I’ve come to realise that reading manga only gives you a very limited — and sometimes even misleading — window into Japanese culture. This probably shouldn’t have surprised me, given that mass-produced fiction (and maybe comics especially) are often written for audiences seeking something very different from their own reality.
One thing that does crop up a fair bit in both manga and real life in Japan, though, is traditional clothing like kimono and yukata. I first learnt about yukata (summer robes) from the charming BL series Tenki Youhou no Koibito/ 天気予報ノ恋人 (The Weatherman is My Lover).
These days, traditional Japanese clothes are usually only worn by people on special occasions, such as coming-of-age ceremonies and during summer festivals. (Though you can occasionally see older ladies in beautiful kimono walking around upscale shopping areas like Ginza).
Since living in Japan, I’ve been ranted to about the superiority of kimono and other traditional Japanese attire quite a bit: they’re cut from whole cloth, involve draping and therefore suit most figures, allow free movement and are therefore practical in daily life etc etc.
But when the opportunity recently came up for me to buy and wear a yukata to a boat cruise party around Tokyo Bay, I was a tad skeptical. I’ve always thought traditional Asian clothes (from qipao to cheongsam to kimono) look faintly ridiculous on Caucasians like me; like a sort of wannabe Asian cosplay.
But I was eventually talked around by some friends, especially when one’s grandmother offered to get her friend — a professional yukata dresser — to come around and help us put ours on. (A terrifyingly complex process for we, the uninitiated).
So I capitulated. But it turns out buying a yukata is not as easy as walking into Uni Qlo and buying a pair of inexplicable satin culottes.
You can buy yukata separately or in a set, which usually comes with a (supposedly) matching obi (belt) and geta (sandals). I went ahead and ordered a set online, though when it arrived the geta didn’t fit my giant gaijin flipper feet, so I settled for a pair of all-black flip-flops instead.
And then I found out that it’s not enough to buy the clothes, you have to buy a 5-piece dressing kit in order to actually wear them.
Basically, I was relieved when the day of the boat cruise finally arrived so I could actually do something with all these robes and collected accoutrements clogging up one whole drawer of my wardrobe.
We rented out a local hall to do our group’s yukata fitting, which was to take about 10-15 minutes per person. What followed was mostly a blur of holding up my arms and letting myself be wrestled and squished into the obi, which was holding everything up and in place.
It wasn’t long before I discovered a fact about yukata and kimono that had been withheld from me all along:
obi = corset
I could breathe, but only shallowly. Add to that walking/standing around for about 10 hours in the humidity of a Japanese summer day/night, and you can imagine that I finally found out the true meaning of “beauty is pain”.
Still, I’m going to take my yukata and its entourage of bits and bobs back home with me in a few weeks, even if it’ll take hours of Youtube tutorials to figure out how to put it on again.