Botan (牡丹) Peony

001Name: Botan (牡丹) Peony

Seasonal Association: Spring or Summer

When To Wear It: October-April

Auspicious: yes


Peonies were originally introduced to Japan from China during the Nara period, however it didn’t enter the poetic canon of flowers until the Edo period. Botan are also known as the king of flowers, and they are considered an appropriate floral offering for the Buddha. Classically, botan is associated with summer (especially early summer) as that is when the flowers bloom naturally. However, during the Edo period, cultivators created different breeds of peonies that bloom in winter, spring, and autumn as well.


Botan can often be confused with the tsubakiBotan blossoms are much larger and fuller than tsubaki blossoms, and they usually have more petals than tsubaki. These petals are often depicted in multiple layers and they have ragged edges while tsubaki petals are usually depicted as smooth and in a single layer. Finally, botan leaves are depicted with three distinct lobes while tsubaki leaves do not have lobes.

While these are general rules to distinguish between botan and tsubaki, highly stylized versions or unusual artistic interpretations can muddle this distinction.




More botan


How many botan do we need?!

Ahhhhh! They're everywhere! (no seriously. They're a very popular motif! They're everywhere!)

Ahhhhh! They’re everywhere! (no seriously. They’re a very popular motif! They’re everywhere!)

The picture below IS NOT a botan, but a tsubaki (camelia).  You can see the differences between the two flowers clearly, especially with the number of petals and the smoothness of the petal edges.

A close up of more realistically depicted tsubaki.

A close up of more realistically depicted tsubaki.

Kitsuke Sensei

For some reason, I announced this on my facebook page, but I forgot to mention it here.  How I managed that, I’ll never know.  So here it is.  Drum roll please!  Last month I received my license as a kitsuke sensei from the Nishi Nihon Wasoukai, a small school based in Kobe.  In order to pass the exam, I had to dress in kimono and obi in under five minutes (I finished with seven seconds to spare) and complete a written exam.  I had a lot of help in preparing for my exam and I want to send a warm and heartfelt thanks to all that helped me (you know who you are).  I’m looking forward to the challenges that are to come with this new title!


017 - Copy

018 - Copy023censored

Book Review: Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons

I have quite an extensive library of kimono books on my shelf. Some are in English, some are in Japanese, and some are bilingual. I use some of them almost daily, and some of them I rarely look at. I’d love to share some of my collection with you, and so I’ve decided to start doing book reviews.

This first review is on a book called Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons by Haruo Shirane. Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. My reading tastes are very peculiar and eclectic. The easiest way to get me to NOT read is to put it on a bestseller list or to make a movie out of it. I think the only reason I love Harry Potter so much is that I heard about it through word of mouth before it became immensely popular. By then, it was too late. I had already read the first three books and I wasn’t going to stop!

But back to kimono. Or rather, kimono books. For each review, I’ll give an outline of what topics are covered. For this book, I’ve decided to do it by chapters. After that, I’ll give you my opinion, both the good and the bad, along with some final thoughts about the book.

Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons by Haruo Shirane

Published by Columbia University Press in 2012
ISBN: 9780231152815

The Basic Facts

Shirane’s overall argument for this book is that the seasonalisation of motifs is a cultural construction that was based on the Imperial court in Kyoto during the Heian period. These nobles rarely left the palace, so the only nature they were exposed to was the recreated nature of the gardens. This is the reason you will never see a wild boar as a classical motif on a kimono.

Introduction: Secondary Nature, Climate, and Landscape

In the introduction, Shirane debates the opposing viewpoints that Japanese people accept nature while western cultures try to fight against it. He also explains the old calendar that was used in the Heian court and that was used to assign seasonality to different motifs. This calendar is about six weeks later than the modern calendar and this difference explains some of the complications in kimono seasonality such as autumn motifs being acceptable in August (according to the classical calendar, August was considered autumn).

Chapter 1: Poetic Topics and the Making of the Four Seasons

This chapter examines Imperial anthologies of waka poetry and what they can tell us about the development of seasonality. Shirane starts by instructing us on the mindset of the Heian poet; that they were writing for an audience that implicitly understood the feelings and connections associated with each image they presented. “My love is like a rose” is not a phrase that would be used. Instead the poet would just use “rose” and rely on the reader to interpret “love” from it. The author also looks at several anthologies chronologically and charts the course of which seasons held prominence to the writers (at first it was only spring and autumn) and which motifs were used to express these seasons. Finally, he also talks about cultural creations of seasonality such as the moon or the deer (which exist all year round) coming to represent autumn and why this happened.

Chapter 2: Visual Culture, Classical Poetry, and Linked Verse

This chapter looks at how the seasonality established by waka poetry was expressed in various visual media, including the juni hitoe. Shirane lists several colour combinations that conveyed different motifs for different seasons. He also talks about kosode from the Edo period. During this time, kosode would sometimes have some of the characters from certain famous poems as part of the design. It would be up to the watcher to see these kanji and remember the poem and thus understand the seasonality of the kosode. He also looks at screen paintings and the development of twelve-month paintings (one panel for each month) which further refined the list of plant, flower, and bird motifs that were associated with each month.

Chapter 3: Interiorization, Flowers, and Social Ritual

This chapter looks at the habit of bringing the secondary nature created outside in the garden into the rooms of the palace. This was done partially through the art of ikebana, which he describes in great detail, but also through the construction of the palace itself. Features such as verandas, gardens that are viewable from inside the building, and alcoves decorated with seasonal flowers were also key features of bringing nature closer to the living space. This chapter also talks about the use of seasonal flowers in tea ceremony.

Chapter 4: Rural Landscape, Social Difference, and Conflict

In this chapter, Shirane looks at the difference between the secondary nature of the court and the nature experienced by the common people on farms, in the fields, and in the forest and mountains. Low ranking aristocrats and Buddhist priests were the authors of these texts, and in them, natural phenomenon were often associated with the gods, or they were viewed as bridges to other worlds. The dichotomy of “classical motifs” and “common motifs” is incredibly interesting. Most of the motifs are very different, however when they are the same, they will signal different things to different audiences. For example, the first cry of the hototogisu (a type of cuckoo bird) was seen as a sign of summer (classical) and also a sign to start planting the rice (common).

Chapter 5: Trans-Seasonality, Talismans, and Landscape

In this chapter, Shirane talks about motifs that have transcended traditional seasonal restrictions to become auspicious motifs that are acceptable all year round. These include motifs like pine, bamboo, the crane, and the turtle. In addition to individual motifs, Shirane also talks about auspicious topography and the notion of four seasons and four directions. He also tries to clarify the difference between a motif as a motif, and a motif as a talisman.

Chapter 6: Annual Observances, Famous Places, and Entertainment

In this chapter, Shirane talks about the annual observances that divided up the year. In particular, he talks about the significance and impact of the Five Sacred Festivals (gosekku) which occurred on the first day of the first month, the third day of the third month, the fifth day of the fifth month, the seventh day of the seventh month, and the ninth day of the ninth month. In addition, Shirane talks about famous places that people would visit in order to see seasonal displays (the first examples of hanami and momijigari).

Chapter 7: Seasonal Pyramid, Parody, and Botany

This chapter talks about the rise of haikai poetry in the Edo period and the departure from purely classical literature to poems written by the common people. Shirai describes a seasonal pyramid with refined, classical seasonal motifs at the top (such as cherry and plum blossoms) all the way down to new motifs that were introduced from the experiences of the common people (such as dandelion and garlic). During this time of literature development, seasonal food and fish also became seasonal motifs.


My Thoughts

The good

This book is one the most used books in my kimono library. I love the fact that it gives the history and background on motifs and this has broadened my understanding of them too. My favourite part of this book is the index. It’s divided up into the four seasons, and within each season, each motif is listed twice, once under its Japanese name, and once under its English name. This makes it very easy to find what I want, even if I’ve forgotten or don’t know the Japanese term. Once I turn to the page in question, most Japanese terms are written in italics so I’m able to spot what I want fairly quickly.

The section on kimono itself is small, only a couple of pages, but the sections on other topics (like ikebana, sado, etc.) are also only a few pages so there is very little danger of getting bogged down in a topic that you have no interest in for a long period of time. And there’s a little something for everyone with an interest in any aspect of Japanese culture. A word of warning though, the primary sources that Shirane refers to are poetry anthologies and there are countless references to different poets, poems, and anthologies. I have to admit, most of them went over my head.

The Not So Good.

The one complaint that I have with this book is that it’s not an easy read. It’s an academic text and I found myself sloshing through and re-reading sections (sometimes multiple times) before I understood what he was saying. Shirane is very wordy in his writing, and I feel that he sometimes doesn’t connect all of his dots properly in the arguments that he tries to make. For example, in chapter five, he talks about talismans and talismanic function. He provides a definition of a talisman and attempts to connect it to the motifs that he decides to talk about (such as pine, bamboo, and cranes), but for me at least, he doesn’t make a clear connection between the definition and the motifs he’s talking about. It almost feels as if he is choosing deliberately challenging words as way of creating a text that is not easily accessible to the general population. Using a more appropriate word like auspicious would make the text much more accessible. Be warned, this is not an easy read.

My Final Thoughts

Even with this book being a challenging read, I still enjoy it. When I begin to research a new motif, this is the first book that I usually reach for. It explains things that are otherwise confusing about kimono motifs such as why autumn motifs are popular on garments worn in August (because August used to be an autumn month under the old calendar). Would I buy it again? Definitely. Would I read it cover to cover? Probably not. There are some chapters that I refer to more often than others, and there are chapters that are more readable than others. But overall, I’m very glad to have this book in my collection and I suspect I will be using it for many years in the future.



Miyako Odori


Miyako (都) means capital and odori means dance, thus making the name, “The Capital City Dance.” The first performance of Miyako Odori took place in 1872, three years after the capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1869. The goal of Miyako Odori was to counter the loss of status that came when the capital was moved. The first dance was choreographed by Yachiyo Inouye the third, the master of the Kyomai Dance School and performed by the maiko and geiko of Gion Kobu. It was such a success that it has been performed every year since then.

Every year, there are things that remain the same about Miyako Odori. The Kyomai School is always responsible for choreographing the dancing, and the maiko and geiko of gion always perform the dances (the other geisha districts have their own dances). There are always eight scenes and the scenes always progress from a spring themed dance to summer, then autumn, then winter, and finally back to spring. The kimono for the chorus dancers are usually blue (some years are green) with small modifications in the design and the obi are usually red. Both kimono and obi always have motifs from all four seasons. The kimono are always created by kyo-yuzen artists and the obi are always woven by nishjin artists.

Undated photo of a past performance of Miyako Odori.

Undated photo of a past performance of Miyako Odori.

Undated photo of a previous Miyako Odori performance.

Undated photo of a previous Miyako Odori performance.

Undated photo of a previous Miyako Odori performance.

Undated photo of a previous Miyako Odori performance.


Miyako Odori takes place every year during the whole month of April, with four shows happening each day. Buying tickets has gotten much easier over the last few years. Tickets start going on sale in September, and you can order them through the official website here. I went this route. They emailed me a confirmation number, and on the day of the show, I showed up at the box office, showed them the email confirmation number on my phone, and picked up the tickets. Quick and painless.

There are three classes of tickets you can choose from. Second class seats are 2500 yen, first class seats are 4200 yen, and special class seats are 4800 yen. The more you pay, the better your seats are in the theatre. In addition, the special class tickets allow you to experience a tea ceremony performed by a geiko, complete with a souvenir plate to take home. I decided to go for the special class tickets.

Getting to the theater is very easy too. The dances are held in Gion Corner, a theater that is used to showcase a mix of different traditional arts to tourists for the rest of the year. It’s in the middle of Gion and there are signs and lanterns everywhere announcing the path. If that isn’t enough, the crowds of people and the police directing them should be a dead giveaway.

One of the many posters lining the street to the theatre.

One of the many posters lining the street to the theatre.

The entrance to the theatre itself. The rain that day destroyed my plans of wearing kimono.

The entrance to the theatre itself. The rain that day destroyed my plans of wearing kimono.

The Tea Ceremony

Before we entered the tea ceremony, we went through a mini museum, if you will, that showcased a history of the tea ceremony and the instruments that are used. You can also see kimono and obi from past performances. We were all herded into a waiting room that looked out onto a beautiful Japanese garden. It had the added bonus of letting us sneak a peak of the geiko about to perform the tea ceremony preparing in a room on the other side of the garden!

A sneek peak of what was to come!

A sneek peak of what was to come!

The tea ceremony I felt was very touristy. It was held in a large room with tables and stools for the guests to sit at. As soon as you walked in, waitresses directed you where to sit and they served out the sweets on the souvenir plates. After that, the geiko and maiko came in and the shutters started snapping. I admit, I was guilty of taking photos as well, but after three or four shots just to remember everything, I put the camera down and tried to enjoy the ceremony. But I have to say, it was very difficult with the man in front of me who never put down his large, professional grade camera with a zoom lens. He was snapping photos every few seconds and it took away from the mood. No cameras were allowed during the dancing and I think the same policy should be enforced for the tea ceremony.

While the geiko was preparing the tea, the waitresses were serving bowls of matcha tea. Nobody touched the tea or the sweets until there was an announcement over the loudspeaker saying it was ok to start eating. The tea prepared by the geiko was served to one random guest by the attending maiko and once again the shutters went off like crazy. The whole thing lasted about ten minutes, and at the end, everyone wrapped up their plates and were herded through to the “souvenir center” while waiting for the theatre to open up.

The tea room.

The tea room.

The geiko preparing the tea.

The geiko preparing the tea.

My bowl of tea.

My bowl of tea.

My sweet on the souvenir plate, along with my ticket.

My sweet on the souvenir plate, along with my ticket.

The souvenir center had the usual Kyoto and Japanese souvenirs; books, postcards, snacks and such. But they also had something really unique. They had taken kimono and obi from previous years and made different souvenirs out of them. There was everything from bags and wraps to smaller things like coin purses and tissue cases. I indulged in a tissue case. And I do mean indulged because these items were not cheap. Not that I expect them to be. After all, they are made from kimono and obi created by some of Kyoto’s finest craftspeople. I just wish my budget could have allowed me to get the 7000 yen purse made from an obi that I was drooling over.

A slightly blurry photo of souvenirs made from previous year's kimono and obi.

A slightly blurry photo of souvenirs made from previous year’s kimono and obi.

A clearer photo of the souvenirs.

A clearer photo of the souvenirs.

The Dances

I guess buying my tickets six months in advance really paid off. We got front row seats! We could literally see the dancers sweating! And it gave me a great vantage point to look at their kimono and their kitsuke. Nothing in their kimono, obi, or accessories shifted or moved. It was absolute perfection. In fact, at some points I thought it was too perfect. For the chorus dancers, their obi was tied at the back with two tails. When they spun, only the bottom third of the tails moved with the force of the spin. The upper two thirds of the obi stayed perfectly in place. I suspect that there’s a couple of stitches keeping the tails together and stopping them from moving too much! Still gorgeous to watch, but I’m not going to use their kitsuke as a model to shoot for. It’s like using an airbrushed model as a reference for how skinny you should be. Just not realistic.

An obi on display. Can you spot the small stitches that keep the two halves in place?

An obi on display. Can you spot the small stitches that keep the two halves in place?

One thing I would highly recommend for everyone is to pick up the program that they offer for 700 yen. It has a description of every scene in English as well as headshots of every maiko and geiko performing on stage as either a dancer or a musician. It was a huge help for me to understand what was happening in each scene, and it’s a great souvenir for after. There are some great pictures inside of each scene that they perform.

The cover of my program for Miyako Odori.

The cover of my program for Miyako Odori.

A page out of the program with a description of a scene in both Japanese and English.

A page out of the program with a description of a scene in both Japanese and English.

A sample page of the headshots of the geiko and maiko that appear in the performance. This can also be found in the program.

A sample page of the headshots of the geiko and maiko that appear in the performance. This can also be found in the program.

Every year, the dances start with an opening scene with the chorus dancers (in the recognizable blue kimono) showcasing that highlights of the dances to come. The number of dancers for Miyako Odori has steadily declined over the years as the population of maiko and geiko has also declined. In her book Geisha, Liza Dalby claims that during her time as a geisha in 1974-75, the ranks of the dancers would be filled out with high school girls. I don’t think this is the case nowadays, but I do question some of the “maiko” in the opening scene. With front row seats, it was easy to see the dancers’ faces, and some of them looked to be on the plus side of forty years old. They still danced beautifully, but I wonder what their story is. Are they just geiko who are filling out the ranks, or are they dance students who have been recruited? All I know for sure is that some of the ladies on stage were too old to be maiko.

The remaining seven scenes always go in order from spring to summer, autumn, winter, and then back to spring. The year that I went (2015) the dances included a story about the western goddess and her peach of immortality, a scene from the Tale of Ise, Minamoto no Taiko and the Earth Spider (she had spiderwebs on her obi!) and two lovers traveling in winter mountains. The dancing was incredible, but I would have never understood what was haping without that program!

My favourite kimono! This is the Spider Queen. Check out her obi!

My favourite kimono! The dancer on the right is the Earth Spider. Check out her obi!

The Kimono

What can I say?  The kimono on display were gorgeous.  I loved examining them between the tea ceremony and the dances.  Here’s a sampling of what I saw.





A unique green kimono!

A unique green kimono!




Added Bonus!

Here’s a video of the 143rd Miyako Odori, the show that I got to see.

It’s Moving Day!

Take a look around Ready, Set, Kimono!  Notice anything different?  Look up.  Just a bit.  See those pretty menu buttons up there?  I’ve spent the whole day moving things around!

I was growing tired of everything on one page.  I don’t like reading blogs that are set up like that, so why would I want mine to look like that?  I’m really excited about the changes and I hope you’ll like them too.  I’m hoping it’ll make things easier to navigate.

And I’m not finished yet!  I still have a lot of pages that I haven’t completed yet, and I’m still writing new content as we speak!  In fact, in honour of Children’s Day, I have posted some info on another motif, the iris!  So for now, don’t mind any of the blank pages that you may come across while exploring.  I know they’re there and I’m working on filling them up!

I’m planning to leave all of my posts on the main page for the next few weeks until all the migration is done, so upgrade your bookmarks if you find that your favourite post has been duplicated somewhere else.  Thank you for your patience and I’m looking forward to bringing you a bigger and better Ready, Set, Kimono! in the future!