Thursday, 19 July 2012

A personal introduction to traditional Shinto ceremonial clothing

What better way to start joining the celebrations of Gion matsuri than with an introduction to the world of traditional ceremonial clothing? Although Gion matsuri is not a religious festival, but a folk festival, also here traditional clothing is indispensable. On top of that is my host of the day the designer of the happi of the Kakkyo Yama that is part of the Gion festival procession. A happi is a short Japanese straight-sleeved jacket worn at traditional festivals. To elaborate a bit more on the subject, a Yama is a wooden float assembled without nails, weighing 1,200 to 1,600 kg, about 6 meters high and is pulled by 14 to 24 people men (more about this later).

A warm welcome and the introduction to a very exclusive and wonderful part of traditional Japan was given to me by Hisashi Yoshida, family business owner and producer. A chance encounter led to an invitation to his workplace where Hisashi san showed the amazing fabric he designs and the ensembles of Shinto wear he creates together with the family businesses surrounding his own workplace. These businesses in the neighborhood called Kamikyo-ku in Kyoto, are specialized in wood work, metal, laquer and weaving, to name a few.

One of the exhibits of the traditional wear that Hisashi san showed me is the formal head piece in the picture. It is mainly made of silk and laquerware and worn by Shinto priest on special occasions. In Shinto religion every object of nature has a soul, even mountains, rivers, lightning, wind, waves, trees and rocks for instance. Stemming from this belief naturally flows the strict practice to only use natural materials as wood, paper, silk, cotton and laquer (made from the resin of trees). The collar on the Shinto priests robes that Yoshida san has spread out, therefore is enforced with layers of paper in stead of plastic.

Hisashi san told me about the strict rules to follow when designing for Shinto clothing. As an example, each season other flowers bloom and Shinto follows these changing colours through the seasons, specially when it comes to clothing. A Shinto priest, for instance, owns many different robes, for each season an other set. Priests wear the traditional robes every day, and wear different ones with special ceremonies.

In March I attended the Girl's Day ceremony at Shimogamo Shrine where a girl gets dressed in twelve layers of kimono, just like a doll from the Heian period, called Juni hitoe. These layers of clothing can weigh up to twenty kilo's! People wearing these kind of clothes in the Heian period, and wearing them now for ceremony, are not expected to move around or walk more than a few steps. To get an experience how it feels to wear something beautiful like that, Hisashi san let me put on the outer layer of this ensemble. (Seen in the picture bottom left.) The yellow coloured layer is the lining of the orange robe, the purple fabric is 'only' trimming. That way one can add more colours, but keep the clothing as light as possible. And indeed, it was very light! And rather cool, plus very soft on the skin. Actually, why would you ever want to take it of? Well, I was only wearing one layer, not all twelve! Lucky me.

Thank you Hisashi Yoshida san, from the bottom of my heart, for this warm welcome to Japanese tradition. I am lucky to be able to share it here.

Other articles on So Kyoto where traditional Shinto clothing is shown: Yabusame Umashinji at Shimogamo Shrine, Kakeuma Shinji at Fujinomori Shrine and Bamboo Cutting matsuri at Kuramadera.


  1. Such an honour and lucky chance encounter! Great pictures as always!

    1. Thank you! It was one of the best experiences indeed :)