Kyoto resident Tomoe Sawano was feeling low. The 39-year-old was at a turning point in her career as an entrepreneur and felt the need to do something special.
She decided to get married.
No fiance? No problem. She got dressed up and had some photos taken — of herself, alone.
Sawano chose a wedding gown, made a bouquet, and got her hair and makeup done. Then she went to a Japanese garden to have some photos taken. The event cost her ¥250,000.
“I was really entertained and reinvigorated by this package. It boosted my self-esteem,” she said.
“I had always looked tired, but with the help of the staff I managed to capture the beautiful shape I have while I’m still in my 30s.”
She said the experience, in late May, was like a holiday.
“At that time I was stressed out due to work pressure and didn’t have time to travel anywhere. I only spent a short time doing this, but the effect was equal to a more extraordinary experience, such as visiting a World Heritage castle,” said Sawano, who runs a footcare salon and an art restoration company.
Sawano was the first to try a two-day “solo wedding” package offered by Cerca Travel Co., a travel agency in Kyoto specializing in female clients. The company’s other services include a private taxi tour for broken-hearted girls and ladies’ night visits to “izakaya” taverns.
As of late December, about 30 women from across the country had bought the solo wedding package, which also includes a one-night stay at a Kyoto hotel, a limousine ride and a photo album.
Prices range from ¥250,000 to ¥470,000, and clients can also opt to wear either kimono or a wedding dress, said Cerca Travel President Yukiko Inoue.
She said the service represents good value, as gowns used in real weddings cost at least ¥200,000 to rent, and hiring a professional photographer and make-up artist costs about ¥250,000. Most of the clients are in their late 30s, followed by those in their 40s and 50s, she said.
For those who believe weddings should only affirm a lifelong marriage of two people, there is good news. About half of the solo service clients are married women who either had no wedding ceremony or were dissatisfied with the one they had, Inoue said.
One married woman who had photos taken in July was Yumi Akai, 41. The session was a gift from her husband, who promised it because the couple had skipped their wedding ceremony.
“I’ve been married for eight years but never had a chance to wear a wedding dress: We got married shortly after opening our own wine bar, and we were too busy,” she said.
“The lack of wedding photos had been a source of friction between us,” she added.
At the end of the photo session in Kyoto, her husband turned up, dressed in a suit.
“As I got older, I became hesitant to have wedding pictures taken considering my age. But I was treated like a princess and I really enjoyed being transformed. Age didn’t matter at all,” said Akai, who came all the way from Ibaraki Prefecture for the event.
Both Sawano and Akai said they believe their joy surpassed the pleasure they would have gotten from a real wedding because they were able to enjoy the moment to the fullest without having to worry about relatives and friends and without being rushed through the photo sessions.
For those without partners, Cerca Travel also offers the option of having a male model — aged from 20 to 69 — serve as a would-be groom, with only their hands, shoulder or back visible in the photos. But it seems this is not what the clients want.
“No one has ever made an inquiry about the imaginary partner service. I think that’s understandable because each woman wants to feel like a princess with attention focused only on herself, and doesn’t need a man for it,” she said.
Inoue said she came up with the idea of solo weddings to help women feel better about themselves. However, media reports about it in Japan and overseas have triggered negative reactions.
“Some people have said it must be ‘lonely, miserable and sad’ to use this service, believing it to be the only way these single women can achieve their dream of wearing a wedding dress,” she said.
People in their 20s or early 30s, of course, tend to have no interest in it, Inoue said since they are still full of hope about their prospects for a proper marriage.
Cerca Travel promotes the package in English on its website, but it has yet to receive inquiries from overseas. Inoue said those who view marriage as sacred might not accept the fantasy of a solo wedding: They might consider it as frivolous as dressing up.
But Sawano defies the critics. She said her solo wedding was neither lonely nor absurd; moreover, she thinks a women-oriented service like this might eventually change the traditional concept of marriage.
“Being single at this age, I was frustrated by pressure (to get married), but after this experience I left my worries behind me. I hope to find a partner but now believe that even if I can’t, I can enjoy life,” she said.
“If women take the initiative to enjoy themselves, I think new forms of wedding-related services can be generated.”