By Eva Sandoval
It’s another summer in Japan. The weatherman says temperatures are in the 30s, which, to the Fahrenheit-friendly Americans, will translate as “dripping, miserable puddle of your former self.” Time for the free plastic fans in the subway station instead of tissues, cold drinks in the vending machines, and loads of colorful festivals. Their origins, customs and even their names may be a bit hazy to you, but one thing is certain: during festival season, Japan’s dress code shifts. Suddenly, the streets are dotted with dozens of people wearing yukata.
This unexpected contrast of everyday dress and what look like technicolor relics from a bygone era is stark but thrilling; women in yukata shop in convenience stores with the rhinestone-encrusted earbuds of their iPods visible under their curls and children laze in their strollers, swaddled in layers of rabbit or butterfly-printed fabric. In the waves of heat, the festival-inspired eye candy helps to cheer you up. Your friend’s koto teacher has invited him to Kyoto’s grand Gion Matsuri festival and told him to bring along anyone he likes. You’re pleased when he asks you to come, but when he warns you that his teacher is prepared to dress you up in a yukata, you’re absolutely thrilled.
Your friends back home think yukatas are kimonos, and there was a time when you, too, would have been fooled. They are, after all, robe-like, tied with an obi, and feature long flapping sleeves. Your Japanese acquaintances will tell you that kimonos are for formal occasions whereas yukata are lightweight and casual, fit for wear after a soak at the public bath or at a festival. Yukata are designed to cool the body, and in your sweat-drenched state, a cooling garment sounds perfect. Add a night sky and lit lanterns and you’re suddenly in love with the future image of your festival-going self.
If you’re lucky somebody will lend you a yukata, with the floral hair accessories and clunky wooden geta shoes to match. The less fortunate will have to buy one, but the bright side in having to part with money for something you might only wear once is that the possibilities are endless: by July, yukata are available just about anywhere you look. Racks of the brightly colored garments will liven up the florescent-lit pathways and department stores will also bloom with displays of mannequins wrapped in folds of flowered fabric. Yukata for women pop in a stunning variety of colors ranging from splashy brights to feminine pastels, coming in patterns ranging from butterflies to rabbits to flowers but the male of the species must resign himself to drab, drake-like shades. For either sex, tabi socks with a cleft between the first and second toes complement the ensemble, and add comfort to the get a experience.
You’re one of the less fortunate ones. You buy your yukata bargain price, at a casual clothing chain store. Butter yellow isn’t really your color but you choose it because the mint green and burgundy accents coordinated with the fan and geta a student gave you as a gift. Your friends back home also think yukata and kimono are robes and would be simple to wear, but when you unwrap yours on the night of the festival, you immediately see how wrong they (and you) are. Yards and yards of unyielding fabric have been used to make it and when you slide your arms into the sleeves the enormous garment hangs off you lifelessly. There are how-to guides on the internet but these are useless if you don’t know what you’re doing … which you don’t. A fist’s width between the collar and your neck? Left flap over right? It all falls apart when you try folding – a total disaster. Thank goodness that tonight, you will be dressed by your friend’s teacher like a doll.
You are powerfully impressed by her beauty the instant you are introduced to her in Kyoto. She is gorgeous in a sumptuous yukata in shades of violet and mint, her ivory-colored obi so artfully tied that its sunset design is centered perfectly at the small of her back. Her hair is swept up in intricate swirls and a mother of pearl comb protrudes from the mass of waves at a decisive angle. You can’t help but feel unworthy beside her with your sale rack ensemble.
You must remove your pants before any of the folding can begin and you feel exposed and nervous. Thankfully, it’s silent work and with so much wrapping, you begin to feel bound, like a caterpillar.
“Please breathe,” she says. “Deeper, if you please.”
Finally, you are allowed to behold the finished product. She’s a master; even your miserable yukata looks crisp and noble, despite its unflattering colors. You’re unaccustomed to seeing yourself this way and despite the awkwardness of the unfamiliar garments, you feel pretty. And, after hours of clip-clopping around on your heavy geta, weaving through takoyaki stands and throngs of people flapping fans to the beat of a taiko drum performance, you discover that yukata are indeed breezy enough to allow your legs to feel cool, even on a suffocating summer night. You’re also happy to report that your corset-tight obi will not betray the bento and beer you had for dinner. Conversely, yukata are not for running and they are probably not for climbing over rope partitions. Geta, likewise, are not for traversing many blocks and fighting your way through crowds.
With your Western face, you wonder at times if you stick out in the crowd more or less because of your yukata. When you pass a store and catch a glimpse of your backside, the answer is clear. You wore the wrong undergarments and they show through: turquoise and white flowers. You spend the evening with your back to the wall.
Eva Sandoval is an American writer living, writing a novel, eating and spastically learning Japanese in Osaka, Japan. She thought her career sabbatical would last all of 1 year; it’s lasted 2 and a half. Her travel writing has appeared in The Kansai Scene, Kansai Time Out, and Escape from America. She lives in Japan now but will probably live in Ireland next year.
Fabric Photo: FrenkieB
All other photos: Author