Sunday, January 31, 2010

$200 Geisha Susohiki

Attention geisha fans...

A "susohiki" is a type of kimono that is long enough to trail on the floor, padded at the hem, and used for dance. Ichiroya has just updated for tomorrow/today, with several geisha susohiki in the mix. One is the pretty vintage one shown up above for $200, not a bad deal at all for a silk one.

Image copyright Ichiroya and used with permission.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Kanji Beginner: Sun and Moon

In today's installment of Kanji Beginner, we'll take a look at two very useful kanji.

Our first one is "hi"/"nichi" (there are other pronunciations possible, but these are two of the basics):

The idea is of the sun (originally it was a circle with a dot in the middle, but over a very long period of time it straightened out into this shape). It's used in practice most of the time to mean "day". One cycle of the sun equals one day.

Our second one is "gatsu" or "tsuki" (again, other pronunciations possible):

Originally this was a moon rising behind clouds, if I recall correctly. Said as "gatsu" it means "month", which makes sense if you think about it: one month is one full cycle of the moon. Said as "tsuki", it's the moon we see in the sky.

If you remember the numbers from our last lesson you can now start reading dates. :)



Highlight here for answers: January 2, March 1

(Want to learn more? Check out the Language section of the TKL bookstore.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Moon: Man, Rabbit and Eyebrows

I saw today that tonight's full moon will apparently be the biggest and brightest of the year, so in honor of that here are a few interesting facts about the moon and Japan:

-Unlike many other mythological systems, in Japan the Sun was believed to be a woman and the Moon a man, her brother. "Amaterasu (oomikami)" 天照大神 and "Tsukuyomi (no mikoto)" ツクヨミ, as they were known, had a huge fight at one point and Amaterasu moved as far away from him as she could get, to the other side of the sky. The photo shows his shrine in Kyoto.

-The patterns on the moon's face: Whereas you might have grown up hearing about the "man in the moon", in Japan the patterns on the moon are often said to be a rabbit.

-"Bigetsu", 眉月 an old name for a slender crescent moon, means "eyebrow moon."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book Review - Japan: Secrets from the Land of the Rising Sun

The same day I found the excellent Hiroshige print book a little while ago, I also ran across the 2009 book Japan: Secrets from the Land of the Rising Sun by Ellen Flynn and Deborah Stowe.
Unfortunately, Secrets is on the opposite end of the scale from Hiroshige. A general overview of Japan, it feels at best lazy and at worst uninformed and stereotypical.

Before I became a teacher, I used to do a small bit of graphics work at my job, and still do for fun on occasion. One of the tricks graphic designers have these days is the cheap stock photo: you can go to a handful of sites, type in "Japan" and get quality photos for your projects at absurdly low prices. They're quite useful, but only if you know what they show.

As I started reading Secrets, I began to feel the authors might be using stock photos they hadn't taken themselves, because the captions seemed needlessly vague, as if the authors themselves weren't exactly sure what the pictures showed. Sure enough, a few pages later I ran across a stock photo I'd used myself a few years ago, a very striking one of a maiko, an apprentice geisha, passing under a traditional curtain as she walks into a building.

Stock photos aren't evil, but if you're going to write a book on Japan and present yourself as an authority you've really got to know your stuff before you start using them.

The photos were also a source of some of the most annoying and misleading generalizations to be found in the book. A photo of Shinto priests, who of course are all dressed the same, is labeled with some BS about "conformity" in Japanese culture. While there is definitely pressure to conform in most parts of Japanese society, this is a completely nonsensical example of it. It'd be like taking a shot of Catholic cardinals on their way to church and saying it shows all Westerners dress the same. Again, it gives the feel the authors didn't even recognize the men were priests.

That shallow, stereotypical exoticism (Japan is magical, Japan is better than everyone else at most things, Japan is unknowable to mere Western mortals) is found elsewhere in the book, the geisha section being particularly bad. Apparently, we can "never know" if geisha today are flat-out prostitutes or not because they're hidden behind a veil of secrecy in their exotic, mystical world of secret mystery, yada yada. For anyone reading who isn't sure, it's pretty basic: geisha are NOT prostitutes. They're women and have their desires and needs, I'm sure, like any other woman, but their job is most definitely not to have sex with customers. Ten minutes of research on the part of the authors would have answered the question of prostitution.

Long story short, avoid this book like the plague unless you just want some pretty pictures to look at without any context or very basic facts to read (population, location of cities, etc.). Romanticizing a country is one thing, but doing so at the cost of facts and to the point of stereotyping is a disservice to both the country and those who would like to learn about it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mamechiyo Modern Sale

If you remember Mamechiyo Modern from my post a little while back, the fresh and, well, modern!, kimono brand is having a sale.

Starting today and running through February 3, select items are 10%-40% off: in a bit of coincidence, the polka dot obi I mentioned before is one of them, down to 15,435 yen (~$170 US) from 22,050 yen (~$245 US). You'll need a shopping service or someone who lives in Japan to help you out, though, as Mamechiyo doesn't ship abroad.

(If you're used to shopping vintage or secondhand, Mamechiyo's prices can seem high, but as a rule kimono and related goods purchased new are much more expensive than used items.)

Skimming through the site, they also have a cute "Jack and the Bean Stalk" kimono, zori, geta and other obi and kimono on sale.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Kimono Dealer Updates!

As of today/tomorrow's update, Ichiroya has some neat additions, including several vintage obi at $18 apiece.

Kimono Lily also updated today with new items, including silk blend hakama pants for $55.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Samurai Newbie

Recently I've become interested in samurai history and related collecting, and have made three discoveries I'd like to share with you.

1. Buying replica samurai armor makes collecting kimono look cheap.

2. Buying a vintage sword makes buying armor look cheap.

3. Both are awesome and have become (very long-term!) goals for my collecting.

I don't know nearly enough at this point about either swords or armor to pick out junk from gold, but from looking around and reading it appears quality armor replicas start at about $2,000 and can be as much as ten times that for top-of-the-line work.

Quality vintage or antique blades seem to start around $3,000 and can go up to tens of thousands of dollars. I can say with certainty, however, that it seems to break down that vintage blades under $1000 are highly suspect, and anything under $300 is almost certainly a super-cheap replica. This is good to know as I was really wondering what was up with all of the $100 Buy-It-Now listings on Ebay. They're apparently about the same as the $0.89 "kimono" you see a ton of.

Anyway, more samurai updates as new knowledge develops! In the meanwhile, if you have any, feel free to add your own tips and tricks for spotting armor and sword fakes.

One I've learned that I didn't know before is that real Japanese swords have a distinctive wood-grain pattern along the blade that results from the folding of the metal during the forging process. However, I also learned that a lot of low-quality fakes also have a fake wood-grain pattern in imitation of the originals. So the presence of "wood-grain" along the blade doesn't guarantee authenticity.

Image © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Furisode vs. Tomesode

Clothing is used around the world to tell society a little about yourself, and in Japan kimono actually say quite a lot.

For the rare occasions a modern Japanese woman will wear full-on kimono (as opposed to the cute, common yukata worn to summer festivals), the first choice to make is furisode 振り袖 vs. tomesode 留袖.

If she's young and unmarried (up to mid-late 20s depending on who you talk to), she can wear a furisode, or "swinging sleeve" kimono. The sleeves on a furisode can go all the way down to your ankles when worn at their most formal length, and as they get shorter the more casual the furisode becomes.

In comparison, adult single or married women always wear tomesode, the shorter "stay-at-home sleeve" (you get married and stay at home after that). A 35-year-old single woman, a rarity in traditional times, walking around in a furisode would look very strange to most Japanese eyes.

Tomesode sleeves hang to around the hip, though pre-WWII ones tend to be longer. (War rationing involved using less material in clothes, so women were asked to chop their sleeves shorter to support the war effort. After the war the shorter sleeves stuck and became normal).

Both furisode and tomesode can be casual or formal, simple or fancy, though these days furisode have largely crystallized into the formal variety as they're not worn on a day-to-day basis anymore.

Images copyright Ichiroya and used with permission.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kanji Beginner: 1, 2, 3

Kanji, the Chinese characters imported into Japanese, are often intimidating to those unfamiliar to the language, but can be easier than you think.

Every now and then I'll toss up mini-lessons on simple or common characters, in the hope beginners will learn a little something new and get a little closer to Japanese language and culture. :)

While their pronunciation (as in most characters) can change when matched with other words, the first three are nice and easy to write.

ichi (each ee): "One" and it's only one stroke.

ni (knee): "Two" and it's only two strokes.

san (sahn): "Three" and three!

One rule to keep in mind: characters are written moving left to right, top to bottom. If you get into that habit, you'll have much better handwriting down the road.

Besides the usual use of numbers, old-fashioned business or restaurant signs will sometimes have their phone numbers written in kanji rather than Roman numerals, and in a more modern pop culture example, manga volumes are occasionally numbered along the spine like this.

So, let's practice! What number should I call if I see this on a board?
(Highlight for answer: 322-1321)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Book Review: "Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo"

"Ukiyo-e" paintings (浮世絵) are some of the most famous examples of Japanese art in the West, and one of the most well-known landscape artists within the "floating world" genre is Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重). One of his most lasting and successful projects was a part-fine art, part-commercial venture called "Meisho Edo Hyakkei" (名所江戸百景 One Hundred Famous Views of Edo). A series of woodblock prints that appeared beginning in 1856, it showed different views of Tokyo, then known as Edo, in a colorful and distinctive style that became an immediate hit at home and influenced Western artists abroad.

I ran across a book of these prints at Barnes and Noble last week, and was stunned to see how cheap it was. "Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo" is a nearly 300-page, coffee table-sized book (about 13.5"x10") and an amazing steal right now at only $9.99. Each of the 100 prints is given a two-page spread, with the print on its own page, and a detailed introduction leads the reader through the history behind Hiroshige and the One Hundred Famous Views.

An added bonus is the explanation of each of the images, set on the opposite pages, adding useful, interesting and sometimes amusing information (for example, the almost constant use of dawn or dusk clear skies was like a marketing tool for advertising the city as having good weather).

The only downside, I would say, is the small type size used for the main text (and if you look at the text pages, the left column only is in English, with the middle and right devoted to German and French, so don't buy it expecting the whole page to be English).

Overall, I would normally recommend this book for serious ukiyo-e or art fans, but at this price it's also an excellent chance for artists and folks with only a casual interest in Japan to discover the dynamic linework and color of Hiroshige's work, and step back into the unique world of old Edo.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Geisha Blog - Sakukazu

In the modern day and age, you can find blogs written by all sorts of people, but you might be surprised to hear that sometimes geisha keep blogs as well.

Sakukazu, a geisha of the Kitashinchi area in Osaka, is one of them. While she doesn't update very often, it's a rare treat to see personal photos and hear from someone "on the inside" in their notoriously private and traditional world.

Do you have any Japanese blogs, geisha or otherwise, you enjoy following?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Kimono Shopping: Real or Fake? Materials

If you're looking for a kimono online, whether it's a gift or for a costume or just because you like to have or wear them, it's important to know how to tell a real from a fake because the people selling don't always know themselves (or are counting on the fact you don't know). There are a lot of ways to tell, so I'll be returning to this topic every now and then and adding to it.

So what materials are real kimono made from?

They're made from, depending on the formality, 100% cotton, wool, silk or high quality synthetics. The purple kimono above is a beautiful example of a silk shibori one.

Fakes are often made of satin, cheap polyester or very shiny silk, and include fake "obi" belts made of the same cheap materials and even pattern.

Ready to play Spot the Fake? Click on these Ebay "Japanese kimono" auctions and see if you can pick out which are real and which are fake, based on material alone. :)


(Highlight this line to see the answers: 1. Fake 2. Real 3. Fake)

Image copyright Ichiroya and used with permission

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Three Tasty Tofu Recipes

Since I went to Japan and came back several years later, I've found that certain Japanese foods have become a lot more popular here than they once were. Edamame (said "a dah mah may") is now a fairly common health food, and you see more and more tofu in big supermarkets.
Tofu can, despite its American reputation as a bland-but-good-for-you food, actually be pretty tasty when prepared right. Check out these traditional recipes for something new to try for dinner sometime!

Agedashidofu (揚げ出し豆腐)Fried tofu with a light sauce, shown to the right. One of my favorites and dead easy to make once you get the hang of it!

Hiyayakko (冷奴) Chilled tofu, perfect for hot summer days. Best made with "soft" tofu.

Mabodofu (麻婆豆腐)Actually Chinese, this spicy dish is pretty popular in Japan as well.

Important (and not obvious if you're new to the stuff): Tofu is stored in water, and when you're shopping for it you want to make sure the water in the pack is clear or only slightly colored. Cloudy water means the tofu's off.

Once you buy it, if you don't use it all immediately you'll need to drain it, put it in a new container, cover it with fresh water and change the water out once a day.

Image copyright "projectnada" of Yo!Sushi

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ichiroya Steals: Haori, Furisode, Houmongi

Kimono dealer Ichiroya's near-daily updates can bring some great deals at times. Today's notable items include a synthetic red with plum blossoms bride's furisode (long-sleeved kimono) for only $68, a houmongi ("visiting wear" kimono, semi-formal, with uninterrupted patterns across seams) for $38, and a lovely black haori (kimono jacket) with metallic paulownia flowers for $20. Happy shopping!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Samurai Umbrellas and CSI: Miami

I was out shopping with my best friend today when she pointed out a stack of possibly the funniest umbrellas I've ever seen: katana-handle umbrellas. Best gag gift ever!

In other (cheesy) pop culture news, from the TV commercials it looks like CSI: Miami's show tomorrow night at 10pm EST, Die By the Sword, will deal with yakuza, the Japanese equivalent of the mafia. If the clip showing a guy on a motorcycle killing someone with a katana is any indication, it won't exactly be a factual documentary. ;) If any of y'all watch the show, let me know how it turns out!

An interesting fact about the yakuza: their tradition of elaborate tattoos began centuries ago, when criminals were often tattooed to warn others of the crimes they'd committed. Some in the criminal class decided to start flaunting the system, embellishing and adding on to the tattoos in a big middle finger to society, and it grew from there.

Today, tattoos in Japan still largely carry this association with criminals and your average normal person or college kid or even "punk" isn't likely to get one. Miyavi, a Japanese rock star covered in tattoos, is one of the very rare exceptions.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Mamechiyo Modern: Skeletons and Polka Dots

When you, and most Japanese people, think of kimono, you probably think of something that is interesting or pretty but something that is 100% Old and Traditional.

Mamechiyo Modern takes that idea and turns it on its head with a young, funky, and fun approach to the kimono world. The brainchild and brand of Tokyo artist and designer Mamechiyo, the company puts forth the somewhat revolutionary idea that kimono can once again be cute, cool and relevant to modern life.

"Happy Skeletons" Obi

Pink with Polka Dots Obi

"Roses Blooming in Town" Kimono

Mamechiyo models also sometimes feature scarves, berets, and other non-traditional accessories meant to pull the outfit more into modern fashion. If you'd like to add your own funky touch to a kimono look, try pairing a simple kimono with something bold, like one of these gorgeous flower fascinators from indies designer Blasphemina's Closet. I saw them yesterday and thought immediately of Mamechiyo style.

Even if you don't think you'll ever wear a kimono, Mamechiyo's message can still inspire: fun before "rules", confidence before conformity!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Let's Get Naked! - The Dontosai Festival

Imagine walking along a frigid Japanese street in early January, minding your own business, when around the corner jogs a group of Japanese men in little more than what look like white bike shorts and fundoshi loincloths, ringing bells and carrying flags.

Welcome to the city of Sendai's Dontosai Festival (どんと祭), an old tradition in the northern part of Japan's main island.

When I first moved to Sendai, I was one of the folks walking down the street when the gentlemen passed by, at the time having no idea what was going on but pretty sure it wasn't a drinking party gone awry.

It turned out the bell ringing and mini-parade are part of the festival, which is when all of the New Year's decorations are burned and people wish for luck in business and health. For a week or so leading up to the festival, people take paper shopping bags full of decorations to toss atop a huge pile outside of the city's largest shrine, the Osaki Hachiman shrine. On the night of January 14th, the festival is held, the men go jogging in their traditional skivvies ringing bells for luck, and the decorations are ritually burnt and disposed of.

Today sees everyone back in their coats and gloves, though no doubt some of the women are disappointed. ;)

Image copyright City of Sendai Tourism Board

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Geisha vs. Maiko vs. Oiran

No, this isn't some new PS3 fighting game, though it'd be pretty funny to see one! Geisha, their apprentices known as maiko, and the classical courtesan-prostitute oiran are popular subjects in paintings and photos but can look similar to the untrained eye.

At a glance, how can you tell the difference between the three?

We'll start with the maiko, one of the most famous icons of Japan in the West:

-Often have a long, dangling obi worn in the back
-Whiteface make-up
-Tall "okobo" clogs (not seen here)
-Long, swinging-sleeve furisode kimono
-Collar low on the back of the neck
-Usually have hair ornaments made of silk flowers, leaves, etc. and tiny dangling strips of silver ("bira bira")

Geisha (known as Geiko in Kyoto) are what maiko graduate to be: classical entertainers versed in traditional song, dance, shamisen and the art of witty, engaging conversation.

-May or may not have whiteface, as they only wear whiteface for formal occasions
-Collar lower on the back of the neck than a normal woman
-Much simpler hairstyle than maiko or oiran
-Shorter-sleeved (than a maiko) tomesode kimono 
-Shorter (than maiko) obi knot tied in back

And finally oiran, which, as prostitutes, no longer exist in the modern world. Today the few "oiran" around are women who preserve the history of the profession without the sexual aspect, or simply actors dressed as them for special festivals.

-Eight tons of hair sticks and pins
-Huge, wide obi tied in the front
-Very tall, ornate hair styles
-Bare feet
-Super-tall clogs (taller than a maiko's)

There are many more details to what all three wear, but in general those are the big differences to look out for. You can spot-check how much you remember next time you're at the grocery store: Arizona Diet Green Tea features one of these three. :) 

Want to learn more? 

What's it like to be a maiko? Real-life maiko and later geisha Komomo wrote a book in 2008 called A Geisha's Journey: My Life As a Kyoto Apprentice.

What's it like to be a geisha? The famous book Memoirs of a Geisha was based off of, Geisha: A Life is the story of Mineko Iwasaki. Her humblebrag personality rubs me the wrong way, but I'm in the minority as a lot of people love this book.

What's it like to be an oiran? Well, what was it like? There is a lot less information on oiran in English than the other two, but the 1899 book The Nightless City is an account of the world they lived in

Images are copyright Joi Ito, Todd Laracuenta, and Konstantin Papushin, respectively. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Feeling Crafty? Ryu Japan Update

Attention crafters! Ryu Japan, online kimono and fabric dealer, updated today with 30 different kimono and haori (kimono coat) bolts.

Called "tanmono" 反物, these bolts are very narrow from a Western point of view, measuring only around 14 inches wide. However, they tend to be quite long (the kimono ones around 13 yards), and the fabric silk, wool, cotton or synthetic.

If you're interested in buying one, be aware that, depending on the type of kimono it was intended for, there may be stretches of solid color between the patterns. Small, repeating patterns like this, or ones labeled for "komon" or "yukata" kimono will be continuous. Photos showing a large single image may have blank areas on the bolt, as will ones for "houmongi", "tsukesage" or "(kuro) tomesode". Technically, tomesode is any kind of kimono for a married woman, but a couple of Ebay sellers seem to use it when they mean the most formal one, called a kurotomesode.

Anyway, what could you make with one of these endless rolls of crafty goodness?

-A set of throw pillows
-Handbags or totes
-Table runners, one for yourself and others as gifts
-A set of wall hangings
-A skirt or short dress
-A kimono (definitely not easy, but it is what they're designed for!)

The neat thing about kimono fabrics is that you don't often see repeats over time: while certain motifs are definitely repeated, the smaller size of the industry keeps individual bolts and kimono fairly unique.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Movie Review: As You Like It

As You Like It
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Kevin Kline, Bryce Dallas Howard, Brian Blessed
Released 2006, Rated PG

Once, in high school, I was part of a Shakespeare production. King Lear, to be exact. I was a second understudy for evil daughter Regan, and got a couple of bit parts as well. As I wasn't a drama kid and sort of fell into the parts, I had no idea what creativity lurked in the hearts of high-school directors.

Like the Disco Inferno Chicken Wire set.

We knew we were going to attempt a "futuristic" take on King Lear, but when we all came in to see the finished set, we were greeted by a collection of large boxes and mini "towers" covered in tin foil, wrapped in chicken wire and with red lights shining up through them.

You could argue a lot of things about the future, but we were all pretty sure it wasn't going to look like that.

So, why am I rambling about high school?

Well, the 2006 movie adaptation of the Bard's play As You Like It may be a fine work of Shakespearian acting, but the costuming approach feels like Disco Inferno all over again.

Director Branagh's idea was to take the story out of Europe and drop it into 19th-century Japan. There are some pretty costuming moments early on, like the juxtaposition of Western bustle dresses with painted screens, but fairly soon it descends into cheesy mistakes that suggest the costumer's research into Japanese clothing was about ten minutes spent on the Internet.

Some of the more notable mistakes are women with chopsticks in their hair, no obi knots at all on the back of kimono, and men wearing women's kimono at the end of the movie (watch for the long, black-patterned ones. Those are called "kurotomesode", and are the most formal garments for married women. Men would never, ever wear them unless they were cross-dressing).

If you're willing to squint and not focus on the mistakes, As You Like It is a soft, pretty movie and a different take on Shakespeare, but definitely not a look into 19th-century Japan. Whether that moves it up or down on your movie wishlist is up to you!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Hands-On Sushi Workshops

For those of you in the Houston area, Sur La Table is offering a two-hour hands-on sushi and handrolls workshop Tuesday, January 26th. The total cost is $79 and you must be 18 or older to attend.

If you're not in the area (and that's a lot of you!) but would like to learn how to make your own, you might be surprised at what's available in your town. A quick search of "sushi class" + "city name" turns up everything from the Japan-America Society of Indiana's ongoing class to the one-day course at the Los Angeles Sushi Institute of America.

A final sushi footnote: "Philadelphia" rolls, salmon with cream cheese and avocado, are an American invention. Most Japanese I told about them were puzzled or put-off by the idea of mixing cream cheese with rice. Hey, more for me! :)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Shop Smart. Shop Japan Smart.

If you like to buy Japanese stuff (tea ceremony tools, Gundam model kits, etc.) but live outside of Japan and don't know anyone who lives there, it probably feels like you're restricted to only buying things from Ebay or English websites, which can get quite pricey at times and not have as much selection as you'd have in Japan.

However, with the help of a shopping service you can start bidding on Japanese-language auctions or shopping on Japanese sites. A shopping service is a third-party middleman who works with you to buy or bid on the item you want, their profit coming from a service and/or commission fee.

Celga, CrescentShop are Rinkya are a few, and there are more out there. Some tips for a good shopping service experience:

-Google the company for user reviews and experiences.
-Carefully read how their service works and how the process goes.
-How long has the company existed?
-How quick are they to respond to your first email?
-Check their calendar, as Japan has several week-long vacation periods, to make sure they'll be open when you need them.
-Do their shipping fees seem reasonable? (As a note, Japan's general postal rates for international shipping tend to be higher than America's.)
-What are their policies regarding mistakes and lost packages?

Once you find one you're happy with, try them out first with a small, inexpensive item on your wish list. That way, when it comes down to the big item you really want, you'll feel more comfortable and confident working with them.

Good luck and happy shopping!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Kimono Secret Arsenal: The Obi-Ita

For folks who are new to wearing kimono, whether you're a cosplayer or designer researching a historical look or just someone who enjoys wearing them, I'm happy to report there are a lot of hidden tricks and tips for getting that perfect, effortless look.

One of them is the humble "obi ita" or "obi board 帯板", said "oh bee eat uh". If you've ever tried to put on an obi and wondered why it looked creased, wrinkled, or messy in the front after ten minutes, it's because there's no hard support underneath it.The obi-ita, usually a stiff piece of plastic or cloth-covered cardboard, takes care of this. You put it on either under the entire obi (if it has elastic ties) or under the final layer wrapped around yourself if it's the simple type shown here. This is a standard part of kimono "underwear" accessories and isn't considered cheating, though it may feel like it!

If you're on a budget or only need one for a day, you can get by with a mock obi-ita made out of any stiff, smooth poster board, the kind you find in a grocery store school supplies aisle. Cut out two pieces long enough to cover the obi's entire front section (one may not be stiff enough) and place them under the final layer as you tie it around yourself.

Don't worry about the obi-ita showing, whatever kind you use. If you tie your obi tight enough, the obi-ita should remain where it is with no or minimal shifting.

These handy little boards can be found at several online dealers and on Ebay, though you may want to try different variations on the word: obiita, obi ita, or obi-ita.

Image courtesy of and copyright Ichiro Wada.

Friday, January 8, 2010

"Snow, Wave, Pine" Book Review: A Thing of Beauty

Bamboo leaves, piled high with snow, drifting across a green silk kimono. A sword guard made to look like a ring of delicate, open fans.

If you're looking for interesting, unique art or just artistic inspiration, Motoji Niwa and Sadao Hibi's Snow, Wave, Pine: Traditional Patterns in Japanese Design, a 196-page book published in 2001, is full of these sorts of luscious examples of Japanese design, with everything from wave-patterned geta (sandal) straps to a snowflake-adorned box for smokers.

The book walks the reader through 75 of the most common motifs, from peonies to lobsters, giving a page or two-page spread to each one. A paragraph of text gives a basic description, with the majority of the page devoted to several clear, vivid examples for each motif taken from a range of design: kimono, hair combs, musical instruments, dishes, fans, sword guards and more.

This book's blessing and curse comes from its minimal text and explanations. If you're a casual reader or someone who doesn't know much about Japan, you'll appreciate its very brief copy and lack of many Japanese-only words.

If you have more than a passing interest in the topics, however, it can prove annoying at times. For example, the back half of the book shows over 1,000 family crests (家紋 kamon), but in most cases only gives the English name of the pattern used, like "encircled intersecting arrows", not the family it usually belonged to or even what the pattern itself would be called in Japanese. (Finding out the kimono you own has a "paper dolls and paulownia" crest doesn't do much for learning more about it.)

That said, the book is, overall, a gorgeous introduction into the world of Japanese design. I'd recommend it for anyone with an interest in Japan, artists or designers looking for inspiration outside of the West, or just about anyone who enjoys beautiful things.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ichiroya Updating Right Now

I was surfing around, and it turns out Ichiroya, online kimono dealer, is updating their site this very second with obi and priest costumes.

Things there often tend to sell very quickly (within the hour), so if you see something you like I'd go for it!

Naaaaaame That Baby! Stroke Counts and Bleach Characters

There are a lot of factors that usually go into naming a baby in Japan, one of which is the tradition of trying to achieve a lucky number of strokes to guarantee a happy life for the kiddo.

When you learn kanji, the Chinese characters imported to Japan, there are a certain number of strokes each character should be made with, in a certain order. Strokes can go from the humble one-stroke 一, ichi, meaning one, to kanji like 鸞, ran, a mythical Chinese bird, clocking in at 30.

Naming a baby isn't just about the strokes in his first name, though, as I learned poking around the Net. Here's a very basic version...

Our example name will be Kurosaki Ichigo 黒崎一護, in a tip of the hat to fans of the anime and manga Bleach. Written vertically it would be Kurosaki Ichigo, family name first, with Kuro at the top and Go at the bottom. Individually, the kanji are 11, 11, 1 and 20 strokes.

There are five total stroke counts we need to examine to determine the luckiness of the name, as well as two "bonus" ones.

1. Total count of last name Kurosaki: 22
2. Total count of first name Ichigo: 21
3. Total count of all four characters: 43
4. Total count of "inside characters" saki and ichi: 12
5. Total count of "outside characters" kuro and go: 31
6. "Bonus" business success luck: Total of all four minus the first character kuro: 32
7. "Bonus" home life success luck: Total of all four minus the last character go: 23

A chart then gives all possible numbers within a four-level luck ranking: Very Lucky, Lucky, "Half" Lucky, and Unlucky. (Scroll down to the chart with all of the numbers written in it: from top to bottom it's Very Lucky on down.)

Ichigo's numbers are...

1. Unlucky
2. Very Lucky
3. Half Lucky
4. Unlucky
5. Very Lucky
6. Very Lucky
7. Very Lucky

Overall, this appears to be a fairly lucky name. The specific total number of strokes involved (as an example, 3. in our list) also has its own special characteristics. Ichigo's total of 43 suggests he will become fiercely independent from an early age and acquire fame and status early as well. He will also have a stubborn streak and will have to do the best with the personality he has. (Any Bleach fans here? How does that match up?)

Much like English baby books that give the old Latin meanings of names, some baby books in Japan will have this sort of chart and matching in the back of the book, and parents will at times consult professionals or religious authorities about auspicious stroke counts.

I will say it was fun learning about this! If anyone's got a real person, from history or pop culture, or a fictional character whose name you'd like to see, feel free to ask (no kanji required: if they're famous enough I can find them on my own). It's fun plugging stuff in to see what comes up. :)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Omikuji - Gumball Machine of Destiny

With it being the beginning of the year, a lot of Japanese will head to a shrine for the "first visit of the year". The "first X of the year" (first bath, first sunrise, and even first sex!) is traditionally important because New Year's is the biggest holiday of the year and represents a renewal of just about everything.

While on this visit, or any time of year, for a coin or two you can get "omikuji" おみくじ small, folded paper fortunes that predict your coming luck. They're labeled in a systematic way, all the way from the most lucky, "Dai-Kichi" ( 大吉 Big Luck) down to "Dai-Kyou" (大凶 Big Curse), and then have specific predictions regarding your business luck, love life, travel luck, etc. They're often chosen by pulling a numbered stick from a box, or from a coin-operated box you turn a handle in, just like a gumball machine. Adults don't take them very seriously, for the most part, but it is a tradition that everyone continues, sort of like horoscopes here in the States.

During my years in Japan, I got both Dai-Kichi and Dai-Kyou in addition to ones in-between, but the Dai-Kyou was the most memorable. I wasn't able to read a lot of Japanese yet, but was at a temple large enough to have English side-by-side with the traditional Japanese script. Here's basically how it read:

"Love: Your lover will not come. Business: Your business will fail. Travel: All travel will go badly."

And then, for my overall luck it said, and I'm not kidding:

"You will die."

Fortunately, when your omikuji gives you a line out of The Grudge, you can delay your fate by tying the fortune on a tree branch at the shrine or on special cords strung along posts set up for that reason. If your fortune is a lucky one, you can also tie it in the same way to ensure the luck will stick.

Either way, if you get one, tie that sucker to a tree! It can't hurt.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Kimono Lily and Ichiroya Updates, What is Bingata?

Both Kimono Lily and Ichiroya updated today (Jan. 6th Japan time for Ichiroya) with new items, including a red bride's furisode from KL and a bingata-style furisode from Ichiroya.

"Bingata" 紅型 refers to a specific type of brightly-colored stenciled patterns, with the style originating in Okinawa. The most expensive bingata kimono still come from there, but cheaper ones are also made elsewhere.

For some lovely patterns in the style, check out the Japanese site

First Post of the Year... and well, ever!

Hi! My name's Christina, and this is my blog.

Ever since I was a kid, I've enjoyed learning new things and sharing them with others. My goal for this blog is to share what I know, what I learn and what I enjoy about traditional Japanese culture.

Having lived in Japan for nearly five years before returning to Texas, I've been through both the ups and downs of life there and certainly don't think the country is perfect. But there are a lot of interesting, unique and beautiful things to be found in traditional Japan, and those are the ones you'll see here.

This isn't going to be a scholarly blog, and you'll see things like mini-posts about kimono dealer updates (for my fellow kimono addicts), my ruminations on how many people I would kill for a local kaitzen-zushi restaurant, and other "light" topics. I have fun with all of this, and hope you will too. :)

Thanks for reading and see you around!