The four young women clip-clop along the cobbled streets of Kyoto, their hair pinned up and their yukata summer kimono cinched at their waists with decorative obi belts. A tourist takes a snap as they pass, demurely dipping their heads in bows.
These are not geishas, but teenagers in the Gion district of Japan’s ancient capital celebrating their final year of high school by donning traditional attire to take in some of the city’s sights.
Renting a yukata, or a kimono in the colder months, has become popular with many people, and sightseers are keen to slip into traditional clothing when exploring Kyoto, Tokyo and other cities.
Today, with the nation’s borders closed to outsiders as a result of the coronavirus pandemic , rental firms rely heavily on visitors from other parts of Japan. And that, in turn, has provoked a renewed interest in kimonos among some young people.
“My school always has a trip to Kyoto for the senior class in the final year and we had heard that some of the girls had rented yukata for a day to see the sights,” said Emi Izawa, who is from Tochigi prefecture in northern Japan and visited the city for two days in October.
“None of us actually has a kimono because they are so expensive and they need a lot of care to keep them in perfect condition, but we all decided that we wanted to make the visit a bit more special,” she told the Post .
Izawa and her friends made a reservation online and chose the yukata that they wanted, with all of them selecting contemporary designs popular among the younger generation rather than the more traditional versions often rented by foreign visitors.
“Even though we were only wearing yukata, they were more elaborate than the ones that I have at home and wear to summer festivals and so on,” Izawa said. “Each of us needed help from staff in the rental shop, especially with making sure that the obi was just right at the back.
“It is difficult for someone to get that perfect, but the women in the shop have a lot of skill and they made it look easy.”
Izawa and her friends wore their yukata to visit some of the city’s most popular attractions, including Kiyomizu-dera Temple, set into a hillside overlooking the city from the east.
“It was special,” said Izawa. “We only rarely have a chance to wear a kimono in everyday life, perhaps a wedding or the coming of age ceremony when we turn 20, so this made everything more memorable.”
Akahime operates a kimono rental store in the Arashiyama district of western Kyoto. The bamboo groves, Tenryu-ji Shrine and the Togetsukyo Bridge are among the most famous local spots for visitors and are popular backdrops for women wearing kimono or yukata.
“Before the coronavirus, we had lots of foreigners coming to the store and wanting to rent kimono for a half-day or a full day,” said Hirohisa Tatsuoka, the manager of the shop.
“Foreigners see kimono as something that is uniquely Japanese, but also something that is more accessible and they are not shy about wearing one in public to go sightseeing,” he said. “For older Japanese, a kimono is everyday wear, but for foreigners it is exotic and almost a Japanese costume.”
The coronavirus pandemic has effectively halted rentals to foreigners, although a few expat residents who have been unable to travel outside Japan for the last year or so have opted to take trips to Kyoto in recent months, Tatsuoka said. Now, his clientele has come full circle.
“A lot of our customers now are girls on school trips or young women on a short break with their friends,” he said. “They rarely have an opportunity to wear a kimono in their everyday lives, but we Japanese know this is an important part of our heritage, our history, and they are really keen to wear one, even if it is only for a few hours.
“I think that being able to wear a kimono in the winter or a yukata in the summer months does make them feel a bit special, they take a lot of photographs of each other and they will remember the occasion.”
A basic two-hour rental of a kimono, booked through the company’s website, will cost Y1,900 (S$18), while the cost for a man’s version – usually more simple in design – is Y2,200. Hair accessories, a traditional scarlet oiled paper umbrella, and more elaborate belts are extra.
The shop can also set up photo shoots in its studio, provides walking routes to take in some of the best local attractions, and can even arrange for a professional photographer to accompany a group to take shots of their day out.
Aki Kimono Rental operates a number of stores in Tokyo, including in Ginza and Shibuya, and similarly offers a range of plans with staff who are fluent in a number of foreign languages.
“We started offering this service 30 years ago and the company became very popular with visitors from China, Hong Kong and South Korea in particular,” said spokeswoman Naomi Miki.
“Foreigners were looking to experience Japanese style and tradition, but now they are no longer able to come to Tokyo, we have found that young Japanese are also becoming more interested in renting kimonos when they want to see the sights.”
Aki Kimono also has a selection of plans for anyone wishing to rent a kimono, including an overnight option that permits the customer to go out on the town in traditional attire.
As well as formal photo shoots and the chance to experience the tea ceremony in a kimono, the company can even arrange for couples to pose in his-and-hers wedding kimono.
“I will definitely do it again, next time I go to Kyoto,” said Izawa. “The trip was the last one with my friends before we go off to university so I wanted it to be a time that I could look back on – and something as simple as sightseeing in a yukata certainly helped make it memorable.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.