Dressing up Heian style

When my friends and I were asked if we wanted to dress up in a kimono and take part in a local festival, we enthusiastically agreed. What we didn’t know, was that we would be part of an re-enactment parade wearing 11th century-style kimonos! It was a day of unknowns, but a great experience overall.


A week before the event, my friends and I were told strict instructions for the day. Wear white socks, bring a plastic straw to drink water from, a small lunch and most importantly, don’t be late! So on the day of the festival we turned up at 10am sharp, paid for our hair and make-up fees, and ticked our names off the list. Then the preparations began.

First, we were coated with a white-base foundation, put on roughly with a sponge big enough to wash a car. Then pinky-orange blusher was dabbed on our cheeks, making us look not unlike the Japanese character Anpanman. We looked almost comical compared to a Japanese girl next to us who had model-perfect skin, subtle pink blusher and small red lips. (It later turned out that they hadn’t finished our make-up and five minutes before we joined the parade we had to apply our own makeup!)


It was then time to get dressed in our ‘twelve-layered’ kimono. It is customary bright, with many layers of silk skirts, and beautifully embodied patterns on the outer robes. It also has an extended trail which needs to be held up when walking. It’s probably the most impractical dress I’ve ever seen, let alone worn, exemplified by having to have someone hold our trail!

Our kimono only consisted of about four layers, but with another few collars sewn into it, to make it look like we’re wearing twelve layers. Still, this is no ordinary dress and needs specialists to know how to put them on. We each had two Japanese women wrapping, tying and pinning us in to our kimonos. It starts with tying towels to your body, to cushion the kimono. This may be necessary for slim Japanese women, but my friends and I thought we could do without this first step!

P1040692          P1040691

P1040694By the end of this process, I looked wider than I was tall, and with the weight of all the layers about 3 kilograms heavier. We found out that these kimono would be about £30,000 to buy, so we understood why we had to drink our water out of a straw, just in case we spilt it! And there was definitely not a chance of going to the toilet in such an expensive bundle of clothes!

As we were waiting for our hair to be made-up, we watched more and more people get changed into Heian era costumes. There were about 150 people taking part in the parade, mostly women but a fair few children and a handful of men, too. It was funny watching children play games, or roll about on the floor in their old-style clothes, their mother’s trying to stop them ruining their neatly tied hair and make-up. One girl has escaped her mother’s view and was navigating the play area outside in her trailing kimono!

We had our hair done in the hairstyle at the time, suberakashi, where the side parts of the hair are filled out with some fuzzy hair-like material, and for us an extension was put in to make our hair about a foot longer, and our head’s much heavier! Funny head pieces were pinned on top of our hair-do, and sprigs of fake wisteria hung awkwardly from our pony tails!


Near the end of our four-hour preparation time, we realised that our teacher had forgotten to mention two key things about the day. Firstly, that we would need to have our own zori (Japanese sandals). We were under the impression we would borrow them, but on the day there were no zori to borrow, so we had no choice but to wear our red sneakers! Thankfully, the spectators were so surprised to see foreigners in the parade, they weren’t looking at our shoes!

Secondly, the kimono has a long trail at the back, meaning that it would get ruined if it wasn’t held up by someone. It was my host mother, host sister and a friend who came to the rescue and paraded behind us wearing a servant’s dress. I hope I can repay the favour if they ever need their kimono trail held up!

Twelve-layered Kimono and Wisteria Festival


This festival is celebrating links with Murasaki Shikibu (978-1014), a writer who lived in Echizen in the Heian Period (794-1185), and is timed with the blossom of fuji (wisteria). The park is named after the female author who wrote the classic Japanese book ”The Tale of Genji”. In the book, she describes Heian court society, where high-class women had floor-length hair, whitened skin and blackened teeth, and were not allowed to speak directly to men so hid their faces behind fans when they spoke. The twelve-layered ceremonial robe (juni-hitoe) was worn by court ladies and daughters of the warrior-class families, and as well as showing off the families’ wealth and rank, the many layers kept the women warm in a time before paraffin heaters. I wonder how many layers they wore in the hot and humid summer! I also wonder how on earth they went to the toilet in these dresses!


Nowadays, this dress is only worn for weddings in the Imperial Family. The last time it was seen worn was in 1993 by Princess Masako, who looked very much like she couldn’t move in it. Crown Prince Naruhito And Crown Princess Masako

It is however seen during the Dolls’ festival Hinamatsuri  which occurs in March. Nearly every family has a handmade set of dolls which are set out on a platform in early February to the 3rd March, Girls’ Day. This festival which is an occasion to pray for young girls’ growth and happiness.  

Japanese ornamental "hina" dolls are pictured at a doll shop in Tokyo

The parade

We paraded under the trellises of full-bloom lilac and purple wisteria. Although it had just turned May, it was a hot day and standing in the sun for an hour made our dress, hair and make-up seem like the most uncomfortable thing in the world. The under-ties were squashing my rib cage, my hair was tightly pulled back and we had about five too many layers for the 25’C heat.

It was great to take part in such a unique festival, but we were all so glad to step out of the heavy robes and wipe the make-up off our faces. Next year, I’ll just be a spectator!

Every city has it's own cute character, Echizen's is Kikurin. If we were feeling the heat, imagine the person inside this custome!

Every city has its own cute character, Echizen’s is Kikurin. If we were feeling the heat, imagine the person inside this costume!


Caucasian hair meets Asian hairdressers

Warning: this is a post about hair, but boys don’t stop reading just yet!

My absolute pet-hate is having dry and split ends (boys who are lost already: imagine that Pantene advert with the conditioner that wraps its magic formula around each splitting hair). Every few months when start to that my hair is dry, I have a compulsive urge to get a hair cut! The only problem is that I don’t know how to cut my own hair, and going to a foreign hair salon is no doubt going to result in a surprising result! Yet a few time whilst I’ve been abroad my hatred of split ends always outweighs my rationality and I still search out a salon and surprise a poor hairdresser with my request. Here’s what’s happened


The first time I had a haircut abroad was in a small town in China called Pingyao. I’d been travelling for three months and my hair was feeling worse for wear. So when I saw an inviting-looking salon, I walked in. The salon seemed empty but as soon as I walked in, a whole school of trainee hairdressers appeared from behind curtains and from upstairs rooms to see the foreigner! None of them spoke enough English to understand that I ‘only wanted a trim’, but I pointed at the Hair page in my Chinese phrase book and they seemed to understand. I was led to a chair…

I’m not sure how they decided who was going to cut my hair, but it fell on one young-looking man, who had a gravity-defying hair. I also remember he had a cold, as after a shampoo, I distinctly remember him sniffing loudly as he cut my hair. The other eight or so trainee-hairdressers were standing round me and watching his every move. I didn’t know if all this pressure on him was a good thing or not, but I found the situation with all the tension and excitement in the room quite funny!

Fifteen minutes later he stood back and said something which I thought was “Is it ok?” I nodded happily in agreement, happy that my locks had been reshaped in a satisfactory way and I no longer had dry ends. But then he picked up the scissors again and started cutting my hair so more! “What’s going on?” I thought, and I looked shocked as people around me were smiling at me. I looked at the phrase book again, he was actually saying “Shall I cut some more off?” I walked out with curls around my ears, and immediately had to buy a clip to hide my less-than-satisfactory new hairstyle. I remember my travelling-friend enjoying the moment when I walked in with my hair tied up, “It didn’t go well then?”, he laughed.

My pinned back hair in China after I'd had it cut.

My pinned back hair in China after I’d had it cut.


Now that I live in Japan, I have no choice but to have my hair cut here. My host mum, Mayumi, offered to take me to the salon she’s been visiting for twenty years, and I agreed to go. You see, I am not over-protective about my hair, as even the worst haircuts grow out within a month or so. I always think: 

What's the worst that can happen?

What’s the worst that can happen?

So we went along to the salon and I was seated facing a mirror. A hairdresser put a large cushion on my lap and a fluffy blanket over it. “What’s this for?” I whispered to Mayumi, “To make you feel relaxed” she replied, and we laughed together at the randomness of it!

The first time I had my hair cut at Kiree (meaning beautiful), the owner who Mayumi calls Kiree-san gave me exactly what I asked for and just trimmed my ends. Firstly, and by far the best part of the whole experience, is the shampoo. The chair automatically reclines so there is no neck ache involved, then they lay a flannel over your face and spend 10 minutes caring for every inch of your hair. It could be utterly blissful, but as the cut was still to come I couldn’t completely relax. 

Secondly, my hair was blow-dried by two young assistants, making me feel like a poodle having a perm. Whilst the girls straightened it poker-straight, they acclaimed how thin my hair is! Yes, this is the crux of the problem of having your hair cut in Asia. Caucasian hair is typically much thinner, weaker and slower-growing hair than Asian hair. Therefore cutting Western hair is completely different from cutting Asian hair. Asian hair often is thinned by razors and happy-go-lucky chopping at the ends, where Western hair needs a more delicate approach. 

After my first hair cut in Japan. It stayed straight for all of three hours!

After my first hair cut in Japan. It stayed straight for all of three hours!

The second time however, I ambitiously requested a re-style: two layers and graduation around the front. Kiree-san hadn’t heard of ‘layers’, but understood I wanted it shorter around the sides. As Kiree-san was cutting my hair, she became engrossed in conversation about her favourite hobby, watching Western TV shows and movies. I assured her that Harry Potter, Doctor Who and Kate Winslet are indeed from England and yes, Colin Firth is handsome in an older-man type of way. It is always at the moment where the hairdresser is chatting away amiable, when I get worried about what she is doing to my hair. As she was in deep in thought trying to remember the name of a celebrity, she went a bit scissor-happy, like a six-year-old girl cutting their dolls hair! But I couldn’t ask her to stop, in case it made my hair look more uneven than when she started! So I just sat there waiting for her to remember the celebrity’s name and to stop snipping at my hair!

She never did recall who she was thinking of, but thankfully she did put the scissors down. Then, she put a large dollop of apple-smelling gel into her hands and scrunched it in to my hair, smothering my freshly washed hair into a dripping-grease state that took three washes to get out! Yet I paid the 3200 yen and thanked her for the haircut. It’s a bit shorter than I expected, but I can deal with it.

On reflection, I may just have to live with having a few split ends here and there. Western hair is just too different from what Eastern hairdressers are used to cutting. I’ll wait until I’m back in England for my next cut!

Japanese Fashion: the view from a cafe window

It was in a café above Sannomiya station in Kobe that I really noticed how fashionable people are in Japan, fashionable and downright beautiful. In comparison to a high street in England where hoodies and leggings are acceptable as shopping attire, the girls in Kobe all look like they are models. Over a coffee I noticed a some broad stereotypes of styles, so from a non-expert eye, here are my observations.

Firstly, there is the Parisian style characterised by girls wearing a circle skirt and high boots topped off with a cute beret and a fake-fur stole. Women in this category either have a gorgeous boyfriend, or want one. Secondly, the arty-vintage look with long skirts, flat ankle boots worn with colourful socks, then a long skirt or culottes, and an ethnic-looking backpack. Everything else falls into the category of outrageous; platform shoes, patterned tights and pink hair. Some girls walk around like they are a doll out of a fairy tale (the complete opposite of a goth in the UK) and there are stores that cater for Dolly-style”. Add layered on white foundation, too much pink blusher and fake eyelashes. When one such girl sat opposite me on a train, I watched her curl her eyelashes, comb her eye brows, add more blusher and put pink lipstick on. There is a lot of work that goes into looking outrageous!

As I  people-watched from the café, one thing became apparent, everyone dresses similar within the fashion-style of their choice. Like models from a magazine, girls had almost identical coats, the same shoes and the same colour of brown dyed hair. Unfortunately the number of women dyeing their hair brown means that it no longer unique; brown has just become the new black. Some girls who would fall into the outrageous style, try to get ‘blonde’ hair but this is disastrous and it often comes out a greeny grey colour. Thankfully, Japanese hair looks strong enough to cope with the peroxide drenching needed to turn black hair blonde.

Parisian style: stripes are in, as are flowing pleated skirts and pastel colours.

The arty-vintage look being modelled by these girls at Nara.

Want to look like a Alice in Wonderland? This is your shop!

Japanese men are also very fashion-conscious. Even the men at my school have branded leather bags that would be way too effeminate for straight English men to wear. Man-bags, expensive shoes and a nice jacket are the staples for a good outfit here, but there are a couple of different styles I’ve observed. Firstly, the salary man, who has a sharp suit, a leather satchel and plucked eyebrows (yes, this is the norm for men in Japan). Second, is the writer look, similar to the arty-vintage style which includes casual but well-fitting clothes and is characterized by retro glasses and a cool hat. Everything else, from my untrained eye, falls into the hipster look, such as the men below with baggy jeans and leather jackets.

Asking these men for a photo wasn’t awkward at all…

Awesome sale-shouters posing for a shot. The arty-vintage look in full swing there with round glasses and cool hats.

This is far from the mix-matched fashion I’m used to in Fukui! Every time my friends and I take a train to Kyoto or Osaka we can’t not comment on the girl with thigh-high leather boots, or a group of high-school boys who look like they are out of a manga magazine with their hair perfectly straightened, tousled and gelled. Compare, this to Fukui where both men and women wrap-up in down jackets that keep out the cold, but are hardly figure-flattering! It’s not only the colder weather that’s to blame for some styles though. Japanglish (atrocious but hilarious English) is splashed across t-shirts and jumpers like a bad paint-job, and wide, unfitting jumpers which, drape slim Japanese women here beautifully, but somehow look ridiculous on me. Yet stores like MUJI and UNIQLO are decent enough for me, not to mention the second-hand stores where you can find the best and the worst of Japanese fashion, but I’ll save that for another post. There is a lot more to be said on this subject!

Here’s some clippings from a fashion magazine. Enjoy!

"Let's begin dressing up with glasses"

“Let’s begin dressing up with glasses”

A popular women's magazine called 'Mina'

A popular women’s magazine called ‘Mina’

Skirts, shorts, culottes but always show off those legs!

Skirts, shorts, culottes but always show off those legs!

How about a fashion mask? How pretty that third of your face looks!

How about a fashion mask? How pretty that third of your face looks!