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Dressed in kimonos to help share Japanese culture

A group of kimono fans called "Sozoro wakai" enjoy dining together in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward. Shuko Tsuchiya is pictured fourth from the right. (Mainichi)

As the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games loom ahead in 2020, traditional Japanese culture has come under the spotlight with people finding new ways of appreciating it. While many Japanese wear kimonos only on special occasions, there are people who enjoy wearing the traditional attire rather casually in their everyday lives.

    On a chilly Saturday evening in December, a group of men and women clad in kimonos gathered at an established soba noodle restaurant in Tokyo, enjoying dinner complete with Japanese sake. They were nine members of "Sozoroaruku waso no kai" (A group for strolling in kimono), or "Sozoro wakai" for short. The group's members enjoy strolling down the streets in kimonos and dining out together three or four times a year.

    The group was formed around Shuko Tsuchiya, 42, an ink painting artist who is known for his modern-style works. "My wearing of kimonos has nothing to do with my work. It's solely for going out for drinks," said a smiling Tsuchiya.

    Toru Horiguchi, 40, a member of the group and a third-generation Edo Kiriko glassware craftsman, had one of his kimono tailored from textile used for suits, thinking, "I want to add a contemporary touch to it" -- just as he adds modern flavors to his glass works.

    Tatsuya Yamamoto, 52, who works for a foreign capital company, joined the group with his wife. "When you attend parties abroad, you are asked to wear a black tie or an ethnic costume. Kimonos never fail to attract attention," commented Yamamoto. Other group members include an illustrator and those in the medical profession. All members share the desire to "pass down Japanese culture."

    Masahiro Kinoshita, 45, who presides over Kinoshita Kimono Kenkyujo, aspires to disseminate the habit of wearing kimonos to the young set through efforts such as producing a kimono selling space at department stores.

    Akane Yanagimoto attends her cafe in cotton kimono, with a skin-made "obijime" string holding the sash, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi)

    "Kimonos are expensive, difficult to wear, and there are no events to wear them. These are the factors that keep people away from kimonos," said Kinoshita, who has been wearing kimonos in his daily life for over a decade. "When you get older, your body shape and skin decline, making it uncomfortable to be in Western-style outfits. I think kimonos really suit people in Japan, including its weather and climate."

    His wife Beniko, 40, echoed his opinion, saying, "My life has changed since I started wearing kimonos in my everyday life. I don't feel overwhelmed (when wearing a kimono) when I sit beside a foreigner and I can be confident in myself."

    Last year, she launched her own kimono brand called "Kurenai." She recommends that people make the most of their own fashion statements. For example, you can enjoy wearing monotone kimonos as casually as you do with Western-style outfits. She loves wearing wool fabric, which costs 200,000 to 300,000 yen when made into a suit, but only around 100,000 yen when turned into a kimono.

    "People today are too obsessed with the idea that they have to wear kimonos properly," Masahiro Kinoshita said. "When you look at photographs from the early Showa era (starting in the late 1920s), people were wearing kimonos more freely." It was only in modern days that the way one ties the sash behind oneself became the norm. The post-World War II kimono industry is also to blame in part for setting certain rules for kimonos in order to sell expensive items, which deprived the casual aspect of wearing kimonos.

    Akane Yanagimoto, 48, a graphic designer and an author of books on lifestyles, launched a cafe at her office after being fascinated by kimonos when she ran across a kimono shop in the city of Fukuoka a decade ago. "I opened the cafe because I wanted to wear kimonos (to serve customers)," she said. Now a resident of Tokyo, she runs a cafe offering Japanese tea and sake in the Iidabashi district.

    When she began trying on kimonos while looking up examples in books and on the internet, her kimono-loving mother was appalled to see how awful the way her daughter was wearing kimonos. After many trials and errors, she sought advice from kimono experts. "Just put it on and it'll be all right" is her tip for beginners.

    She also recommends purchasing tailored "tsumugi" or "komon" kimons available for around 100,000 yen, which are easier to wear and can be used as everyday outfits. "If you have a decent kimono, you can put it on for dining and casual parties," she said. Even if you don't have many kimonos on hand, you can enjoy variations just by changing sashes to go with them.

    "It's dangerous if you get into it too much," Yanagimoto joked.

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