Haramaki, the Japanese belly warmer

Haramaki is a type of Japanese undergarment. It literally translates as ‘belly wrap’ (腹巻). I first learned about haramaki when shopping at Japanese clothing store Uniqlo. In the underwear section, I saw a tube-like knitted item that seemed perfect for keeping my neck warm at night. Shortly after having bought two ‘neckwarmers’, I saw a tv program where foreigners were being interviewed about life in Japan. The foreigners commented on the peculiar Japanese habit of wearing belly warmers. Hence my introduction to the haramaki. Ever since discovering its intended purpose, I wear haramaki in winter for extra warmth or whenever I have lower back pains.

haramaki

Japanese belly warmer called haramaki

When looking for background on haramaki, I was surprised to find mostly fashion related information. I had thought of the haramaki more as an item that one wears for health purposes but apparently it is making a comeback as a fashion piece. This is remarkable because the haramaki was traditionally considered an out-of-date item worn by old men.

The history of the haramaki goes back to feudal Japan, where it was a type of armour worn by infantry soldiers. According to Wikipedia, haramaki refers to any Japanese armour which is put on from the front and then fastened in the back with cords.

haramaki armour

Haramaki armour – Image from Worldantiques

Later on, during the First Sino-Japanese War and World War II, a soldier going off to fight was often given a senninbari haramaki (“1,000 stitch belt”) by his family. A mother, sister, or wife would stand on the street and ask passing women to contribute a stitch until 1,000 had been collected. The garment was meant to both provide warmth and serve as a talisman to ward away harm.

senninbachi haramaki

Senninbari haramaki for Japanese soldiers

The haramaki then evolved to its current form: a circular tube of fabric worn around the midriff and hips. During the 70’s and 80’s, it was considered an out-of-date type of underwear for old men. Contributing to this image were various characters from popular culture like the manga series Tensai Bakabon, which stars a dim-witted boy and his insane father. The father always wears a haramaki.

tensai bakabon otousan haramaki

The dad from manga Tensai Bakabon, wearing a haramaki

Another example is Tora-san, the main character in a series of movies about a kind-hearted vagabond who is always unlucky in love.

torasan haramaki

Tora-san from the movie series Otoko wa tsurai yo (“It’s tough being a man”), wearing his signature haramaki

The transition of haramaki from out-of date underwear to fashionable mainstream item is mostly credited to Japanese game designer and entrepreneur Itoi Shigesato. Itoi had been wearing haramaki for years despite their old-fashioned reputation and perception as an unfashionable undergarment when he started selling haramaki in 2001 through his company Hobonichi. Hobonichi reinvented haramaki as fashion items to layer with your clothes. He even worked with Nintendo to make Nintendo-themed haramaki. If you are interested in buying some trendy Hobonichi haramaki, you can go to the English language Hobonichi webshop. You can wear these haramaki directly over your skin, over an undershirt and under your shirt, or completely over your shirt. If you are more into plain haramaki, you might try British shop Nukunuku.

hobonichi haramaki nintendo

Nintendo themed haramaki from Hobonichi

While not everyone may agree about the fashion merit of haramaki, there is no denying that haramaki help to keep you warm. Have a look at the chart below:

haramaki heat chart

fig. 01: low body temperature; fig. 02: slightly warmer with a summer blanket; fig. 03: even better with a winter blanket; fig. 04: high core temperature and therefore overall higher body temperature with haramaki. A haramaki is also supposed to improve circulation.

The Japanese love to talk about how important a warm stomach is to staying well. They attribute all sorts of health benefits to it. In any case the added heat provided by haramaki is very welcome during cold Japanese winters without central heating systems. If you want to know more about keeping warm during winter in Japan, you can read my post 6 ways to keep warm during Japanese winter.

What do you think about haramaki? Is it a fashion-do or don’t? Only for grandpa’s or great for young people too? Let me know what you think in the comments section!

Kimono fashion: Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day (seijin no hi) is a Japanese holiday held on the second Monday of January. It is a great day for kimono spotting. In day-to-day life in Japan, it is rare to see people in kimono. On Coming of Age Day, however, you will see them everywhere.

Coming of Age Day celebrates everyone who turned 20 years old (the age of majority in Japan) during the past year. It is customary for these young adults to wear traditional Japanese clothing, especially the women, who wear furisode kimono with long swinging sleeves. Most men seem to opt for smart Western suits, although some of them do wear kimono and hakama.

Coming of age day kimono

A group of youngsters on Coming of Age Day. The girls are dressed in brightly coloured furisode kimono with long sleeves – Image by Dick Johnson

coming of age day proper kimono fashion

Young couple in traditional Coming of Age Day attire

There are some young people, however, who have decided to put a new spin on Coming of Age Day fashion. A few days ago, I read a Japan Times article discussing ‘improper attire’ in the city of Kitakyushu. Apparently men have begun wearing brightly coloured hakama and women are dressing in a style of kimono that was popular with oiran, the high-class prostitutes of the Edo Period, showing lots of cleavage and shoulder.

coming of age day oiran kimono fashion

Girls trying on oiran costumes for Coming of Age Day

coming of age day oiran kimono fashion

Oiran costume on Coming of Age Day

If you want to get an impression of Coming of Age Day celebrations in Kitakyushu (the city discussed in the Japan Times article), I recommend the video below. It shows a mix of traditional costumes and the newer styles. The guys in the beginning of the video really remind me of the anime ‘Great Teacher Onizuka‘, which basically means they look and sound like 1980’s gangsters. Also don’t miss the guy in ladies underwear at the end of the video.

Judging from this video, it seems like a pretty raucous affair. Apparently the past few years it has not been not uncommon to have car crashes, fighting and vandalism on Coming of Age Day, although some places seem to be more famous for it than others. To be fair though, I think in most places in Japan people just dress traditionally, go to a temple and have a calm party afterwards with their friends. It’s always the excess that gets the most attention. I would love to have some reader feedback on this though. Please feel free to comment below!

But back to Kitakyushu. Apparently some people were scandalized by this new kimono fashion trend and the city of Kitakyushu has responded by setting up a webpage to educate new 20-year-olds on appropriate attire for the event. Unfortunately I can’t read Japanese, but I watched the video. It shows how a girl is supposed to walk, sit, enter a car and even go to the bathroom (if I am not mistaken) while wearing a furisode kimono. Where are the recommendations for the boys???

I wonder though, if the main problem is the new style of dressing or rather the vandalism and violence that sometimes seems to be associated with Coming of Age Day celebrations. And why do these young people go so crazy, both in fashion and behavior?

Several things come to mind. Firstly, innovations by younger generations are often perceived as shocking by older generations. This is a phenomenon as old as time. Secondly, I have come to understand that for many Japanese people, their early twenties is the only time they truly feel free. During their primary and secondary school years, they are under enormous pressure to pass entrance exams to get into good high schools and universities. After university, they enter the workforce and work long hours under strict behavior and dress codes. Or they start a family and are completely absorbed by their duties as parents (for many women this still holds true). During their university years however, they are free to do as they want. And finally, I do believe that Japan is changing. A new generation is emerging that is discarding the traditional ways and looking for their own way of doing things, much as happened in the West during the sixties. I am curious to see how things will evolve!

People watching – Kimono on the train

After living in Japan for a while, you start to experience something that I like to call the ‘hello-you’re-in-japan-face-slap’. I have talked about it in previous posts. It means that you have gradually gotten used to all the wonderful Japanese things that excited you so much at first. Life in Japan has started to seem so normal. But even then, from time to time, you will experience something that really makes you feel like you are in Japan. Like that time I ran into a monk in a fabric store. The excitement I feel at such a time, is the reason I call it ‘a face-slap-moment’.

Another good example of a face-slap-moment is seeing ladies in kimono on the train. Even towards the end of my year in Japan, I still felt really excited whenever I saw someone in kimono. Apart from the summer festivals, you really don’t see that many people in kimono anymore (with the possible exception of Kyoto). It is very hard to wear kimono and many young people don’t know how to do it. If you see someone in kimono, it is usually an elderly person.

I managed to snap a photograph of these two ladies on the subway in Nagoya:

lady in kimono on the train in Japan

Ladies in kimono on the train in Japan. If you look closely, you will see the slightest hint of a green kimono, to the left of the lady in the yellow kimono.

Lucky for me, these ladies took the same transfer that I did. This gave me the perfect opportunity to follow them throughout Fushimi station in Nagoya and keep taking sneak photographs.

kimono on the train in Japan

Here we have a better view of their complete outfits

lady in kimono on the train in Japan

On the escalator I managed to get a close-up of the obi and the kimono fabric. People probably thought I was crazy taking all these photographs. Or maybe they just thought “*sigh* foreigners…”. Fortunately, Japanese people are too polite to comment on it.

lady in kimono on the train in Japan

Escalator close-up of the lady in the green kimono. She was standing a bit farther away from me.

Japanese ladies in kimono waiting for the train

My best photo opportunity came at the end, when they finally stood still, waiting for the next train. Aren’t they lovely? The posture of the lady in yellow is so elegant and the kimono are gorgeous!

People watching – Sexy mom

I never get tired of watching people in Japan. The way people dress and express themselves seems so much more varied than in Belgium. Although on the one hand, Japan is a society governed by rules, on the other hand I have the impression that Japanese people in some cases enjoy more personal freedom than Belgian people. Fashion is one of those instances where I feel there is more freedom in Japan than in Belgium.

Take for example the lady in the picture below. I ran into her in the mall and was impressed by the combination of her sexy outfit and the stroller.

sexy Japanese mom

Sexy Japanese mom. I found the combination of the short dress, the thigh length socks and the high heels quite provocative.

I don’t think there are many young moms in Belgium who would dare to go shopping in such an outfit. I’m sure self-confidence has a lot to do with it, but I also believe young moms would get a lot of negative reactions when wearing such an outfit, especially in combination with the stroller.

My interpretation of this situation is that this lady bravely wears whatever she likes and that Japanese society lets her. Hurray for Japan! But of course I realize that this is just my interpretation, influenced by my Western perspective. I would love to hear what other people (both Japanese and foreign) make of this sexy young mom. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section!

sexy Japanese mom

Here she is, waiting for the elevator. My apologies for the blurry picture. Taking sneak photographs without being noticed is hard!

People watching – Japanese monk

After living in Japan for a while, you kind of get used to all the things that used to excite you so much at first. But every once in a while, you get what I like to call the ‘hello-you’re-in-japan-face-slap’.

Today I will tell you about one of those faceslap moments that stand out in my memory. It happened when I was browsing a local fabric store with a friend. A visit to the fabric store is an event already exciting in itself, because of the multitude of gorgeous Japanese fabrics everywhere. But suddenly, in the midst of the housewives and rolls of fabric, we saw a Zen monk in traditional robes.

The monk was just going about his business, looking at different fabrics. I’m sure he wasn’t expecting to be ambushed by an overly excited gaijin, asking him if she could please be allowed to take his picture because she never saw a monk in a fabric store before. But true to his zen background, he remained unfazed and kindly posed for a picture. The result is one of my favourite images from Japan!

japanese monk in a fabric store

Look how calmly he is standing there amid the colourful fabric. For me, this image says more than a thousand words.

People watching – The Golden Clock in Nagoya Station

The best place for people watching in Nagoya might be The Golden Clock in Nagoya station. It is a favoured meeting place and around every full hour (e.g. 18:00h) the area is positively teeming with people. It is remarkable how much calmer it gets at around the ten minute mark (e.g. 18:10h), when all the meeting up is concluded and people leave to go do whatever they were meeting up to do.

Nagoya Station Golden Clock

The Golden Clock at Nagoya Station, a very popular meeting place – image from Wikipedia Commons

In the above picture, it looks uncharacteristically calm. The video below gives a better impression of what it is usually like to wait for someone at the Golden Clock. For us gaijin, it is fairly easy to find the person we are meeting, or rather it is easy for them to find us, since most gaijin are at least a head taller than most Japanese people. If you have blond hair to boot, like me, it makes you virtually impossible to miss. But how Japanese people manage to find anyone in the crowd around the Golden Clock is beyond me.

As I already mentioned, it is one of my favourite places for people watching. Have a look at this beautiful young lady in kimono.

girl in kimono

Girl in kimono – a mobile phone might help to locate one’s friends in that crowd

girl in kimono 2

Notice the long sleeves and exuberant design, typical for a kimono worn by unmarried, young women. I think she was meeting up with friends to attend a wedding.

Sumo fashion

It’s no secret that I love sumo. As with all things Japanese, the visual aspect of the whole thing is part of its appeal. I would therefore like to dedicate this post to sumo attire.

The wrestlers, or rikishi, are best known for their typical ring fighting outfit consisting of a colourful, silk, thick-waisted loincloth, called mawashi. But they also have a more elaborate ceremonial dress. It consists of an ornate apron that is inserted into the mawashi. The apron, or keshō-mawashi, is worn at the ring entering ceremony.

Two wrestlers fighting in their silk mawashi

Two wrestlers fighting in their silk mawashi – image from Wikipedia

Sumo_ring_entering_ceremony

Sumo wrestlers, or rikishi wearing their ornate aprons, or keshō-mawashi, at a ring entering ceremony – image from Wikipedia

These gorgeous embroidered aprons are very expensive. They are usually paid for by a sponsor or one of the rikishi’s support groups. I had expected that all the aprons would depict traditional Japanese scenes, but that is not always the case. Sometimes the sponsor’s product will be featured and foreign rikishi sometimes wear a keshō-mawashi with their national flag. Some aprons even show funny pictures or scenes inspired by modern popular culture. Others refer to the wrestler’s ring name.

The keshō-mawashi with a more ‘typical Japanese’ feel to them seemed the most difficult to find. Ironically it is Bulgarian wrestler Aoiyama who provides us with a traditional Japanese scene based on a woodblock print.

aoiyama keshō-mawashi

Bulgarian wrestler Aoiyama

Below is another keshō-mawashi based on a woodblock print by Hokusai, worn by Okinoumi. The choice of design might refer to his ring name, which means ‘the sea of Oki’. Oki-shotō or Oki islands is the island group where he was born.

okinoumi keshō-mawashi

Okinoumi

Also very Japanese but not quite what one would expect from a tough sumo wrestler: a design with cherry blossom, worn by Osaka-born rikishi Goeido.

goeido keshō-mawashi

Goeido

Some designs draw inspiration from a very different aspect of Japanese culture: manga. Have a look at this funny design worn by Ikioi.

ikioi keshō-mawashi

Ikioi

Estonian rikishi Baruto pokes fun at himself with a cute caricature. He also has an inception thing going on, where his image on the keshō-mawashi is wearing a keshō-mawashi with his image (it looks less confusing than it sounds).

baruto keshō-mawashi

Baruto

The most surprising reference to popular culture that I saw was on Takayasu’s keshō-mawashi. It features an image of Charlie Chaplin. I wonder what the story behind it is. I am terrible at reading kanji so the only thing I can make out on the apron is the word ‘clinic’.

Takayasu

Takayasu

Some other interesting keshō-mawashi:

yoshikaze

Some rikishi just have writing on their keshō-mawashi, like Yoshikaze.

Kaisei

Brazilian rikishi Kaisei proudly wears his national flag on his apron

Chiyotairyu

Beautiful dragon motif, worn by Chiyotairyu

Toyonoshima

A Japanese mask on Toyonoshima’s apron. Is it perhaps a demon in a kabuki play?

Tochiozan

A personal favourite of mine: Tochiozan’s keshō-mawashi features a dog dressed as a yokozuna (sumo grand champion). My only question is, why?!

All images of rikishi in keshō-mawashi are from the Nihon Sumo Kyokai website. If you would like to have a look at some more keshō-mawashi, you can find them on this page by clicking on the wrestler’s names.

Sun protection in Japan

Japanese women are famous for their beautiful skin. Not only do they seem to stay wrinkle free a lot longer than Western women, many of them also appear to have a perfectly even skin with a beautiful glow about it.

Japanese beauty expert Chizu Saeki, author of the book 'The Japanese skin care revolution', aged 66

Japanese beauty expert Chizu Saeki, author of the book ‘The Japanese skin care revolution’, age 66 – Image from blogs.reuters.com

How do Japanese women achieve such beautiful skin? Apart from paying a lot of attention to skin care, and possibly genetic factors, I think the main reason is that Japanese women stay out of the sun. They do this not only to keep their skin young, they also want to keep their skin as white as possible. While in Belgium many women prefer ‘a healthy sun-kissed glow’, in Japan the beauty ideal is for skin to be as white as possible and free of any blemishes.

Japanese women take staying out of the sun to a whole other level. While most Western women (or should I just speak for myself?) already feel quite proud of themselves if they remember to put on some sun screen before leaving the house in the morning, Japanese women use many different attributes to avoid the sun.

Of course there is the age-old classic, the parasol or umbrella. It is really very common to see people in Japan using a parasol to shield themselves from the sun. Department stores play into this by selling beautiful summer parasols. I have to admit that even I have taken to the habit of using a parasol in summer in Japan. My main motivation is not so much skin care (I think the damage is already done there) but avoiding heat stroke. The summer sun in Japan is very intense. It took me a little while to overcome my culturally based embarrassment since people in Belgium would probably laugh at anyone using a parasol. After getting used to it however, I found it very convenient.

sun protection in Japan

Mid July in Inuyama. The sun is beating down on the pavement and as you can see from the empty street, anyone in their right mind has sought refuge inside. Only two gaijin wander the afternoon streets. It is so hot that a sunshade seems required even while standing in the shade ^_^

A second popular attribute is the summer hat. In Belgium, only the most hardcore fashionistas will be seen wearing a summer hat. In Japan however, hats are very popular. There is a vast range of beautiful summer hats available. Some women, mostly elderly ladies, will even wear special hats with neck and throat covers.

hats and sunshades in the summer in nagoya

Queuing to enter Nagoya Castle Festival in August. Sunshades and summer hats in abundance.

Some women go even further. They insist on keeping all body parts covered at all times, despite the smouldering summer heat of 35° C and over. This results in wearing tights and long-sleeved tops in summer. For women who still want to wear a short sleeve top but protect their skin at the same time, special arm and hand covers exist that can be slipped on when going outside or when driving a car.

protective arm covers for sale in Japan

Protective arm covers for sale

japan sun protection gloves

A stylish Japanese lady with elaborate sun protection, consisting of a parasol, long gloves and nylons that were probably marketed as offering extra UV protection – Photograph by Martin Goodwin

Even women who work the land do their best to keep their skin as fair as possible. They will always wear gloves and a special hat that covers their face and neck as much as possible.

Farmer woman working the land in Japan

Farmer woman working the land in Japan – Image by Aaron Whitfield

The final attribute, and the one that surprised me the most, are special hand covers to be used when riding the bike. The covers are attached to the steering wheel and cover the hands completely.

bicycle with sun protection in Japan

A bicycle with protective sleeves for the hands

Now that I am living in Belgium again, I have eased up a bit on the sun discipline. After a long, dark Belgian winter, Belgian people tend to soak up as much sun as they can get during the summer. But the Japanese attitude towards the sun did have a lasting impact on me. I have gone from being an avid ‘sun worshipper’ to a careful recreational user.

Furry business

“Japanese women love to wear fur.” Why have I chosen this simple statement as the topic for an entire blog post? Because the difference in attitude towards fur between Japan and Belgium (and I think Europe in general) is a striking cultural difference.

A girl wearing a fur scarf.

In Japan, fur usually appears as a trimming on coats and gloves, rather than as a full fur coat. Fur scarves, as seen in this picture, are also popular. Image from http://www.tokyofashion.com

Two girls wearing fur collars. This kind of collar is very popular in winter fashion. Image from www.tokyofasion.com (click on image to go to site)

Two girls wearing fur collars. This kind of collar is very popular in Japanese winter fashion. Image from http://www.tokyofashion.com

I have had a lot of trouble explaining to Japanese women why most Belgians frown upon the practice of fur as a fashion statement. In Belgium, fur coats are usually only worn by wealthy, elderly ladies; possibly belonging to the aristocracy. Fur is simply not considered politically correct, of course relating to concerns regarding animal suffering. I think fur is also considered a tad decadent. We Belgians are a simple people (*insert self-mockery*).

Most European people, on the other hand, find it difficult to understand why Japanese people wouldn’t think twice about wearing fur. Here is a nation that cherishes the seasons, has dedicated vast amounts of poetry to the beauty of nature and is collectively overcome by a screaming fit of ‘kawaii!!!!’¹ if exposed to so much as the slightest hint of a furry creature; yet wearing fur is considered the most normal thing in the world. Indeed I have been scolded by a Japanese girl for admitting to occasionally eating rabbit, while she herself was wearing a fur scarf that looked an awful lot like rabbit fur. It is one of the many contradictions in Japanese culture that one simply cannot make sense of and that contribute to the enigma of this fascinating country.

As with most cultural differences, I have evolved from initial amazement and slight shock to a general acceptance of the habit. I even went as far as purchasing a pair of rabbit fur-trimmed gloves myself, my reasoning being that if I eat rabbit, I shouldn’t have a problem with wearing rabbit fur either. I did draw the line at the beautiful white coat in the picture below. I checked the label when I went to try it on, only to find out it was fox fur. My captivation with the coat was instantly dispelled.

Beautiful white coat trimmed with fox fur. That's a bridge I won't cross.

Beautiful white coat trimmed with fox fur. Although I think the coat is gorgeous, the fact that the collar is fox fur really put me off.

¹kawaii means cute

 

People watching – Sartorial Japanese man

I have recently become enamoured with the blog ‘The Sartorialist’. It is one of the most famous blogs out there and I can see why. The posts are short and simple, always revolving around a single fashion photograph. Although not every featured look is to my taste, it is interesting to see the different styles that people adopt. And the photographs are always beautifully taken.

the sartorialist screenshot

Of course I was wondering what the blog name meant and after some research I came across a video in which the author explains all about it. Apparently ‘sartorial’ means tailored, but it can also mean someone whose look is well put together or someone with great personal style.

Looking at the man in the picture below (taken on a Japanese train in April of this year) the word ‘sartorial’ comes to mind. Although people might argue about exactly how stylish his big hair and tight jeans really are, at least there can be no discussion about the fact that he has a clearly defined and deliberate look. In any case, I am a fan. It takes guts to wear a tailored jacket made out of sweat pants fabric.

Stylish Japanese guy, wearing a tailored jacket made of sweat pants fabric

Stylish Japanese guy, wearing a tailored jacket made of sweat pants fabric