Yuko Matsumoto - A Female Kimono Shop Manager in Tokyo’s Yanaka Area, Sharing Kimono as an Act of Joy

The best way to learn about a country is getting to know the locals. With our new interview series “People of Japan,” we’d love to bring you even closer to Japan by introducing some amazing people, business owners, and cultural ambassadors in the country who are all bonded by a strong passion for something. Today, let us introduce you to Yuko Matsumoto, a professional kimono instructor and shop manager at the kimono rental shop “Itten Kimono Soan” located in Yanaka, one of Tokyo’s most traditional areas. Sharing the joy of kimono with Japanese people and international visitors, Yuko guided us through her view of kimono as a powerful means to bring people together.

Tokyo

Experiences

Yuko’s Journey Into the World of Kimono: “Dressing Others in Kimono Is My Way of Sharing Joy”

Yuko’s journey into the world of kimono started ten years ago. A moment that could be described as an epiphany. “During my kids’ elementary school entrance ceremony, I saw some Japanese women dressed in kimono for the occasion. I was profoundly impressed by that scene.” She remembers that sudden and striking realization as the beginning of her interest in kimono culture.

At the time, Yuko didn’t own any kimono and didn’t know how to wear one. “It felt like I was missing out on a fundamental part of Japanese culture.” Pulled by that sense of marvel, she decided to dive into the world of kimono.

After that day, she started attending kitsuke lessons at a kimono shop. As her interest in  kimono grew stronger day by day, her teacher suggested that she try learning at a professional kimono school.

There, Yuko realized she enjoyed studying kimono dressing so much that she decided to enroll in a course to become a fully-fledged, licensed professional kimono instructor. “The majority of people would be satisfied with just learning how to dress themselves in a kimono, they are not interested in becoming professionals. But the study of kitsuke made me happy and I discovered the joy of dressing others. Dressing yourself in a kimono lets you feel self-satisfaction but when you dress someone else, a new sense of shared joy is born.”

After helping a customer put on a kimono, she can see enthusiasm sparking in their eyes. “Putting kimono on other people is actually more enjoyable than wearing it myself because the customer becomes happy by what I do. Their friends and other people see the [customer] wearing a kimono and say good things.” She is always delighted to see people walking around in kimono and feeling more attractive thanks to it.

She told us, “You should try wearing it when you feel down, it will instantly make you feel happier! Kimono breaks your routine, creating a gap with daily life.” For these reasons, to her, it is well worth going through the trouble of having to think about how to match accessories and colors and how to style your hair to match with a kimono. And although it takes time to wear and maintain one, and it’s not necessarily a functional piece of clothing, all the effort and care put into the process of wearing a kimono makes it something greatly invaluable for those who come in touch with it. 

A Thousand-Year-Old Culture That Still Brings People Together: “Kimono Is a Universally Welcoming Clothing Item”

After getting her license as a kimono instructor, Yuko worked for different kimono shops as a professional kimono dresser, but she never thought she would become a kimono shop manager one day. “When I met the owner of Itten Kimono Soan, our personalities just matched. It was destiny,” she said. Now she gets to do a job she wholeheartedly loves.

“As a kimono shop manager, I get to meet many different people, communicate with any type of person, and build human relationships with both my neighbors and international customers. This is what I love the most about my job.” As we learned from Yuko, kimono indeed has many inexplicable powers. There’s something about kimono that brings people together and attracts others to you.

Her customers can experience the same invisible force, too. “When you go around wearing a kimono, people will stop to talk with you. Kimono often gives you the chance to build new friendships. I don’t want to be your usual shop staff, I want to become your friend!”

When describing kimono, Yuko said, “It’s a universally welcoming clothing item. Anyone can wear a kimono and I think it’s nice to see foreigners wearing one. If I’m dressing someone genuinely interested in the culture of kimono, I feel enthusiastic, too.”

Yuko explained how kimono are also very adjustable garments. This is true especially for women’s kimono, as they are usually made to be longer than the wearer’s actual height. “Even when someone is particularly tall, there are some tricks that can be applied. For example, they could wear hakama. In this case, they won’t have to worry about the length of the kimono and they could even go for an antique piece.”

Most of her customers are women, so Yuko also hopes for more men to become interested in kimono. “I’d love to have the chance to dress more men in kimono. Nowadays, it’s not that common to see them wearing one, but it’s fun and easy to do the kitsuke for them. I also noticed that after putting on a kimono for the first time, they often become more curious about Japanese traditions in general.” By speaking with Yuko, we found out that there are many thoughts that go into how to pick a kimono: Is it seasonal? Is it for a ceremony? For a specific event? A kimono is not simply a dress, it can often explain elements of Japanese culture.

The Future of Kimono: “People Are Able to Enjoy Their Own Style and Explore Their Creativity”

When inquired about the future of the Japanese traditional garment, Yuko thought that formal kimono should still follow the rules of kitsuke and preserve the traditional ways, but that casual kimono are a totally different story as they open the path for new, creative approaches.

Yuko explained to us that “You wear a formal kimono for someone else, not for yourself. They invited you to their special occasion or ceremony, so you should dress keeping that person in mind. On the other hand, casual kimono are purely for fashion and they are a very expressive type of clothing that allow you to show your own style and enjoy it the way you want. I've seen young Japanese people wear casual kimono as gowns or nagajuban as coats.”

She is sure people will continue to create new patterns and styles of kimono. Casual kimono as daily wear is constantly evolving, bringing new expressive freedom along the process. “You can mix patterns and colors, modern elements, and traditional details. You can also combine items from different eras or adjust your entire outfit depending on how you feel that day or what side of your personality you want to show.”

This is also what they do at Itten Kimono Soan. “Our shop offers for rental a mix of antique kimono and original kimono that you can’t find anywhere else. They are either unique vintage pieces or designs created by us. We like to try new things, craft funky kimono, and sometimes even experiment with fabrics that weren't originally meant for kimono.”

One of their most iconic designs is the “half and half kimono” that beautifully blends together two different patterns for an elegant yet unique look, such as the one Yuko wore when we interviewed her. Another interesting creation that Yuko showed us as a customer favorite is their “cherry blossom kimono” which was made with fabric bought at the nearby Nippori Fabric Town and used real photos of sakura blossoms to create a realistic pattern.

“International customers love the dynamic and colorful designs of kimono from the past. Not many shops offer this type of kimono for rental as they are often hard to maintain and smaller in size, but we have a significant collection here. We are not particular about the place and time of production, they are not museum pieces. What’s important to us is that customers can wear them and enjoy them.”

Joy and uniqueness really are the focal points at Itten Kimono Soan, so much so that they even reflected this concept in the name of the shop. “Itten kimono means unique kimono. Soan embodies two ideas, that of a comfortable place and thoughtfulness towards others. We wanted to create a shop that feels comfortable and welcoming like a house where people could enjoy unique kimono.”

Yanaka: An Area Where You Can Experience the Charms of Old Japan

Itten Kimono Soan is located in Yanaka, one of the most traditional yet central areas of Tokyo. It retains an old town ambience, reminiscent of Japan from past decades, called “shitamachi.” Visitors to Yanaka can explore narrow alleys filled with nostalgia, spot the many preserved wooden houses and shops passed down through generations, or walk down the charming shopping street of Yanaka Ginza. Here, trades of all kinds line the street, so visitors can easily dive into the daily lives of the locals, taste delicious local treats sold at retro street stalls or in one of the numerous older buildings repurposed into tasteful cafes, and even find the perfect souvenir among the many traditional goods and crafts available.

The vintage atmosphere perfectly matches with the more historical side of Yanaka that shows itself through the over 60 temples that call Yanaka home. Among these, visitors shouldn't miss the gorgeous Tennoji Temple which was founded in 1274 and preserves a large, bronze Buddha statue that dates back to 1690.

Yanaka is also a major spot for cherry blossom viewing. Visitors can admire some of Tokyo’s most gorgeous cherry blossoms at the Sakura Tunnel located in front of Tennoji Temple or view the majestic weeping cherry tree found in the premises of Chomyoji Temple.

As it offers plenty of historical places to visit, beautifully preserved townscapes to enjoy, Yanaka is perfect to rent a kimono for a stroll while soaking in the atmosphere of past Japan. Yuko can fluently speak English, so she will be happy to welcome you and guide you through the wonders and traditions of kimono and the Yanaka area.

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.


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