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!

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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!

Let’s dance!

Today is Obon, an important Japanese holiday. Traditionally it is a day for honouring the spirits of one’s ancestors. But since the Japanese never pass up an opportunity to have a party, it is also an excellent reason to organise a festival and get together with friends and family.

Apart from delicious festival food and lots of people wearing yukata, the Obon festival is characterized by Obon dances, which are called Bon Odori (盆踊り). The dancers gather around a central stage and perform circular dances while moving around the stage. Compared to some Western dances, the Obon dances seem very slow and subdued. But once you give it a try, it is a wonderful feeling to share in the group atmosphere and to do the dances together.

obon nagoya castle

Obon dancing at Nagoya castle. The central stage houses the musicians and from time to time, different people are invited up on stage to dance there.

obon dancing nagoya castle

The colourful crowd in yukata is so beautiful!

Anyone can join in: there are many elderly ladies, but also lots of young people. Even clumsy gaijin like me are welcome to join. In the video below you can see the cutest little boy doing his best to dance along with the adults. There is also an equally cute, but slightly older girl in yukata.

In this next video you get a better look at the crowd and you can really see the circular motion of the dancers. Sometimes you will see ladies in matching yukata. I think they belong to an Obon dance group where they practice all year long and then go to various Obon festivals in their matching yukata.

There are big Obon events like the one at Nagoya Castle where these videos were made but Obon is also celebrated on a smaller scale in local neighbourhoods. When we were wandering around Muroran, a small city in Hokkaido, on an evening in August, we saw this local Obon gathering on a neighbourhood square:

Obon in Muroran, Hokkaido

This was a small, local community celebration in Muroran, Hokkaido. There weren’t any booths with festival food. Instead there were some tables where people placed their homemade food, sharing between everyone.

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.

Japanese hands

The other day I was watching the Japanese movie ‘Okuribito’ (usually titled ‘Departures’ abroad). I absolutely love that movie and would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone.

Japanese movie Okuribito

The Japanese movie Okuribito. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009.

The movie is about a man who moves back from Tokyo to his hometown in the mountains. He gets involved in the funeral business, a profession that was despised in feudal Japan and was only carried out by the lowest social class, the eta. Even in modern-day Japan, some people still look down on the profession of undertaker. At first, the main character in the movie also has some misgivings about his new job, but gradually he learns to see the beauty in the tender ritual of preparing the dead for their departure. This ritual is called ‘nōkan’, and you can see it performed in the video below.

While watching the movie, it struck me again how beautiful and elegant Japanese hands are. One of my cherished images of Japan is the way most Japanese people perform even the simplest of daily tasks; their gestures expressing a mixture of elegance, precision and understated strength. The elegance of Japanese hands and gestures is even more apparent during the stylized movements of Japanese rituals, such as the burial ritual in the movie above or the ritual movements of the tea ceremony.

tea ceremony elegant hands

Taking hot water to pour into a tea bowl. All movements during the tea ceremony are elegant and delicate, yet precise and deliberate. Not an easy thing to accomplish!

tea ceremony elegant hands

Admiring one of the utensils that are used during the ceremony. The utensils have to be treated with the utmost care since they are very precious. Her hands look so elegant!

It’s a real-life geisha! Right?

When walking around in Kyoto, foreign tourists will often be very excited when they spot ‘a real-life Japanese geisha’! Indeed when walking around the area near Kiyomizu-dera temple, one often sees groups of young girls dressed in bright kimonos.

Maiko group in Kyoto, Japan

A group of girls dressed in beautiful kimonos

Maiko-san tourists in front of temple

Tourists dressed as maiko-san posing in front of temple

What most tourists probably don’t know is that these girls are not geisha, but dressed-up tourists themselves. There are many studios in Kyoto where one can undergo the transformation into an apprentice geisha, called maiko. Maiko are young girls, usually aged 15 to 20 years old, who are training to become geisha. Their hairstyle and kimono differ from geisha. Typical elements are the long ‘obi’ (sash) and the hairstyle where red fabric is showing in between the hair (which traditionally was considered to be very erotic).

The ‘maiko-experience’ is very popular with young and not so young girls. For the ‘small price’ of roughly 15000 yen (about 150 euro), a professional team sets to work: applying make-up, doing your hair (a wig is used) and dressing you in colourful kimono. The experience usually also includes a photo shoot by a professional photographer.

maikosan professional photographer

A group of maiko-san with a professional photographer

To see a real geisha, several conditions have to be met. One has to a) go to Gion or Pontocho, which are the geisha districts in Kyoto, b) wait until nightfall, c) be very lucky.

Maikosan posing for a picture

Maiko-san posing for a picture

Japanese university graduation outfit

The school year in Japan starts in April, rather than in September as it does in Europe. Most kids have one or two weeks of holiday before the start of the new school year.

All through the month of March, children and parents are busy with graduation ceremonies. There are lots of ceremonies to be had: elementary school, junior high school, senior high school, university, …And that’s just graduation. Come April, they can do it all over again when they have their entrance ceremonies.

For university graduation, girls usually wear ‘hakama’ (Japanese style pants). It’s very exciting to spot someone in that kind of traditional Japanese attire amongst the mass of Western style clothing.

university graduation hakama Japan

This was the best picture I could get of her. I have to improve my sneak photography skills.

university graduation hakama Japan sleeping on the train

I think she was tired from an exciting day because she was dozing off on the train.