Monday, May 31, 2010

Culture: Why Is Everything "Honorable"?

Sometimes when you see English translations of Japanese, you'll see things like "the honorable rice" or "Here is your honorable change." What the translators are trying to sum up in a single, awkward word is the idea of "o"/"go", a prefix you tack on the front of some words to show respect to the person you're talking to.

While the different levels of Japanese is at times a really complicated topic, here's the 30-second version: Let's say I'm the CEO of a company and you're the mailboy and for some reason we're standing outside the office together. When we have a conversation about the weather, I get to use really short, simple Japanese as you're below me. You, on the other hand, have to use very, very formal, respectful speech when talking about me and things that are mine. There is very little equality in Japanese relationships in general: someone is always considered "higher", and the other always lower, though the degree can vary.

Respect is also shown by holding others in higher regard than yourself, even if you're at an equal social level. This respectful speech found in both the above-mentioned situations at times includes the "o" or "go". So when I talk about my own family I use "kazoku" 家族 but when I talk about your family I'll say gokazoku ご家族. The family itself isn't inherently honorable or respected, but in that situation its placement as your family, not my own humble one, makes it so.

An exception is that with some words this respectful "o" over time became permanently attached no matter what the situation ("ocha" お茶, or tea, is the o + cha, and gohan ご飯, "cooked rice/meal", is go + han).

Listen carefully the next time you watch a drama, anime or movie with spoken Japanese and pay attention when an underling or lower-ranking person is dealing with someone much higher up, whether a servant and a king or a teller and customer at a bank: even if you don't speak the language yourself you'll likely hear a few clear "o"s leading off words!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Common Motifs: Chou - Butterfly

Today's motif is an easy one to recognize: the lovely "chou" 蝶 or "butterfly" (my young students also called them "chou chou" in a babytalk sort of way). Typically a spring motif, they can be shown in realistic or more abstract ways and are often paired with various flowers. Below are butterflies as seen on a haori (jacket), a fukuro obi, and a Nagoya obi.

If you'd like to read more in this series, you can search "common motif" to see other entries. All photos copyright Ichiroya and used with permission.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Geisha Cameos in History: Princess Pig

Geisha have, through their connections with government officials and samurai, played quiet roles in history, both large and small, and so every now and then I'll toss up a post about one of them. Today's cameo is a very small one but I like it as it shows geisha don't always have to be tiny to be considered beautiful and interesting. :)

Awhile back I reviewed a biography of Saigo Takamori, an important 19th century samurai who you can see faint echoes of in Ken Watanabe's Katsumoto character in The Last Samurai. Long story short, he led the failed Satsuma Rebellion against the new, modern Meiji government (which he helped get into power, ironically enough) and was a folk hero by the time of his death, considered by the general populace to be a samurai's samurai and eventually pardoned by the same government that killed him.

While he had a wife, Saigo showed her little love and was apparently far more fond of a Kyoto geisha (geiko) he took as his mistress. I haven't been able to find her real name, but apparently she was a much larger girl compared to the other geiko and had the nickname "Buta-hime", 豚姫 or "Princess Pig." They were said to be quite passionate and ardent for each other, and he openly declared his love for her though this didn't have any legal effect on his marriage with his wife.

Considering that Saigo was a bull-necked, beefy guy just under 6' tall in a country and time where men barely cleared 5', the biography suggests part of Saigo's attraction to her might have been her relative size compared to him. That seems pretty simplistic and almost insulting to me, but I think their story would be an interesting one to learn more about.

Friday, May 28, 2010

"One Missed Call" and Vengeful Ghosts

(If you hate spoilers and haven't seen the old horror films One Missed Call, The Grudge, or The Ring you'll probably want to skip this post.)

Today I got around to watching the old, original Japanese version of One Missed Call, a horror movie that starts off with people receiving "one missed call" messages on their phone, dated a day or two in the future, with the message being the sounds of their own deaths. I found the first half pretty good but felt it fell apart in the last 30 minutes in terms of plot and consistency.

Execution of the idea aside, a central element to One Missed Call, and other more popular horror movies like The Grudge and The Ring, is the yuurei, 幽霊 the vengeful ghost.

While the ghosts of the dead can be cute in Western culture, a la Casper, yuurei in Japanese culture are bad news: singularly driven by revenge (The Ring), a desire for proper burial (One Missed Call), or simply strong, unresolved emotions (The Grudge), they often kill innocent bystanders or anyone who wanders across their path as well as those who wronged them. Whether or not you had anything to do with their death makes no difference: it's just plain bad luck on your part if you run across one.

Traditionally, they are usually female, most often show up between the hours of 2 and 3am, and are likely to hang around the site of their death.

In pop culture, the almost ubiquitous pale-girl-in-white-with-long-disheveled-black-hair is the 21st-century yuurei, though her look can be traced back to the famous 18th century painting to the right, one of the first popular representations showing the features associated with them today.

Painting: Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795) - "The Ghost of Oyuki"

Thursday, May 27, 2010

What Do You Call...? - Obi Cord Jewelry

If you look at enough pictures of women in kimono you'll start noticing that occasionally they'll have a bead or ornament of some kind on the cord tied around the middle of the obi.

This is called an "obi-dome" 帯留 and isn't usually worn with a summer yukata, though I believe you can find it on just about every other level of kimono formality. They can be very traditional or cute and funky (Mamechiyo Modern has acorns, flowers and a spaceship one), the size ranging from small to fairly big.

Coincidentally enough, while looking through Onihide's photostream for images, as he's given me permission to use his (thank you again! :) ), I ran across a perfect example with the obidome highlighted on a full kimono outfit: mouse over this photo to see a box appear around the maiko's obidome.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Host Clubs

One of the rather unique aspects of city life in Japan is the "host club", a place where women pay good-looking men to chat and flirt with them, but the idea can be a little difficult to explain well. After a friend posted this BBC documentary video she found over on Youtube, I thought I'd share it here as I felt it's a pretty even-handed summary of what host clubs are. (As a note, if you're at work, there's a bit of cussing in the subtitles and drunken horsing around.)

Before watching, here's some cultural background to the concept:

- While it may seem odd to imagine young women paying $100 or more just to chat with a hot guy for a couple of hours, in Japan the sexes don't mingle nearly as much or as comfortably as they do in the overall West. My coworkers laughed at the idea of Japanese schools ever having a prom because they said all the guys and girls would just stand across the ballroom from each other the entire time.

- Conversation has long been prized in Japan: Geisha, while highly skilled artists, are in some ways the forerunners of hosts and their female equivalent hostesses. Trained in traditional arts, an ideal geisha is also an excellent conversationalist who can relax and entertain her clients with both racy jokes and innuendo or philosophical debates. Hostesses eventually did geisha in, in terms of popularity, due to their cheaper prices and lower standards, but that's a post for another time.

- Young working women, a.k.a. OL (office ladies), often live with their families, enjoying a rent-and-bills-free existence until they get married and not saving any money, so they typically have a huge amount of disposable income to spend on trips, clothes, or anything else they like.

(While there is some debate in the Youtube comments about how much money they're saying, they are indeed saying the equivalent of $20-$50,000 in American money per month. o_O I never knew it was that much myself, but even if they're inflating it by half that's still more than I'll probably ever make in a month!)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tips for Kimono Newbies: Bow in Back

Throughout the long history of kimono, the obi belt's knot has wandered around a woman's waist, and if you look far enough back at paintings you can find women wearing their obi knots on the side, back or front. However, beginning in the 1800s and now in the modern day obi knots have firmly settled in the back, front-tied bows lingering on only for prostitutes (until they were outlawed in the early 20th century).

For the gentlemen out there, this back-tying rule also applies to your knots.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Kimono Coordination: Working with Black Obi

(A quick note before I start this post: solid black women's obi, or black-on-black patterned women's obi, are for funeral wear only. The black obi I'm referring to this evening means a black obi plus a color image or color pattern.)

Black obi can be intimidating to some at first because of the natural boldness of black matched with others colors, but they can actually be quite versatile once you find the look that's right for you. For visual examples of a few ideas, we'll turn to maiko (apprentice geisha), some of the most stylish kimono wearers out there.

-An elegant combination is pale pastel kimono and black obi.

"Kamogawa Maiko". Photo by Chris Gladis (Wikimedia).

"Tsurui Shikomi Luna-chan and Maiko Sayaka-chan". Photo by Onihide and used with permission.

-Bright colors can work as well in a striking way, as long as the kimono and obi don't both have really busy patterns. Below is what I feel is a nice balance between each item's patterns.

"Maiko Fukuhina ふく雛". Photo by Onihide and used with permission.

On a final note (I couldn't find a maiko looking bad, so no photo for this one ;) ), avoid dark-colored kimono unless the pattern is so bold and bright you feel it overcomes the "sameness" of the tones of kimono and obi.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Culture: You Must Be Tired

So in the last episode of Lost tonight everyone wore kimono and there was an epic samurai battle.

Just kidding. I couldn't resist. ;)

That said, after all of those years working together, a great phrase for the cast and crew of Lost to say to each other would be "Otsukare sama desu/deshita" (oats kah reh sah mah des/desh ta).

This literally means "You must be tired," but is used to mean "Thank you for your hard work" and is said between two people who work together on something at the end of each work day, or/and at the end of a project done together. You can hear it between coworkers as they leave the office, at the end of musicians' recording sessions, and so on.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Geisha vs. Geiko

At times you might see geisha called geiko. Geiko are just geisha from the Kyoto area, but when the profession entered the English language only "geisha" made the jump.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Cheap Men's Obi on Ebay

Ryu Japan has 18 vintage silk men's obi up for auction on Ebay with all of the auctions ending in about 8-9 hours, around 4pm Central Time here in the States. The starting price for each is $0.99 plus $8 for shipping, though most have crept up to $4 and $9.

Even with the $9 ones, these obi usually run between $40-60 in my experience, so the auctions will likely remain a good deal if you've been after a men's kaku obi to add to your collection.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Common Motifs: Kikkou - Turtle Shell

Tonight's motif takes us to the animal world: if you see abstract-looking hexagons on Japanese textiles, you're looking down at turtle shells, or "kikkou" 亀甲 (sometimes shortened to "kikko" on English pages). Considered a year-round and auspicious motif, they're often mixed with flowers or other designs. Here are some examples below, with a michiyuki (overcoat), fukuro obi detail, and yukata cotton bolt.

If you'd like to read more in this series, you can search "common motif" to see other entries. All photos copyright Ichiroya and used with permission.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Geisha Photographers on Flickr: Onihide

There are a lot of great photographers out there who take the time and effort to put up their work on Flickr and share with others, and a few of them post shots of authentic geisha in Kyoto. A big thank you to all of them!

While I'll mention others as the blog goes along, today I'd like to introduce Onihide, who not only takes lovely shots but gives us information about the photos and, for truly hardcore fans, the names of the maiko (apprentice geisha) or geisha shown. Whether you're looking for artistic inspiration or just want pretty photos to look at, check his work out!

(He also allows his photos to be saved for personal use, which is a nice touch, and has a blog in Japanese for anyone out there practicing the language.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kimono Knowledge: Jewelry

What sort of jewelry do you wear with kimono?

Traditionally, no jewelry of any kind was worn outside of hair ornaments. Women didn't pierce their ears, the idea of wedding rings hadn't been imported yet and bracelets and necklaces weren't worn.

Today the trend has shifted (in my opinion largely because the kimono industry is trying to loosen up and lose its old-fashioned image with the younger generation, as they represent its future) and you can see girls in more kimono situations wearing things like rings, earrings, and bracelets, though not usually all together and with each piece fairly subtle and small. Men in casual kimono can sometimes be seen wearing stylish silver bracelets, rings and even fedora hats.

"Coming of Age" Day for 20-year-olds: Notice the cute flower earrings. :) Photo by tanakawho.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Kanji Beginner: Name that Country!

Tonight's lesson is brief but a word you may already recognize on sight even if you don't know what the characters mean: 日本.

If you've been following the other Kanji Beginner lessons (just search those two words over on the right to find older entries), you've already learned 日 is "day". The reason why we use it for days (one day, day of the month, etc.) is that its true meaning is "sun" and here said as "ni".

"One sun" = "one day", which makes sense. :) On a related note, it's the same with "month" actually being "moon" (月).

So getting back to our country name, we have "sun" plus the second character. Look closely at it and you'll see it looks just like this one plus one more stroke: 木. This original character is "tree", and when you add that extra line across the bottom, it becomes 本 "root", "origin" or even "book", but here said "hon" and meant as "origin".

"Sun" 日 + "Origin" 本 makes for "Land of the Rising Sun", said "Nihon", a.k.a. Japan.

Rather than pull up some boring "Nihon" kanji sign, here's the official patch for the Japanese branch of the Star Wars costuming and charity group the 501st Legion, best known for sending hordes of Stormtroopers to local events. Can you find the "Nihon"?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ichiroya Update - 25cm Zori!

When was the last time you saw a flying piggy or Satan on ice skates, or Satan figure skating with a flying piggy? That's about how often you see affordable women's zori sandals above 24cm (roughly American women's 8), and Ichiroya has just put up ten 25cm pairs (roughly American women's 9) for only $48. Usually when you do see these, at least in my experience, they're $75-$100.

Hence the exclamation mark in the title. Enjoy your Sunday. :)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Kimono on a Budget: Part 3

Today's post (really I ought to rename this series "Ebay and Kimono on a Budget") focuses on another way to keep the American shopper's kimono costs down: tracking down the elusive "authentic kimono seller who lives in the US" on Ebay.

Domestic sellers mean much cheaper shipping rates, which can save you quite a bit as you can at times pay just as much for shipping things like a cheap obi from Japan as you spent buying it. I know for me most of my obi from Japan were 50% cost ($18-30) and 50% shipping (another $20-$30).

The quickest way to narrow down your search: once you go to Ebay and log in, click "advanced search" on the right on the home page. Enter your desired keywords and then scroll down until you see "Location". Click that radio button and then click the button that says "Located in United States". Scroll down to the bottom and hit "Search". Then choose "Cultures and Ethnicities" on the left to narrow things down further.

You'll notice a lot more mislabeling and fakes, as American sellers tend to not be as knowledgeable about kimono as most Japanese ones, but good deals can occasionally be found. Right now, for example, a gorgeous black kimono with red lining (I believe that's an old wedding one, not a geisha one, but I could be wrong) is up for $0.99, with only $15 shipping. Another US seller has several yukata starting at $0.99 with $15 in shipping.

If you'd like to check out other entries in this series, search the blog for "kimono on a budget" and happy shopping!

Friday, May 14, 2010

What Do You Call...? - Hair Ornaments

While chopsticks are never worn in the hair in Japan, a great many beautiful hair ornaments can be worn with kimono. What are they called?

In general, they're called "kanzashi" 簪 and today the nicest ones are most often worn by geisha and oiran-actors (oiran were courtesan prostitutes and were outlawed a long time ago, so today you only see re-enactors).

If you're looking for the ones maiko, apprentice geisha, wear with dangling bits of silver that look almost like wind chimes, you want "bira bira" (sparkle sparkle) kanzashi. びらびら簪

The pretty tortoiseshell (or look alike) combs are called kushi 櫛 and are usually paired with thick hair sticks called kogai 笄, as seen in the photo above, and the ones with flowers made of folded squares of silk are called "tsumami" kanzashi つまみ簪.

Pimpin' it really old school: a classical oiran, the biggest and boldest wearers of kanzashi in Japanese history. Photo by Gene Jackson.

An example of the waterfall-like "hana (flower) kanzashi 花簪" style worn by maiko, showing the tsumami folding technique. Photo by Pitke.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pattern Review (Lite) - Folkwear #151

A friend of mine is making kataginu (the super-wide shouldered vest samurai would wear over their formal kimono at times) as part of a costume. As he's new to sewing, I went over to help him get started, and got a peek at Folkwear Pattern #151 ("kamishimo", the matched set of kataginu and hakama pants worn with kimono).

From the Folkwear site:

"Since the Hakama is simply a large rectangle of fabric that is pleated to fit your body, the pattern does not have a large rectangle pattern piece (waste of paper!). Instead, there are complete instructions for measuring, cutting, and pleating the traditional Hakama skirt/pant in any size. The pattern does include actual pattern pieces for Small, Medium-Large, and Sumo-Size Koshiita (Backboard) and Koshiita Triangles. For contemporary sportswear, pattern also includes instructions for optional side panels to fill in the side-seam gaps that expose the underlying kimono in traditional wear.

The wide-shoulder Kataginu can be made to match the Hakama for a traditional samurai appearance or as a contrasting wearable art accent. Easy to pleat and sew, it completes a dramatic outfit."

The pattern was clearly labeled and the instructions were easy to follow: the pattern looks like a nice starting point for a good samurai costume. I may have to order it for myself!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ryu Japan Update - Men's Obi, Maru Obi

Ryu Japan's update for today includes a bunch of men's obi in new/unused condition at $30 each, and a few mint/excellent condition maru obi (most formal obi for women) as well, going for $48.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Kimono Coordination: May Themes

Seasonality plays a big role in kimono wearing, with certain motifs only appropriate in certain seasons, months, or just a small part of one month only. As kimono have dwindled in daily life, many kimono now feature motifs from every season so that they're ok to wear year-round.

But, for the fun of it, I'll start doing monthly coordination examples in a "if money were no object" bit of daydreaming. :)

Here's our first coordination for the month of May, using a couple of May/early summer motifs: wisteria and irises. This outfit is a furisode (I know, I'm on a kick with them lately), a kimono for a young, unmarried woman meant for a formal occasion. The plain kimono is the underkimono, and the boxed set is the obi-age scarf and obi-jime cord for on top of the obi, and around it, respectively. You can show your personality in the small details, and this outfit feels to me like it would be for a bold, friendly person as you have the two "brights" of the kimono and obi rather than a more subdued combination.

Images copyright Ichiroya and used with permission.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tips for Kimono Newbies: Keep the Ladies Covered!

What is sexy? When it comes to kimono, the answer may surprise you: it's not your chest.

Some people new to kimono wear them way off the shoulder, exposing their shoulders and cleavage. It's an easy mistake to make: you can see it repeated in Western fan art, fetish "geisha" shoots and Halloween costumes and, while not a mistake, an artistic liberty taken by Japanese anime and manga creators.

It's a very Western approach to kimono, as for many Westerners it's hard to imagine a girl being cute or sexy without some skin showing. However, traditionally, kimono were very concealing, and the sexiest parts of a woman's body corresponded with the shape of the kimono: the back of the neck (hence the apprentice geisha's lower collar and distinctive white paint pattern), the wrist and forearm, and the ankles.

Above: the super-sexy plunging back of a maiko (apprentice geisha's) kimono, worn much lower than a "normal" woman's customary 2-3 inches off the back of the neck.

The bust is flattened, pressed down, and hidden under obi in young women. In older women the obi sits lower, but the bust is still hidden underneath an ideal smooth line from the top of the chest to the obi.

The collar is also worn closed and never dips down far enough to show any hint of cleavage. The exact angle depends on your age, but even geisha, the sexiest kimono-wearers out there, still show extremely little of their chests in comparison to modern Western women.

Above: a modern kimono wearer. Note how high her collar is and how her chest has been flattened so that there's hardly any curve present over the top edge of the obi.

Above: Kyoto maiko Mamechiho (2005). Notice that while her kimono is fairly far off her shoulders compared to a normal woman's, a wide collar and underkimono still keep her covered. Again, as with a normal woman's ideal look, the bust is almost non-existent.

The misconception of kimono about to fall from the shoulders probably also comes from people looking at famous ukiyo-e paintings of women in very loosely tied kimono and drawing conclusions from that. The trick with that, however, is that usually the women depicted are either a. prostitutes, b. changing clothes, or c. getting ready to have sex. It's a cultural misunderstanding, sort of like if an alien were to watch a Victoria's Secret commercial and decide that all Earth women run around in their panties all day. ;)

So, long story short, if you're interested in wearing a kimono traditionally (and some would argue respectfully) keep the ladies covered unless it's cosplay.

Images copyright Daniel Bachler, Corpse Reviver, and Joi respectively

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Iron Man 2

If you're particularly averse to any kind of spoiler, don't read this, but I promise it has nothing to do with the plot!


In Iron Man 2, which I saw today, I thought it was cute that one of the fight scenes takes place in a "classical" Japanese/anime setting, complete with red tori gate, fluttering cherry blossoms falling around the characters, and an attack that involves some katana-like slicing through an entire tree trunk in one go. Nice tip of the hat to the Japanese comic book world. :)

As far as the movie, I liked the first one better but thought this was one was ok. I think the solid plot of the character-creation arc of the first one is tough to follow, and the characters didn't grow much this time around.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Word for the Day: Hayabusa

Motorcycle enthusiasts out there might say "duh" to this post, but I just learned tonight about the Hayabusa motorcyle from Suzuki, the world's fastest production motorcycle at a top 186mph. (I was watching my first UFC fight at a friend's house and "Hayabusa" was on the butt of a fighter's trunks. ;) )

For our language lesson of the night, Hayabusa (ハヤブサ, 隼) is Japanese for "(Peregrine) Falcon" and is apparently a metaphor often used for speed, as the peregrine falcon is famous for its diving speed. The kanji is literally the old radical for "bird" 隹 over "ten" 十, so perhaps the idea was the "speed of ten birds"?

Photo copyright Yuichiro Katsumoto

Friday, May 7, 2010

Kimono Knowledge: Different Types of Furisode

While you could write a small book on this topic, today we're going to get into the very basics of how to tell furisode apart for newbies to the kimono scene. (If you'd like to learn more about kimono in general, check out the "Kimono" section of the TKL bookstore.)

Furisode is technically just a kimono-construction term: it means "swinging sleeves" and refers to any long-sleeved kimono. However, as no one wears casual ones anymore, it's come to mean not only long-sleeved but fancy/formal as well.

If you were to go searching for a furisode online, several types would likely pop up: three different wedding ones, non-wedding ones, and dance ones. They all have specific occasions they're used for, and it's important not to mix them up when you buy one. So how can you tell them apart?

Wedding furisode (for the ceremony), aka "shiromuku": 白無垢

These will be solid white with white-on-white patterns embroidered, often featuring cranes or opening fans, both auspicious wedding symbols. They will also have a thick padded hem, as they're meant to drag along the floor behind you. They are technically a type of "uchikake."

Wedding furisode (for the ceremony, worn overcoat-style), aka "uchikake": 打ち掛け

These are usually red but can be other colors as well, and are distinguished by their heavy use of metallic embroidery and motifs like pine, crane, and opening fans. They also have padded hems.

Wedding furisode (for the ceremony or after the ceremony at the reception), aka usually known as "hiki-furisode" or "kakeshita" (most common) or "hanayome-furisode": 引き振袖 or 掛下 or 花嫁振袖

These typically feature stunningly bright color combinations and padded hems, with just a bit of metallic thread and the motifs at times much more general (flowers, fruit, water, etc.).

Dance performance furisode (for maiko, theater, etc.), aka most commonly known as "hikizuri" in English listings: 引きずり or 引き摺り

These kimono can show a variety of motifs and colors, but will usually only have the faintest hint of metallic thread if they have any. You can tell them apart from "normal wear" furisode by their long length and padded hem along the bottom, which you can ask about if it isn't apparent from the sellers' photos.

Normal or regular furisode (worn by unmarried young women for parties, events, New Year's, etc.), aka "furisode":

If it doesn't have a padded hem and much metallic thread, it's a normal one. :D Easy, right?

Easy Checklist Format

1. Does it have a padded hem?
A.) No? It's probably a regular furisode. You're done!
B.) Yes? Go to 2.

2. Is it solid white?
A.) Yes? It's a shiromuku. Done!
B.) No? Go to 3.

3. Is it almost blindingly bright?
A.) Yes? It's a kakeshita. Done!
B.) No? Go to 4.

4. Does it have a ton of metallic embroidery?
A.) Yes? It's probably an uchikake. Done!
B.) No? Padded hem but not much or any metallic thread? It's probably a dance hikizuri.

Images copyright Ichiroya and used with permission.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Customs: The Art of "No"

Moving to Japan and wanting to be prepared, I read as many books on Japanese culture as I could find. Some advice ended up false or useless but one thing mentioned in all the books held true: the lack of a good, solid "no" in response to questions.

The Japanese language thrives on vagueness at times, so the indirect approach works well with it. Rather than anger or embarrass a person by flat out saying no, you get around it by saying things like "Chotto..." trailing off, which literally means "(It's a) little... (difficult)." In practice "chotto" is "No, nope, nuh-uh, no chance." If you suck in a little breath between closed teeth before saying it, you elevate the no further.

Upon hearing the "chotto" and wind sucking, your average Japanese will understand it as no and move the conversation along to something else.

If you don't recognize the cues, however, you can have bizarre yet entertaining exchanges like the time I spent five minutes trying to get out of a restaurant hostess if the restaurant took credit cards. ;)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How Much - Furisode Ensemble

Notes and Disclaimers: If you're thinking about putting together a kimono look, to wear normally or for a cosplay or costume, you might be wondering how much you're probably going to spend. I've seen hideously overpriced items in my time collecting, and ones that are real steals. This ongoing series, "How Much?" will give you my highly subjective, personal experiences in Kimono Price Land on what is a good price, what you should snap up immediately and what you should pass on with raised eyebrows. ;)

Before I get started, and I'll repeat this in every entry for this series, it's not impossible to occasionally see a really high-priced item, due to age or rarity, etc. However, most of the time in my opinion you're more likely to see prices in this range. I pull my estimates from a long time spent on Ebay looking at vintage pieces, online with various vintage dealers, and a bit of convention-going thrown in. Brand-new kimono items, please note, will often be astronomically higher (thousands of dollars for a kimono/obi set).

The lowest price is the lowest price I've ever seen, and the highest I consider reasonable, give or take a few bucks, with both prices including shipping if you see this on an online site. Usually most pricing will fall around the middle.

Furisode Ensemble (Formal Young/Unmarried Women's Kimono)

What You Need (most important items):
1. furisode kimono: ~$80-$200, barring higher prices on antique ones in great condition
2. very nice Nagoya or fukuro obi, depending on the formality of the furisode: ~$60-$120
3. juban (underkimono): $15-$75
4. obi-jime cord: $10-$25
5. obi-age scarf: $20-$45

Don't Forget! You'll also need...

-Sports bra
-Kimono underwear or a white tanktop and white skirt or leggings/shorts
-under-accessories kit (koshihimo ties, obi makura pillow, obi ita board, etc.)
-tabi socks
-zori sandals

Image copyright Estemi

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Holidays - Boys' Day!

As touched on in a previous post, today (May 5th, Japan time) is Boys' Day, officially called Children's Day こどもの日 but in practice meant for a family's sons.

Carp banners, called koinobori 鯉幟, are flown and displays of a traditional helmet are shown in the family home, along with a Kintaro 金太郎 doll (Kintaro is a famous folktale character known for his strength from a young age). The idea with the displays and holiday is to wish for blessings and a young son's growth into a strong, healthy man.

A neat detail I just learned reading up for this post: the koinobori flags show the family men, with the father at the top, eldest son next, and then each younger son underneath. I saw these flags every year in Japan but never realized there was a pattern to the number and colors.

(Another account says the red one is the mother, but as the first source gives the children's song sung along and I can read the Japanese, I agree with the first source that the red one is a kid and not the mom.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

What Do You Call...? - Geisha Whiteface

One of the trickiest parts of shopping for something or just looking up more information about it is knowing the exact name of what you're after. Every now and then I'll do a "What Do You Call...?" post about the odds and ends you might not know the name of if you're new to the topic.

The special whiteface geisha and maiko use is one example. Used in combination with the right stuff (for example, a wax primer called "kabuki abura" 歌舞伎油) it makes a much, much nicer geisha whiteface for costuming than greasepaint. It's what they themselves actually use!

The actual name for that kind of whiteface is "oshiroi" おしろい or "shiro-nuri" 白塗り. Searching places like Ebay with those terms will bring you more luck than "geisha whiteface".

If you're interested in a walkthrough of all the materials traditionally needed, check out this post from

Sunday, May 2, 2010

DressUpWho Kimono Dress-Up Game

Kimono dress up games are a fun excuse to play around with colors and patterns in developing your own real-life kimono style, but if you don't know a lot about kimono you can pick up false info from poorly-researched ones (ones that let you put the obi bow in front, sleeves the wrong shape, etc.).

While aimed at young girls, Dress Up Who's "chibi"-style kimono dress up game is surprisingly accurate in terms of what they include. You can choose from not only kimono and obi but obi-age (the obi scarf tied around the top of it), obi-jime cords, hakama pants and haori jackets as well. The kimono selection includes furisode, tomesode, and even a few kurotomesode.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

When Do I Take My Shoes Off?

Traditionally, shoes were never worn inside houses in Japan because they were seen as tracking in dirt from the outside. As women used to wear their silk kimono trailing across the floor in the house, such a sharp eye for dirt was understandable.

That custom continues today, and if you're in Japan you'll be asked to take off your shoes the moment you walk in someone's door. They'll usually have slippers available for guests, and you leave your shoes there in the front entry way or on a little shelf next to the door.

Some temples and other traditional tourist spots will have you do the same, and taking off your shoes is not optional. If you're not sure, look around before going in and see if you see any other pairs of shoes left outside on the steps. If so, leave yours there as well.

(Outside of tourism, all the public schools I taught in did the same thing, and every kid had a pair of slip-ons they wore the whole day while inside.)

The idea of taking off your shoes is so ingrained even service men will do it: It was surprising to me watching the movers that handled my stuff slip their shoes on and off every time they went in and out of the house!