Kimono buying guide
This guide to buying kimono is aimed at the average traveller in Japan who would like to buy a kimono for a gift or souvenir, or even to wear occasionally. It is aimed mainly at budget travellers who would still like to buy an authentic article. For that reason, we'll focus on buying second hand kimono, as the task of buying a new kimono is fairly straightforward: simply go into an outfitter in a shopping mall and be prepared to hand over about ¥200,000 (roughly $2,000 USD). For those who prefer to experience wearing a kimono for only a short time during their stay in Japan, you might also be interested in trying on a kimono with a professional teacher.
First off, a clarification on what is a kimono and what is not. A kimono is a silk gown, typically consisting of at least one inner garment and one outer silk layer, with a multitude of other accessories that are used for decoration and to hold the whole thing together.
There is a somewhat related garment that looks like a kimono but is actually quite different, which is called a yukata. This is a less formal gown consisting of only one layer that may be either printed silk or cotton, and is traditionally worn in the summer. Some yukata are very nicely printed and intended for general outdoor use; there are also plainer versions that are intended to be used as dressing gowns, particularly by hotel guests. Yukata make good souvenirs and gifts because they are more practical and easier to wear than kimono. However, people tend to hang onto these precisely for that reason, and therefore there's less of a second hand market.
Another garment is a haori, which is a jacket, usually of dyed or painted silk, which looks a bit like a kimono because of its elongated sleeves. These were previously worn by a large segment of the population, but have waned considerably in popularity and so can be found in large numbers in second hand stores. They also make excellent gifts because they can easily be combined with normal items of wear such as jeans or skirts. They can also be found quite cheaply, from about ¥500 in second hand stores.
Of course, the tourist traps have all sorts of rubbish in them such as happi coats and garish yukata with sumo on them. Whatever floats your boat I suppose.
Elements of a kimono
A kimono is an elaborate outfit that consists of a number of elements. The essential elements of a kimono (meaning the ones you shouldn't try skimp on if you don't want to look silly) are as follows:
There are of course a multitude of other accessories you can buy, from traditional Japanese tote bags to the shocks of fur that young girls wear around their necks for Coming of Age day, traditional jewelry, underwear and various forms of protective layers for the kimono. However, the above list should be considered the mandatory elements. Bear in mind that to wear a kimono properly you will also need to use at least three cloth bindings, but they can be simple strips of cotton or silk, as they are not visible.
Some good news. You can pick up a 100% authentic kimono, including all of these elements, quite cheaply - for less than ¥10,000 yen (about $100 USD) by frequenting second hand stores. If you're going for the cheap option, I would suggest a budget as follows:-
Total: about ¥6000.
On the other hand, you shouldn't feel as though you have to spend more than ¥20,000 on even the most beautiful outer silk, as even beautiful furisode can be sourced for this price.
Broadly speaking, there are three places that you can go to find a kimono. First off, there are little antique shops selling old clothing. The Japanese refer to this as furugi. There are numerous furugi shops in older shopping districts like Shimokitazawa in Tokyo; however many of them focus on vintage western-style clothing as well. Personally I avoid Harajuku as it is full of foreigners and basically a tourist trap. You can find some nice items in little shops, but it does take some ferreting about and you really need to know how much to spend so you don't come away second best in a haggling exercise with an antiques dealer. The other problem is that they probably won't have nagajuban, for example, or maybe some of the other necessary elements of a kimono.
Then there are established shops in larger cities catering to second hand kimono, such as Sakaeya in Tokyo. The advantage of these shops is that they have the prices on the garments, whereas the antique shops may require some haggling. They will also have all of the elements of the kimono, which is handy if you want a one-stop shop. I would recommend this in the first instance to travelers in Tokyo.
If you're outside of larger cities, you can reliably find second hand kimono by going to so called "recycling" (risaikaru) shops. One of the larger chains is called "Hard Off" and almost invariably they have a section of kimono, and often several very nice pieces for a reasonable price, which is clearly stated on the garment, no haggling allowed. Easy option for the average tourist.
You'll soon find out that the problem with buying kimono itself isn't the actual kimono, it's locating all of the other associated bits. You might find it quite tough to locate nagajuban, for example. You may have to try and get one of these from Yahoo Auctions in Japan.
Kimono Photography and Rental
For most, the experience of wearing a Kimono just for a short period of time might appeal more than purchasing one outright. A few places in Tokyo offer a variety of these services; kimonotokyo.com in Shibuya will teach you how to put on a kimono properly and then you have the opportunity to take pictures whilst wearing the outfit. Sakaeya in Saitama also offers a similar service.
How do I know it's real?
A misconception amongst Western visitors to Japan is that only some kimono are real and others are fake. For example, a plain dyed kimono without patterns isn't "real". Well, it's as real as anything else. I suppose what people are really asking is if the kimono is something a Japanese would wear and not a copy made for tourists, usually made from polyester rather than silk. You can avoid this easily enough by not frequenting areas that sell tourist trash, however, as a warning to the unwary you can spot a fake kimono in the following ways:
However, you are best off going to shops that Japanese people shop at rather than tourist traps — that's the easiest way to avoid fake kimono.
Putting it all together
Okay. You have all your stuff, now what? If you want to actually wear the thing the most challenging part will be tying the obi. The best knot for you to attempt first is the taiko knot (or "drum knot" in English). You can see quite a few videos on Youtube that show you how to tie this.
There are quite a few guides on the Internet that show you how to put all the other elements together, so I won't replicate them here. You will find it quite difficult at first and your first few attempts may look a bit silly, but you get better with practice. Fitting kimonos is actually a recognised skill in Japan and aside from registered fitters or cosmetologists it isn't legal to offer one's services to put on a kimono for financial recompense.
Traditionally, kimonos were washed in a process called kiri arai — you unstitched all the panels and washed them by hand individually. Naturally, this is a pretty expensive process.
The best way to keep a kimono clean is to wash your hands before wearing it. You can also try to keep the outer silk clean by spot cleaning any stains with a sponge. Otherwise you want to try and minimise any cleaning of the painted silk. Machine washing or standard dry cleaning will quickly destroy the paints. Delicate hand washing might be okay, but I am pretty averse to it, especially if the kimono is worth a bit of money.
The other important thing is to wear underwear beneath the nagajuban. This doesn't have to be proper Japanese traditional underwear; a cotton shirt and shorts will do. This will help to keep the kimono cleaner longer.
Try to avoid storing the kimono on a hanger in your wardrobe. Yes, I know that's where it was when you found it in the shop, but try to avoid it anyway. It tends to have a stretching effect on the seams and panels.
Traditionally, kimono were stored in tatoushi wrappers, which are paper envelopes that sort of look like those bags that they give you to put a suit in. You don't really need these, per se. What you do need is a means of storage away from moisture and excessive light. A flat plastic container under your bed would suffice. You should also fold the kimono in the appropriate way, to avoid creasing the panels unnecessarily. There are guides to this that can be found with a simple google search.
Good luck with your kimono buying! The only thing left now is to find a time to actually wear it. My wife wears hers to weddings, and sometimes to a nice Japanese restaurant, but then again she's Japanese so it works for her. If you're a gaijin, maybe you can wear it to a fancy dress party or an international dinner. The opportunities are up to you!