Kimono School in Nishinomiya, Japan, will bring the Beauty of Japan: Japanese Kimono Show to Vancouver's National Nikkei Museum & Heritage Centre on Wednesday, Aug. 4.
Here, a Q&A with Ukai through a translator, to appreciate the Japanese kimono with someone dedicated to keeping the tradition alive.
Q: What is the purpose of your Motomi School of Kimono -to honour the traditions of Japan?
A: My Motomi "origin of beauty" School of Kimono promotes the kimono's traditional value. Wearing kimono develops the virtues of the heart - harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. My students practise the care needed to put on the kimono, the manners and movements necessary to wear kimono, and how this makes us more sensitive to life and nature.
Q: Do people still wear the kimono in Japan?
A: It is less common to see the kimono these days. Women may wear kimono on four ceremonial occasions called "kan-kon-so-sai." "Kan" refers to rites of passage such as taking a young baby to the local Shinto shrine to pray for the baby's good health and development and Coming-of-Age Day. "Kon" refers to a wedding and "So" refers to a funeral service. "Sai" translated means to worship the spirits of your ancestors. Kimono is also worn for tea ceremony and formal functions. Men wear kimono at weddings and special ceremonies.
Q: How would you describe the kimono to someone in Canada who may not have seen one before?
A: All kimono are made from the same T-shape pattern and can be worn by anyone, man or woman regardless of height or weight. During our kimono show at Nikkei Place, I will show a single bolt of fabric about 36 cm wide and 11 metres long that will make one kimono. The silk sash, "obi," is about 30 cm wide and three to four metres long, wrapped around the waist and tied in a knot, "musubi," in the back. Different kimono designs, sleeve lengths and obi knots reflect the age and marital status of the wearer.
Q: The silk kimono is very expensive, is it not?
A: A kimono with hand-woven silk patterns using over 200 different colours and real gold and silver thread can definitely cost up to $10,000. A silk kimono is a good investment because it can be handed down from one generation to the next - from a mother to her daughter and then to her granddaughter and great granddaughter.
Q: Is learning how to wear the kimono and its decorative sash, the obi, a complicated procedure?
A: Putting on the kimono and obi requires preparation, organization and practice. I ask my kimono students to bring their own kimono and obi to my school. They receive one-on-one instruction on kimono wearing and how to tie the various obi designs from the 300 to 500 available.
Very few young people live with both their parents and grandparents today and do not have the opportunity to learn how to wear the kimono from either a mother or a grandmother. Young women can attend a kimono school or be dressed by a kimono consultant when going out for a special occasion.
Q: When did you wear your first kimono? Who gave it to you and how did it feel?
A: I wore kimono when I was a little girl and my mother sewed me many kimono. It is sad for me to that during the American air raid on Gifu City, July 6 to 7, 1945, all of my kimono and their memories were completely burned to ashes.
As a young woman, I continued to enjoy wearing kimono. It was so wonderful when my mother-in-law sewed a kimono for me for my marriage. The gift made me so happy and thankful.
Q: What do you love about wearing the kimono?
A: My love of kimono is related to my own memories and feelings about being in harmony with nature, love, beauty, colour and courtesy. The kimono is becoming on women of all ages, heights and sizes. I weave and braid obi cord, "ubijime," and feel so excited when my students and I create new obi knots, called "musubi," and use different types and colours of obi sashes, bustle sashes, "obi-age," as well as obi cords to accessorize them.
Q: Is the kimono still a fashion statement in Japan?
A: Some young women wear kimono when they want to "stand out" when going out to the theatre or on a date. The kimono brings out a woman's sense of style and the outfit can be coordinated with accessories such as hairpins, obi sashes, and sash fasteners.
Q: Does wearing the kimono also include the proper hairstyle, face makeup and footwear, as many associate with a geisha?
A: A woman wears white split-toe socks, "tabi", with "zori" thong sandals and matching handbag when wearing formal or semi-formal kimono. Usually a hairdresser will be visited to have shoulder-length hair combed into a bun and makeup applied.
There are differences in style among everyday women, geisha, maiko and professional performers. The makeup for a geisha includes wearing a chignon hairstyle, painting her face and neck white, pink rouge on her cheeks, bright crimson lipstick and black eyeliner tinged with red. A maiko, apprentice geisha, wears very large wooden platform wooden shoes so she has to take very small steps.
Q: What do you love about the kimono tradition?
A: I love the way that influences from the Heian period - 794 to 1185 - are still seen today. One thousand years ago, court ladies wore 12 layers or "juni-hitoe" for ceremonial occasions. Over 200 rules governed things like harmonizing the colour of the kimono collar with the inside lining and the outside of the kimono.
This colour pattern continues today in each season. Winter months are called "shades of the plum blossom," a kimono which is red on the inside and white on the outside. Connection with nature is shown in vegetable dyes and patterns on kimono fabrics, and the kimono illustrates perfect harmony in its design, texture and colour.
Q: What does the tradition mean to you personally?
A: For me, the kimono is a traditional Japanese work of art that is loved and passed on from one generation to the next. It reflects the "perfect fit" mentality. There is a saying that "the beauty of the kimono lies in the heart of the Japanese people." This is why I am proud and happy to wear kimono.