Keep your cool this sticky season in one of Japan’s traditional summer garments, now making a resurgence in popularity with fashion-forward youth. Embrace an ancient custom, from bath to street, and literally transform yourself as a local when enjoying festivities and matsuri during the summer season.
As a country that abides passionately by rules and formalities, Japan can render foreigners hesitant at the thought of donning a yukata, due to the many do’s and don’ts involved in the practice. And yes- the wearing of yukata is protected by it’s own set of user guidelines or ‘kitsuke’. As a foreigner you’ll have figured out that in your yukata you’re going to integrate into traditional Japanese culture about as seamlessly as an extra-terrestrial in a business suit. So you want to know how to- at least- not mortify some of Japan’s oldest and dearest residents.
First off: how does one pick yukata from kimono? There would undoubtedly be many of us unsure of the features that distinguish the two from one another.
Yukata literally means ‘bathing clothes’- the ‘yu’ meaning bath, and ‘katabira’ meaning under clothing, so the simple definition alone does not shed much light on its deep aesthetic intricacies and various utilizations throughout history.
To put it simply, yukata is the lite version, or sibling of kimono, as it is much more informal. It is reduced in complexity and it’s breathable cotton composition promotes greater wearability in the warmer months. It was made popular during the Edo period, a time when over-indulgence in fine goods was greatly discouraged. The yukata originated from the bath houses and onsen (hot springs) as a form of dressing gown. Traditionally it was decorated with indigo dye, which doubled as a both a suitable colour to feel cooler, and had chemical properties that would deter pesky insects during the summer months.
How to dress in yukata for the first time? Well, it makes for a much more authentic experience to have an experienced professional dress you, as they will fit you will all the elements- the obi (wide belt that ties around the waist), geta traditional wooden sandals, and various other fastening elastics and ropes to make sure you won’t flap around immodestly. Also this way, they can ensure you will not emerge onto the street committing any major faux-pas.
For example, it is vital that the yukata is wrapped over the right side across your body, as the opposite placement is used for the presentation of bodies for funerals. Eek.
If you still want to wing it on your own, then there are plenty of video tutorials from brands that sell yukata, like Uniqlo. Otherwise a furugiya (recycle shop) might have them at a more reasonable price.
For those with little dexterity or artistic ability- do not fear. Today there are some modern day hacks that bypass the intricacies of traditional yukata preparation- for example, obis with pre-fashioned bows at the back.
If you are a male reading this, and are still not quite sold on the idea, then might we tell you another great aspect of yukata? It’s seen its endurance in a modern day market, with it’s availability in countless colours and edgy patterns, lending itself well to interpretation with modern accessories.
Male yukata sold by popular brand ‘Vice Fairy’ (found in men’s Shibuya 109) is modelled by slick young ‘visual kei’ style men with technicolour hairdos and bodies so laden with an abundance of edgy accessories, they look as though they could barely lift an onigiri.
Whatever it is they are doing, popularity in the younger demographic is generating and allowing an ancient custom to thrive in Japan’s ever-changing social climate.
So, now you’re all set to suit up and head towards the dazzling hanabi fireworks festivals or local matsuri- but you may still find yourself shuffling around the streets feeling like a delicate piece of origami getting crushed in the crowds! Irrespective of the impossible humidity blanketing Japan currently, this versatile and chic garment means there is no excuse to get stuck for style this sticky season. Come on, yukata try it once! Just remember- right side across the body, and you will be fine.
Here's a quick video on how to wear the yukata: