Kimono Thoughts

The Golden Temple

Second in my series of favourite Japanese destinations is Kyoto’s Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Temple, which we saw shortly after leaving Arashiyama and Bamboo Street. True to its name, the Golden Temple is covered almost entirely in gold leaf. It makes for a stunning landmark on its own, but paired with a serene lake and well-tended garden, it is nothing short of spectacular…

…and really, a spectacle is exactly what it was. Even in the middle of January (and without being able to enter or even really approach the Temple building) the grounds were crawling with people, so I can only imagine what it would be like during a holiday. Everyone was hunting for the perfect photo, so the best views were available for only a few seconds at a time. On top of that, our friends surprised us with kimono rentals for the afternoon, which resulted in celebrity treatment of sorts and made the going even slower; but in the end, the kimono was the highlight of our visit to Kinkaku-ji.

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There’s a lot of history behind the kimono. Originally invented in the Heian period (794 to 1192), it was innovative in its design which can be easily worn regardless of the person’s size. Over the centuries, the kimono became a primary vehicle to display one’s status. Colour, pattern, and material took on complex meanings, and equally complex laws were passed to regulate who could wear them. It wasn’t until Japan “opened” to the West in the late 1800s that other styles of clothing surpassed the kimono in daily use. At the same time, kimonos became a popular export to Western countries which viewed the clothing as exotic and novel. The kimono remains one of the world’s most distinctive articles of clothing and a highly recognizable piece of Japanese material culture.

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Within Japan, the kimono is respected and treasured even though (or perhaps because?) it has fallen out of daily use. People will often take notice or show deference to those who wear one, which I experienced firsthand. As a foreigner I will say that felt pretty strange. I was anxious about treading on cultural toes, but in conversation with our Japanese hosts they assured us that it was not an issue at all. Just be prepared, if you’re a foreigner wearing traditional dress in Japan, to get a lot of attention (including strangers asking you for photos!).

I came to a couple conclusions while wearing a kimono. First of all it’s very easy to have good posture in one, since they’re so rigid around the middle. Don’t even think about eating in one! Second, because the middle is stiff and the shoes are hard to walk in – I tried to be graceful, but I’m sure I looked more like a waddling duck – the kimono forces you to take your time. It was a welcome change of pace to not rush through things and to take care in everything. It gave me an excuse to be slow and try to absorb as much as possible. Just taking everything in was an endeavour considering my very limited understanding of the Temple site, the constantly moving crowds, and feeling like a spectacle myself! For that reason if nothing else, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to wear a kimono for a while. Sure, clothes can change how we view each other, and possibly even how we act – but can they also change the way we think and experience the world?

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