The following article was written by the model you see in the photos, Mariko. It was a pleasure to work with her, and despite the cold, she did really well. A special thanks Mariko for writing your experiences below. These photos are available in the Mariko II Gallery.
Renting a kimono in Kyoto
Have you ever wondered what it’d be like to wear a kimono? Well, if you’re in Kyoto you can rent one. It’s not expensive, and you can drop in and be on your way fairly quickly and easily. Kimonos are usually worn in winter and the intermediate seasons, and the lighter yukata is worn in summer. Men can rent kimonos, too, but this is my experience on the day of the photo shoot.
Andrew and I arrived at the kimono rental store not long after opening at 9am. When we entered, a lady behind a counter took the name of my reservation and then directed me to remove my shoes and put them in a bag, along with the rest of my belongings. I said bye to Andrew (no men allowed!), then I was led into the kimono room. There were rows upon rows of beautiful kimonos hanging on racks. There were two racks that were listed as around 5000yen, and a third rack was listed at 8000yen. The 8000yen kimonos were brightly coloured and absolutely gorgeous of course, and you could tell they were higher quality. That’s not to say the other kimonos weren’t beautiful as well, but if you want brighter colours and don’t want to pay for the more expensive choices I would suggest getting there early as there were only a handful left that weren’t more muted purples, blacks and blues.
A size chart hanging on the wall listed sizes as being S,M,L and LL, these refer to height! Compared to Japanese women, I’m pretty tall (174cm / 5’9”) so I chose size L and that worked well for me. It was really difficult to choose a kimono! They were all so lovely and there were so many of them. There were lots of young Japanese women also choosing kimono and we were all taking our time looking through the racks. Finally I settled on a purple flowered kimono and then came the next tough decision; the obi, a kind of cummerbund for women’s kimonos. There were shelves piled with obi of every shade of every colour imaginable. At this point I needed a professional and so asked the opinion of the lady working in the kimono room (who also spoke a little English). She recommended me a yellow obi telling me it would look “nihon-poi”, Japanese style, which goes well with the purple kimono I chose.
Taking the kimono, obi and the bag of my things in hand into the next room I waited for my turn to be dressed. There were two women working very efficiently in the room, wrapping and tying kimonos onto women in front of full-length mirrors. The first thing they put on you is a lightweight plain undergarment, a kind of a kimono-slip. After that goes on it is easy to remove jeans or other bottoms without showing everyone your underwear. It’s a good idea to wear a tank-top or some other non-baggy top that you can keep on under the kimono if you’re uncomfortable undressing fully in front of other people. Because it was late winter, I wore heat-tech, a kind of thermal undershirt popular in Japan.
After the slip, there was a second under-kimono that was yellow and a little less plain, and then finally the purple kimono. In the photos you can see the elegance of the yellow layer under the purple. I only needed to stand there while the woman worked around me, occasionally raising my arms as she wrapped, tied and tightened. After the kimono and obi were on I was told to choose either a shawl or a kimono jacket from the back of the room as well as a purse. I chose a light shawl for the photo shoot, but if I were hanging out with friends in winter, I’d prefer the kimono jacket. Then I was sent to another room for hair.
At the hair station I could choose which style I wanted from photographs hanging on the wall. The hairstylist worked very quickly and the result looked great! As a finishing touch I picked a yellow flower hairpin from an assortment of pins and combs. I transferred my important belongings to the purse I borrowed, while the bag with my shoes and my regular purse was put in a back room for safe-keeping. After paying for the rental I slipped on a pair of zori (kimono shoes) and went back down the elevator with Andrew, ready to walk around Gion dressed in beautiful traditional Japanese style.
After the photo shoot we returned to the store and returned the kimono. I left still with my stylish hair in place, and I could keep the tabi, which are a kind of sock for kimonos.
Note from Andrew:
Mariko looked fantastic on the shoot. The colours were complimentary, and the main patterns were striking and others subtle. Also her hair was absolutely elegant, and her hair decoration nicely matched her obi. Her zori nicely matched the kimono, so the whole look was superb. We returned the kimono to the store, but some stores allow you to return it to your hotel reception, but double check the details first. We couldn’t really walk fast in the kimono, as walking seemed a little restricted for her, so we casually had time to properly enjoy the sights around Yasaka Shrine and the main Gion tourist area. In all, it was great working with Mariko, and a fun shoot.
If you’re in Gion or in the Kiyomizu Temple area and you see women in kimonos, a “maiko”, or a “geisha”, and if you think she might be Japanese, listen carefully, she might actually be Taiwanese or Chinese, though many young Japanese ladies do rent kimonos in Kyoto, too. Kimono rentals are quite popular, where this one kimono store we went to apparently handles about 200 clients a day, and there are quite a few in Gion. You’ll see some young couples and groups of ladies enjoying strolling about the tourist areas of Gion all dressed up, and some stores can dress you up in full maiko or geisha garb. Some stores will even give you a special “passport” which can give you discounts at certain stores, including two-for-one lunch deals in high class restaurants, but only if at least one person is wearing a kimono or yukata.
So, why not enjoy the experience yourself. It’ll be a photo op and bragging rights you won’t soon forget.