It finally happened, it’s getting cold again, and I broke down… The Japanese have a fantastic array of special clothing for winter: From special high-tech underwear called “heat tech” to thin down jackets for indoors to fluffy and very kawaii onesies for kids and adults, all of this is designed to keep you warm when you must leave the one and only heated area of the house. And yes, after five years in Japan, I finally bought myself one of these things to keep me warm.
In case you were hoping for a picture of me in one of those pink onesies with bunny-eared hoodie, I have to disappoint you: I didn’t go quite that far. I did go pink though and bought a pair of … let’s call them boots, to keep my feet warm which is really important because I am feeling very uncomfortable – to the point of getting cranky – when I have cold feet (or a cold back, by the way). I agree, these things are not quite as cute as I had hoped for, but as they are made of glorified plastic, aka polyester, they do what I expected of them – keeping my tootsies warm.
I am feeling very Japanese now! Not like a particularly elegant one, mind you, but it is a start!
Every Tuesday I have a work meeting in town that usually takes two hours and is pretty much, well, business. Last week, however, there was a kimono exhibition in the same building where the office is, so it was decided that we would go upstairs and have a look.
It was fantastic! All the kimono and obi were silk, handmade and exquisite – and of an appropriate price class, of course. Have a look at the kimono above. They are not yet finished, meaning, only roughly sewn together to be fitted to the final buyer. Each of them is made of one those rolls of silk that you see lying there; each roll holds about 14 metres of cloth.
The obi are handmade as well, and we saw somebody applying gold leaf to an obi in a technique called kinsai. Other obi were “simply” embroidered by hand, which for a standard obi of four meters length and more will take a while. No wonder they can be more expensive than a kimono. Interestingly, an obi is the main accessory for a kimono. If you buy a kimono in a not too flashy color, you will be able to wear it for years – and dress it up or down according to the formality of the occasion, and the age of the wearer with an appropriate obi. I’m not sure if you can get away with only owning a single kimono, but it seems you won’t need as many as Western clothing.
The picture below shows my favourite kimono. It is made in the yuzen dyeing technique, which essentially means it is hand painted. The artist, a man in his 60s, was present at the exhibition, and he says that it took him 20 years to master the technique. Remember that a kimono is made of a single roll of silk? It is not cut during the painting and the artist said that by now, he can paint the whole cloth in a way so that when it is cut up into the kimono, the sides of the design will fit together perfectly. He laments the decline of the kimono as a whole, which is not surprising if you know that one of those may take him up to six months to complete, and it will cost about 1.5 million yen. At the moment, he is looking for an apprentice, so if you have 20 years to spare…
The Japanese summer is hard to bear. The temperature itself is not extreme (in my view, that is) but the humidity presses down on people more than is comfortable. To help them surviving the heat, the Japanese have come up with a very special type of summer clothing, called the jinbei. Essentially it is nothing but a kimono, cut off at the hip, with shorts added to at least partly cover the nether regions. There is no obi belt for the top; instead, four ribbons are attached that are tied together, which makes the top sit rather loosely. The cloth is usually soft cotton dyed in various hues of blue, mostly with a subtle stripe pattern.
If you look closely at the picture above, one thing that makes the jinbei so cool to wear are the open stitches between the sleeves and the body. This particular one has the same open stitches at the side of the body as well, but the majority of jinbei I have seen do not have them. Also, there are holes underneath the armpits where the seams have been left completely open – this is a standard feature of women’s kimono as well, by the way. These planned holes allows for extra circulation of air at a time when every bit helps.
Wearing a jinbei is very comfortable even in the biggest heat, but: it is a men’s garment, and even men are supposed to wear it only at home. It is not considered in good taste to wear it anywhere outside of the house especially when mingling with other people, but at Gion matsuri’s yoiyama, some young people wear them regardless. Nowadays there are even jinbei for women, in much more flashy colours and with the obligatory flower print.
However, personally I prefer the subtle patterns of the men’s jinbei, and I will probably go out and buy myself another one since they are so much more comfortable than shorts and T-shirts.