Photo:Shinichi Sugiyama on Flickr

A First-time Buyer’s Guide to Kimono Shopping

You’re on your dream holiday in Japan and you want a special and unique souvenir to remember the trip. What’s more iconic of Japan than a kimono?  Whether you want a kimono to wear or to display, this guide will show you everything you need to know about buying a kimono.  From how to tell a tourist kimono from a real one, to where to shop depending on your budget, you’ll go home with the right kimono for you.

Is it a Real Kimono or A Tourist Kimono?

In areas with heavy tourist traffic, like Asakusa (浅草) in Tokyo, there are dozens of vendors selling tourist “kimono” which are more like bathrobes than kimono.  Here are three clues to look for out for.   None of these clues on their own will identify a real kimono from a tourist kimono (since there are some real kimono that will exhibit at least one of these traits), but if you see two or more of these red flags on a single garment, you can be assured that you’re looking at a tourist kimono.

1. Is it made of shiny polyester satin?

If it is shiny, it is probably a tourist kimono. Photo by Lisle Boomer on Flickr

Look for ポリエスタ(polyester in Japanese) on the tag.  If it’s made from polyester, it feels like satin, and it’s shiny, it’s probably a tourist kimono.

2. Does it come with a matching belt?

An obi belt with a kimono. Never sold as a set, always separate. Jun Seita on Flickr

Real kimono and obi (the belt) are never sold as a set and are never made from the same fabric.  In fact, it’s considered stylish to pair together very different colors for kimono and obi (think purple and yellow together or green and orange together).  If it comes with a matching belt, it’s a tourist kimono.

3. Is it being sold with other souvenirs like chopsticks and souvenir shot glasses?

A real kimono shop, where real kimono are sold. Photo by Diego Delso on Wikipedia Commons

Real kimono are usually sold by vendors that specialize in kimono.  They won’t be selling chopsticks, plastic samurai swords, shot glasses, playing cards, or the thousands of other souvenir items you’ll find.  If you find your kimono at one of these shops, most likely it’s a tourist kimono.

Where to Shop?

Now that you know how to tell a real kimono from a tourist one, where can you go to get a genuine kimono?  In general, there are three different places you can go to shop for kimono depending on your budget and what you want to do with the kimono (wear it, display it, or reuse the fabric).

A New Kimono Shop

There are thousands of independent and chain kimono shops across Japan, but the easiest way to find one is to go to the large department stores (Daimaru, Mitsukoshi, Sogo, etc).  They will usually have a kimono department.  99% of the kimono you see in these shops will be silk and will be custom order only.  Traditionally, kimono are sold as a bolt of fabric and you pay a substantial fee to have the shop sew it together for you.  If you are larger or taller than the average Japanese and want to wear a well fitted kimono, this may be your only option.  Sewing can take about 6-8 weeks, so be sure the store can ship back to your home country.  Prices can range from ¥50,000 (about $500) all the way up to over ¥1,000,000 ($10,000).

New shops sometimes also carry a selection of ready-to-wear kimono made from high quality polyester.  These are real kimono, despite being made from polyester.  They are washable and can be thrown into a washing machine to clean them.  They’re a great choice if you don’t have a large budget and can usually be found for around ¥10,000 ($100).

These shops are also the best place to find all of the accessories that you’ll need to dress in a kimono properly.  The staff are very knowledgeable and will be happy to answer any questions or order in any specialty items you may be looking for.  These shops are great for those with a large budget or who want to wear kimono the way it was meant to be.

Recycle Stores

In Japan, secondhand stores are often called recycle stores.  These stores can be divided into two different categories; those that sell only kimono, and those that sell anything and everything, including kimono.  The most famous "kimono only" chain is called Tansuya, but there are hundreds of independently owned stores as well.

The one great advantage of these stores is price.  It’s said that a kimono is like a new car.  As soon as it leaves the store, it loses half its value.  Buying a secondhand kimono can be a much better deal for the cost-conscious traveler.  Prices in these stores are fixed (no bargaining!) and they usually won’t offer discounts.

There are some downsides of these shops to be aware of, and the first is quality.  Keep an eye out for stains when you’re shopping at a recycle shop, especially around the hem, sleeves, and collar.  Insect damage (moth holes) and musty smells from storage are also things to watch out for.  Some kimono will be in pristine condition while others will…not be.  Depending on the store, some are very picky about which kimono they accept for resale and others are not.  Most sales are final so its buyer should beware.

The Flea Market

The atmosphere is great at a flea market and it always feels like a treasure hunt.  Bargaining should be approached with caution and a great amount of politeness.  Japanese vendors will not mark up a price with the expectation that you will bargain it down.  The price they state is usually the best one they will offer.  That being said, if you are buying multiple items from a single vendor, you can ask if they would be willing to give you a discount.  Just be prepared for them to say no, or to only give you a small discount.  A common practice is to give free items (called service) to a customer and they may offer you that instead of a discount.

Just like at recycle stores, kimono sold at a flea market are usually older.  Keep an eye out for damage on the garment and be aware that all sales are final.  If you’re looking for vintage and antique kimono, flea markets are usually your best bet, but these kimono are often very small.  If you want something in your size, you may struggle to find anything.  Take your measurements before you go and write them down, then bring a tape measure with you to measure the garment.  Flea markets usually take place outdoors and you don’t want to risk a beautiful kimono accidently hitting the muddy ground as you’re trying it on.   

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