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Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities

November 24, 2016

Kimono is Fashion

Meaghan Ballweg / Teacher, Model, Travel Reporter
Meaghan Ballweg

Meaghan Ballweg has a long list of jobs on her resume, including kimono seller, model, artist, actor, and windsurfer. She believes in saying "yes" first, trusting that logistics and amazing experiences will follow. That policy serves her well as a reporter on J-Trip Plan.

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First, full disclosure. I have had a fondness for textiles and fashion since I was a little girl climbing trees in second hand ballgowns. I learned spinning and weaving at age five. I think it is magical the way fabric dipped in yellow baths of indigo turns blue when exposed to oxygen. I am captivated with yuzen and katazome; time-consuming hand cut stencil and resist dying techniques that yield breathtakingly intricate results. I worked part-time in a kimono shop while I was an exchange student, and count many kimono designers and artisans as dear acquaintances and close friends. My closet is split into three levels, two of which are kimono. So I am not remotely neutral about the subject. This is not infatuation. I am passionately in love with kimono.

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And I think you will fall for them too.

I want to communicate from my heart to you dear reader. Traveler to Japan in the past or the future, lover of Japanese arts and culture, inquisitive mind; there are many affordable kimono rental services offered these days. They are a fun and affordable chance for you to try something new when the learning curve may seem too steep to clear by yourself. But if you stop there, you are doing kimono, and yourself, a disservice.

To provide such affordable rates, rental shops provide only polyester kimono as they are easy to clean, whereas delicate embroidery, painstakingly hand painted dyes, and real gold leaf would all be damaged. "Authentic" kimono are art as much as they are fashion. When you first encounter the colours, the feel, the movement of kimono made by traditional artisans, it can be as bewitching as any painting. Finding your own unique kimono aesthetic can be as challenging and rewarding as learning a new language. After all, kimono tell a story. The fabric, design, and colours relate directly not only to the wearer's interest, but the season, the nature of the day's events, the places to go to, the people to be met, even the age and mental state of the wearer can be communicated. Kimono is a world deep and rich with meaning and subtext.

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Constructing this story, indeed constructing the very knots and structure of the kimono, may seem constrictive and intimidating at first. There are many rules that may even seem quixotic to the beginner; for example your collar must always be worn left over right (right over left is reserved for the dead) but once you know the rules, you can have fun breaking them. Kimono subcultures are popping up. Trendy selfie snappers mix styles with the relish of a DJ, trying kimono on backwards, adding a lace collar, or switching out traditional foot wear for sneakers. This is not a nostalgic costume of the past. This is living breathing fashion full of vitality and potential.

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And Japanese kimono designers want you to love and to wear kimono too. A single Kyo-yuzen kimono requires twenty different artisans, each with their own unique speciality, to make a single kimono. To encourage a new generation to carry the torch of this singular and exquisite art form, many designers hope to promote an awareness of the kimono as a global extension of haute couture, expanding the market currently limited to Japan. This would both preserve the traditional craft, and encourage the growth of new and exciting pret-a-porter daily wear in easy to maintain fabrics such as denim. This is why I urge you not to stop at that one hour rental experience, but to dive headfirst into a world I believe can be appreciated by anyone regardless of age, gender, or level of interest in Japanese culture. If you are in Japan why not scour the flea markets for a reasonable second hand bargain? Or if you can't come visit in person, there are many online shops as well as social media forums and discussion groups to help you get started. Won't you try becoming a kimono lover?

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Meaghan Ballweg / Teacher, Model, Travel Reporter

Her mother fearing for her future, Meaghan dutifully left art behind to complete a "proper" degree in linguistics. She hopes this will help her die a happy well traveled polyglot as she is an incurable itinerant. Jack of all trades and master of none, she has worked in turns as a sake brewer, kimono seller, fashion model, paper artist, teacher, actor, interior design consultant, and a windsurfer for the Jeju team in Korea. Her policy of say yes first, logistics will follow, has lead to many "amazing" experiences. She would be the first to point out that amazing has two meanings in most languages.

Question How long have you been in Japan?
Off and on, about 5 years in accumulation...
Question What was your original reason for coming to Japan?
I first came by chance through a series of coincidences and a love of textile art.
Question What's your favorite scenic spot in Japan?
I could free dive off the coast of Miyakojima forever. But in my adopted hometown of Kyoto, my favorite spot is the tsuboniwa (indoor garden) of a little bar in Gion. The owner is my "adopted mother" and I am forever learning the art of graceful living from her. The garden itself is unbelievably small, and always perfectly in tune with the rhythm of the seasons, and the whims of its owner.
Question What's the one thing that's essential to your life in Japan?
My circle of friends and acquaintances. Magical things happen through the power of introductions. If you leave a good impression doors open to places you never even knew to knock at.
Question What is your favorite Japanese word? Please briefly describe what it means in English.

"iki" the closest translation would be the French term chic. It's an effortless stylishness. Indefinable, but easily identifiable. It's the difference between being merely attractive and being captivating, and the best part is, unlike mere physical beauty it's something that tends to grows lustre with age.

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