I have generally regarded tourists dressed in kimono (or yukata in the summer months) with amusement and mild disdain. It is akin to someone visiting the States and dressing up in a cowboy hat, chaps and spurs for a day.
The kimono is a deceptively simple and stunningly elegant garment. There are more than a thousand years of history behind this four panel, T-shaped robe cut from a single bolt of fabric 11.5 meters long. It has remained more or less unchanged since the Edo period (1603 - 1868). It is so quintessentially and thoroughly Japanese that anyone wearing one without pure Jomon bloodlines appears a little strange, silly even. For some reason it just doesn't quite work. There is a something a little off, like buttoning up a shirt in the wrong holes.
So it was with some ambivalence I decided to don a kimono recently. My friend, Murakami-san invited me to a kabuki performance at Minamiza in Kyoto. This venerable theatre on Shijo-dori just east of the Kamo River was founded some four hundred years ago. The current building, built in 1929, had recently undergone an extensive renovation. This was the the grand re-opening, the first kabuki performances since 2016. In addition, November always marks the beginning of the kabuki calendar which is celebrated each year with the "kaomise" - a special performance featuring the top kabuki actors from across Japan. A grand occasion to say the least. One that called for something more than an ordinary suit and tie. In the West this would probably be a tuxedo for a gentleman and a formal gown for a lady. But this is not the West, this is Japan.
A friend of mine, Miyagawa-san, is in the kimono business. He designs kimono and has a small shop in Katsura where he sells and rents new and vintage kimono. I told him I was thinking about wearing a kimono to Minamiza and asked him what he thought of gaijin in kimono. He convinced me it was okay because a) he doesn't stock the cheap, made-in-China, rayon kimono seen on tourists around the city, and b) I'm not a tourist.
He put me in a stylish gray kimono made of light-weight wool bouclé, and a black silk haori (kimono jacket) that he had customised. We agreed on a deep green obi and wood beaded haori-himo (accessory). Because kimono have no pockets a furoshiki (wrapping cloth) served as a bag for my wallet, glasses and things. Finally, white tabi (split-toe socks) and zori (sandals). I thought it a very cool ensemble, but a look in the mirror at my Euro-American face and I almost balked.
The first thing I noticed when I left Miyagawa-san's shop is that, while a kimono is loose and comfortable, it does not allow for large strides when walking. A person dressed in a kimono sort of shuffles along. It is effortless and graceful when performed by a maiko or geiko, almost like floating.
I feared everyone would be staring at me. Somehow I made it from Katsura to Gion with barely a glance at me. The kimono seemed to have made me invisible. Only once did my appearance illicit a comment. "You look wonderful." an older gentleman said to me near Minamiza.
An oft discussed subject among foreign residents in Japan is the concept of uchi and soto (inside and outside), the distinction between social groups. Visitors are by default soto and even long-term foreign-born residents fall into this category. One could live 20, 30, 50 years in Japan and never quite be accepted. Dressed in a kimono I felt oddly more uchi. Rather than standing out, I seemed to almost fit in with the smartly dressed kabuki crowd.
The kimono grew on me. It was strangely transporting. I felt somehow more deeply embedded in Japan. When I finally undressed and returned to my ordinary street clothes there was a sort of Cinderella effect. I was just another gaijin in Kyoto.