Okinawan Kimono and Textiles

Sigh.  Golden Week was a couple of months ago, and it’s only now that I found the time to write this post.  What’s Golden Week?  It’s a string of national holidays all in a row and it seems like the whole country goes traveling during that time.  We were no exception.  My husband and I finally made it down to Okinawa after six years of living in Japan.  It was a great and surprising trip.  I had always heard that people from Okinawa identified themselves more as Okinawan than Japanese, and until this trip I couldn’t really understand why.  Okinawa really is like a different world.  It was its own independent kingdom for a long time (the Ryukyu Kingdom) and was a tributary state of both the Chinese and Japanese Empires until Japan fully annexed it as Okinawa Prefecture during the Meiji Era.  They had their own king, their own culture, their own language, and their own food.  This division is still very palpable today.

And this division even holds true to the kimono of Okinawa.  Before I went, I already knew about bingata kimono, but I didn’t know much else, and there wasn’t a lot of information that I could find online.  I arrived in Okinawa intending to add a bingata kimono to my collection, but I quickly discovered that it wasn’t going to be that easy.  And in fact, I never did get a bingata kimono, mainly because they were so expensive, and they were so different that I would have to build up an entirely new outfit from scratch.  I couldn’t just pair a traditional bingata kimono with a Nagoya obi and be done with it.

I’d like to outline everything I discovered about Okinawan kimono and textiles in a logical fashion, but first, I have to include a disclaimer.  I am not an expert on Okinawan kimono.  The information that I am presenting to you is based on my observations and my interactions with the local people of Okinawa during my four day trip.  This information is not a complete or exhaustive list.  There isn’t a lot of information in English on Okinawan textile history.  I did pick up some books while I was there, but they are in Japanese and will take some time to translate.  They will probably add some more insight as I work my way through them.

And with that, let’s look at some of the differences!

 

#1: The Kimono Market

If, like me, you go to Okinawa with the intention of adding a bingata kimono to your collection, you may be disappointed.  Unlike mainland Japan, there is almost no second-hand market for kimono in Okinawa.  There’s a couple of reasons for this.  First, the most famous textile, bingata, was reserved for the upper classes, which already limits the amount of stock available.  Second, the Battle of Okinawa destroyed almost everything in its path.  I lost count of the number of times I read a plaque saying “This is a recreation of something that was destroyed in the war.” And of course this applies to kimono and textiles as well.

You really only have two options in Okinawa.  The first is to buy new products, which can be very, very expensive.  The cheapest I saw was a bingata dyed yukata for ¥120,000.  A kimono could easily cost you ¥650,000 as could an obi.  That is so beyond my price range that I can’t even imagine spending that much on one garment.  And they were stunning garments.

Your second option is to buy a polyester recreation.  These are worn by people working in the tourist industry.  These kimono will set you back around ¥15,000.  I considered getting one of these, until I realized how different the construction and the kitsuke is (more on that below).

If that’s still too much for your budget, you can get a sample of bingata.  In every tourist area, there are bingata bags, furoshiki, scrunches, aprons, and even boxer shorts.  It’s all synthetic materials and dyes, but if you want to bring a bit of it home with you and can’t afford a full kimono, it’s another option.

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The bingata furoshiki that I bought in compensation for not buying a kimono.

 

#2: The Textiles

Again, disclaimer time.  This isn’t an exhaustive list of Okinawan textiles.  It’s just a list of the ones I found most interesting during my travels.

Bingata (紅型)

I’ve mentioned bingata above, but I haven’t explained exactly what it is.  There are dozens of different methods for bingata dyeing and for a complete explanation, you can check out the Kimono Dictionary website here.  Generally though, bingata has a few outstanding characteristics.

  • Bright colors: Vibrant colors are a trademark of bingata, with the most famous color being a bright yellow.  Red, purple, green, and blue are also popular colors to use.
  • Tropical designs: Okinawa really is the Hawaii of Japan.  You will find the occasional plum or cherry blossom, but you will more commonly find tropical birds, flowers, and natural phenomenon depicted on bingata.
  • Natural dyes: Today, the dyes used are mostly synthetic, but traditionally, they would use plant dyes such as hibiscus and indigo.  Artisans who are trying to revive and preserve the bingata tradition also use natural plant dyes today.

 

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Examples of bingata fabrics that show the bright colors and tropical designs.

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Some of the natural materials used to create the traditional dyes, along with the brushes used to apply the dye over large areas.

Shuri-ori (首里織)

When I resigned myself to the fact that I could never afford a true bingata kimono, I turned my attention to shuri-ori, the local weaving technique.  There are five different types of weaving and they can be roughly broken down into those created for the upper classes (using many different colors) and those created for the lower classes (using only two colors).

The interesting thing about shuri-ori is that, unlike many other types of weaving such as nishijin, there is no right or wrong side.  The obi that I bought came off the loom completely reversible.

It was also a lot more affordable.  I spent ¥15,000 on my obi.  It’s a cotton hanhaba, complete with certifications from the shuri-ori quality control associations.

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My own shuri-ori obi.  Perfect to wear in the summer heat!

For more information (in Japanese) you can look at www.shuri-ori.com

Bashofu (芭蕉)

Just before I left, my kitsuke and wasai teachers told me to look out for bashofu.  I’m glad I did.  Bashofu is fabric made from the fibre of the banana plant.  I managed to get a sample and I can see it being really effective for a tropical climate.  The only examples that I saw during my trip were in a museum unfortunately. The process to create bashofu has in excess of 30 steps and is way, way, way beyond by budget.

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examples of bashofu.  At the bottom is the raw material.  The top left is an example of the fibres that are half-way through the process, and the upper right shows the completed threads.

bashofu

Here’s an example of the final garment.

#3: The Kimono Construction

There seem to be two different types of kimono found in Okinawa; Those based on the standard Japanese construction, and those unique to Okinawa.  Bingata kimono can be made in either fashion.  I noticed three main differences in the construction of the kimono.

  • The sleeves are attached to the body of the kimono, even on women’s kimono.  In addition, there is a bit of webbing under the sleeve.
  • The sleeves are open at the front.
  • There is no kurokoshi (the seam going across the back) in Okinawan kimono.

okinawa kimono

#4 The Kitsuke

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Traditional Okinawan kitsuke.

  • For men, the obi is tied in the front instead of the back.
  • For women, the collar is not pulled down low at the back of the neck.
  • Women do not have an obi.  The kimono is tied at the waist with a colourful koshihimo, and the end of the koshihimo dangle in front.

I only had access to tourist kimono, and I can’t vouch for their accuracy, but even in the museums, there were clear differences in the kitsuke I saw in the displays.

I hope you enjoyed this cursory look at Okinawan kimono.  If you have a chance to visit Okinawa, I highly recommend it!

It’s Official! Kimono Prices Are Going Up!

Okay, maybe it’s not “Official” official.  Does anecdotally official count?  Because that’s all I really have.  But it does confirm in my mind what I’ve thought was going to happen for a while.  But first, a little background.

It seems like at least once a month, I come across a news article featuring someone in the kimono community bemoaning the decline of the industry.  The master artisans are retiring or passing away, and nobody wants to learn the craft.  These articles usually talk about their efforts to revitalize the industry by (1) getting younger people interested in kimono (2) making kimono more accessible or (3) creating new objects and projects using the same techniques that are used to create kimono.

Here’s just a short list of articles that I’ve found in the past year or so along these lines.

In my mind, it’s simple supply and demand.  As the artisans retire or pass away, the supply of hand-made silk kimono will dwindle.  At the same time, these kimono activists are trying to increase demand for kimono to keep the industry alive.  Something has to give somewhere and prices will rise accordingly.

I’ve also heard some rumors in the past few months regarding certain secondhand stores (no, I won’t name names).  According to what I’ve heard, a large chain of recycle kimono stores has struck a deal with a large chain of general recycle shops to supply them with kimono (for those outside Japan, recycle is the general term for a second-hand store here.)  Sure enough, I have been noticing a rise in prices at that particular chain of recycle stores over the last few months, especially when it comes to well-crafted pieces like furisode, full shibori, or oshima tsumugi.

However, for me, the final confirmation came this weekend when I was out shopping.  My absolute favourite recycle shop is a local one (not a chain) that operates as an NGO/NPO.  The workers there can’t get a job in the regular workforce for various reasons, so they get work experience at the shop.  They get all their stock through donations, so when they sell it on, it’s really, really, cheap.

Or at least it was.

I would find incredible pieces there for incredibly cheap prices.  One of my favourite formal pieces is from that shop and I only paid ¥2500.  I routinely get kimono there for less than ¥1000, sometimes as cheap as ¥350.  I think the most I ever paid for a single piece was ¥3000.  It was very easy to break my wallet and I never left that store without something in my shopping bag and a grin on my face.

But when I went there this weekend, I was hit with a case of sticker shock.  There were very few pieces lower than ¥2000.  With the fast turnover of this store, I’m betting the ones cheaper than that were just old stock that hadn’t sold yet.  There was a gorgeous furisode that was on sale for ¥8000.  It’s not an unfair price, but before that visit, I would have expected a price of ¥4000 or less.   There was also an oshima tsumugi piece there for the unheard of price (for that shop) of ¥6500.  Gasp!  Shock!  Horror!

Yes, yes, yes, I know.  Those prices aren’t all that bad.  In any other location, I would have been happy to find those pieces at those prices.  Just not at this shop.  It would be like finding anything is a secondhand shop for full price.  Even if it is brand new and still in the box, you don’t expect the price in a secondhand shop to be the same as in a retail location.

Yes, in my mind, the days of cheap kimono are over.  I can only see prices rising from here.  My already expensive hobby is about to become even more expensive.  I’m sorry wallet and bank account.  I think you’re going to be losing a little more weight in the near future.  Or I won’t have to pay for an expensive second closet to hold everything.  Either way, [music plays] “it’s the end of the world as we knooooow it!”

BTW, I never do any kimono shopping online.  If you do, please comment and let me know if you’ve noticed a price increase at all in the past year.  I’d love to hear about your experiences!

Ebi (海老) lobster/shrimp

Name: Ebi (海老) lobster/shrimp

Seasonal Association Winter

When To Wear It: all year

Auspicious: yes

History: Ebi can play two different roles as a motif, that of a seasonal motif, and that of an auspicious motif.

Seasonal: Ebi is a staple ingredient in Osechi, the traditional New Year’s selection of food.

Auspicious: The hunched back and whiskers of the ebi are features that are also attributed to an old man and because of this, ebi is considered a symbol of long life. It is often nicknamed the old man of the sea.

Ebi can also be referred to as Ise Ebi (伊勢海老) which is a particular species of spiny lobster found in Mie prefecture.

Identification: Ebi will resemble a lobster or a shrimp with a curved back, long whiskers on its face, and six legs.

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Kimono Diary: November 17th-23rd

Things were up and down this week for me. Fortunately, the ups outnumbered the downs. But only by one. So here’s what happened.

First, I finished it! Just a few hours ago too! The project I’ve been working on since September! I have a Christmas present for all of you. Starting later this week, on my YouTube channel (here) you can find (drum-roll please) The Twelve Days of Kitsuke! During the month of December, I will be posting videos (about every other day) with instructions for tying twelve different obi musubi. I hope you enjoy the videos. It’s the least I can do for everyone who has read my blog, contacted me, liked my Facebook page, and generally let me know that what I am doing is appreciated. So thank you so much everyone, I hope you enjoy the videos.

The second good thing that happened is that I finally got back into teaching after a month’s hiatus. It was really great seeing my regular students again. We moved on from hanhaba obi to Nagoya obi this week, and we’ll continue again next week.

Now for the bad news. I had a wasai lesson scheduled for Sunday. Again, my first in a month. But things weren’t going my way on Sunday. I woke up with a massive migraine. I had to cancel and I spent all day like a vampire; in the dark. I finally started feeling better around five at night. I survived on saltine crackers and green tea that day. Needless to say, I didn’t get much done that day.

Hope you all have a good week!

Kimono Diary October 5th-11th, 2015

This week consisted of three things; video editing, teaching, and wasai.

Video editing and filming took up several hours of my weekend, unfortunately, some of those hours were wasted when I realized that the camera was set to the wrong frame rate.  I had to do it all over again, most of it in the last 12 hours.  And to top it off, Microsoft Word updated itself and is now crashing whenever I try to access this particular blog post that I wrote yesterday.  Time to do it again!  It hasn’t been a happy day.

For teaching, I had two lessons on Saturday, one private and one group lesson.  In the group lesson, I had fewer people than usual, only three students, but I found that it’s a good number.  If I have more than five students, I find that I can’t divide my attention evenly between my students, especially if I have one that is particularly struggling.

I had another wasai lesson this Saturday too (yes, my Saturdays are incredibly busy.)  We measured everything three times, found mistakes in our math, remeasured and remarked everything, and finally, after an hour, made the crucial cut to insert the gusset into my yukata.  I have a ton of homework to do including finishing installing the gusset and sewing the side seams.  It’s a lot of work, but my next wasai lesson won’t be for a month since from next week, I’ll be helping my teacher dress children for shichi-go-san!

Sorry for the lack of pictures this week, but there wasn’t really anything to photograph!  See you all next week!