Tokyo: Take a visit to kimono workshop for a traditional experience
June 14, 2009
As with other big cities, experiencing Tokyo comes with a lengthy checklist of places to see and foods to sample.
Somewhere between the sunrise dash to Tsukiji Fish Market and the wall-to-wall crowds at Sensoji Temple, consider the kimono workshop, a cultural experience that is both interesting, interactive and allows you to bring home your personally fitted yukata.
The most difficult part of the workshop was registering for it. We signed up through H.I.S. Experience Japan, a popular tour and trip organizer that wanted to know lots of details before we could sign up. They also wanted 19,000 yen (about $200) per person for the three-hour tour, which I was not convinced was worth it. I mean, 200 bucks is still big money today, even in Tokyo.
On the day of the tour, we met our guide at Ningyocho Station (H-13 on the Hibiya Line). Makiko-san was friendly and gracious, even waiting a few extra minutes for us even though H.I.S. made it clear that we would be left at the station if late.
Just a few blocks from Ningyocho Station, Makiko-san led us into Koromoya, a shop that sells the colorful Edo bingata kimonos, where we were greeted by a polite shop worker.
After taking off our shoes, we sat around a table as Terada-san, clad in her kimono, gave a captivating 20-minute oral history of the Edo bingata, a style of kimono that combines Okinawa’s bright kimono colors with Edo’s — modern day Tokyo’s — small patterns.
Through a window in the background, we could see Makita-sensei — Japan’s last Edo bingata master — continuing a tradition the Chinese passed to the Okinawans during the 14th century that was later passed to Edo after the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa) was subjugated by Japan in 1609.
Next, we stepped into the workshop where Makita-sensei took time from his craft to speak to us. Though he is a master who makes kimonos that go for $8,000 and more, he came across as the grandfatherly type, anxious to know if we were enjoying ourselves while he patiently showed us how to make kimono designs on a handkerchief. As we stenciled dyes of popular Japanese toy prints onto the fabric, I asked Makiko-san if Makita-sensei ever was tired from laboring so many years.
"Yes," she confirmed. "After 50 years of this, his back has weakened."
It made me sad to think that he is the last master of the Edo bingata, much the way I felt after my 89-year-old grandfather gave up his self-made tool-and-dye business because he could find no heir to his company.
While our handkerchiefs were drying, we had some barley tea and an absolutely delicious grapefruit gelatin dessert prepared by Terada-san. Then we went upstairs to put on our yukatas. The ladies went first and came out of the dressing room with their attractive robes adorned with a bow in the back. Then it was the gents’ turn. Two ladies helped us don our comfy cotton garb, offering us the choice of wearing our shorts underneath or getting down to just our undies. Since I sweat like a little roast piglet and knew we were going to walk around town, I decided to get down to skivvy level, but never felt exposed.
Looking very Japanese in our yukatas and geta (the accompanying footwear), Makiko-san took us around the Ningyocho area. We went to a shrine dedicated for people who pray for the return of their lost cats, checked out an interesting cutlery shop and cruised the sidewalks, all in about 15 minutes. It was cool to receive smiles from Japanese who seemed glad that we were enjoying their culture.
After returning to Koromoya, we changed out of our yukatas and geta, which our hosts neatly wrapped in a box and bagged. Already satisfied with the day, Makiko-san wanted to know if we had extra time to check out a tenugui shop that sells beautiful fabrics near the station. After another 30 minutes at that boutique and a good bellyful of Coco’s curry (not included in the tour), we headed home for the day energized by friendly people and a meaningful experience worth every one of the 20,000 pennies spent.