On a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-December, several dozen people in Christmas-themed kimono appeared in Tokyo's bustling Ginza district.
People watched them pass, clad in traditional belted robes of differing patterns and flower motifs, standing out in the otherwise monotone crowd.
As the clock struck 3 p.m., they started moving down a pedestrian street in loose groups, heading off to shops in the area, while the curious followed to take snapshots and others asked if this was part of a film shoot. One woman smiled and shook her head.
The sight has become common in the area as "Kimono de Ginza," a monthly occasion to wear kimono, marks its 10th anniversary in 2010.
The event is open to anyone who shows up at the specified time and place on the second Saturday of every month. Participants can exchange information on kimono and can leave anytime to go off on their own, but all are invited to a dinner at the end of the day.
Over the years, what started as a gathering of less than a dozen male friends has grown into a more public event, drawing an average of about 50 men and women ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s. On some days, more than 100 people have turned up.
"The only rule we have is this — do not criticize others for how they are dressed," said a man who goes by the name Gojyaku Kyoya, stating the rule that some say is the key to why the event has lasted so long and unites people who like formal kimono and those who like casual kimono.
The 59-year-old longtime participant said he was looking for a place to wear kimono "more casually" and ended up at Kimono de Ginza, disliking the strict dress codes imposed at some gatherings.
For many decades kimono were worn with a serious face — considered appropriate for special occasions such as graduations, coming of age ceremonies and weddings. But over the past few years, they have been gaining popularity as casual wear.
Popular Japanese social networking Web sites like mixi and GREE list more than 700 Internet communities on kimono, with a number of them holding gatherings in the real world. Meanwhile, inexpensive secondhand kimono shops are sprouting up everywhere.
Writer-illustrator Ima Kikuchi, who has published several books on kimono, said the trend picked up sometime around 2002 and the number of kimono lovers has since steadily grown.
"A nonceremonial style of kimono has established itself as a new genre today, and people are enjoying it, just like Western clothes," she said, explaining the increase in kimono shops and availability of colorful socks and decorative collars for kimono that attract younger generations.
She also noted the different desires of people who wear kimono, saying, "I think there are people who wish to transform themselves by wearing kimono and those who just want to be themselves."
She added that women in their 30s and 40s are leading the kimono trend, while older generations tend to go for wearing kimono they got from their parents.
While past Kimono de Ginza events have had many young participants, including university students and people in their 20s, there were many more people in their 40s and 50s whose parents frequently wore kimono but who themselves grew up not wearing them.
"My mother loved kimono, but for a long time I could not understand why she loved them so much. I wanted to find out," a 50-year-old woman from Yokohama said in explaining why she started wearing kimono and coming to the event.
"Here I met with people who wear kimono like they wear T-shirts. It was an eye-opener," she said. "This event taught me that a kimono is something to play with, not something to admire."
Handcrafting and mixing different materials is part of the fun. The Yokohama woman wore a yellow ribbon used for wrapping a bottle of wine instead of a thin strap used in keeping the "obi" – in position. Others had sewn a Christmas-themed cloth together and made it into an obi or painted a snowman on a kimono jacket to suit the season.
|Fashion passion: Women take part Dec. 12 in "Kimono de Ginza," a monthly event to wear the traditional
costume on the streets of Tokyo's bustling Ginza district.
“You don’t have to pay millions to enjoy kimono,” said Kyoya, pointing out another female participant, who jokingly said the total amount she paid for her full ensemble, including sandals, was “cheaper than buying clothes at Uniqlo.”
Another participant, Sheila Cliffe, who teaches English at Jumonji University in Saitama Prefecture, gave an artistic reason to love kimono.
“A kimono has poetry. It has many different motifs, like flowers, vegetables and even bugs that you won’t see on Western clothes, and by wearing it you can create a story, like Christmas,” she said in Japanese, showing her kimono coordinated in Christmas red, green and gold.
There have been several non-Japanese participants and others who did not know how to wear kimono.
Many participants said this is not a concern because others can teach them how to wear kimono, show them how to coordinate different colors and items, and provide information on where to get them.
“Anyone is welcome here,” said Shigematsu, one of the earliest participants in the event. “I just think it is nice that we can all enjoy wearing kimono as friends.”
Regardless of age or background, the participants appear to have built a strong bond by the time they come together for the dinner and drinks portion of the event.