A fascination with the kimono leads Olivia Wannan to Kyoto where she discovers the layers of expertise wrapped up in the art of the traditional Japanese costume.
Among the traditional teahouses of Kyoto, if you're lucky, you can spot a geisha in full kimono. As they've done for hundreds of years, in the early evening, geisha and their apprentices will walk to their appointments. This is the time to spot them, if you don't have thousands of dollars to engage one for their conversation, dance and musical talents.
When I first saw them, I was, like many Westerners, fascinated by the colours and intricacy of the costume, and the absolute grace of the girls within. Their stillness, even while walking, the tilt of their heads, the tiny delicate steps.
At the time, I thought these were affectations.
Many tourists, foreign and Japanese, crowd to see them, and many also visit the places in Kyoto that offer to dress you in geisha style for a day. The experience has become a must-do on any visit to Kyoto and often entire classes on school trips - girls and even some boys - will go and dress up. But I couldn't shake the feeling these places were tourist traps where they'd try to get you through as soon as possible - wrap, knot, next!
These shops weren't the places locals went to when they dressed in kimono for a special event like a wedding. Instead, they'd go to professional dressers. And it turned out a friend of mine knew one, an award-winning dresser at that, and she offered to introduce me.
On the arranged day, I arrive at the house of the dresser, Ms Sagara, and am ushered into the small lounge, where the entire costume is laid out. The outer robe hangs on one door and looks as if it could fit a person seven foot tall. Over in another corner is a pile of gauze-like cotton pads - used for what purpose I couldn't guess.
A younger Japanese lady, an assistant maybe, hands me a thin cotton robe and white socks and points me to the bathroom to get changed. I notice the ankle socks, called tabi, have one split through them dividing your big toe and the others. That's so they can be worn with the thonged sandals, though they do make your feet look frighteningly like hooves.
Changed, I'm plonked down on a small stool and the assistant twists up my hair. She tries to follow the customary hairstyle - hair smoothed at the front, piled up at the back with co-ordinated accessories. She smiles at me and says something in Japanese to the dresser. I'm pretty sure it's about the strangeness of my foreign, fly- away hair.
I'm taken aback by the first step of the dressing process, which involves pads of cotton being added around my waist and secured with white wrap, the sort of stuff used to make a sling. I later realise it's to even out my dimensions, so I'm straight up and down. When the dresser starts all over again, this time using small white towels secured around my waist, I get the sense I'm the wrong shape for this.
Finally she's satisfied with my proportions, and I put on the inner robe. It's white, simply embroidered with flowers, and has long hanging sleeves. The only part that will be seen is the collar, which is stiff, gold and patterned with cherry blossoms at my throat. Two more ties go around my waist - I suck in - and then the collar is adjusted, pulled down at the back of my neck.
When I'd done my earlier geisha-spotting, I'd been told to take careful note of their necks just below the hairline. There, geisha will leave two or three bare strips in the white makeup they paint on their face and shoulders. These strips, showing the skin beneath, run down the napes of their necks - a place on a woman's body thought to be particularly lovely by the Japanese.
It's a part of the body I'd never thought about, but when I glimpsed the geisha, there was something in it - and the idea stuck with me, that we'd missed something of a woman's beauty in the West. It was something from Japan I didn't just remember, but learned.
Down comes the colourful outer robe. With the sleeves that almost touch the floor - it's in the style worn by unmarried women - and even longer body, I look like a 4-year-old in her mother's dress. But before I know it, the lower half is hitched into a skirt, secured, the top half folded neatly down, and tied.
A length of green fabric is tucked between the inner and outer robe - a fake "middle robe".
I stand, arms out, in the middle of the dressing mat, and Ms Sagara works around me. She's quick and efficient, and yet everything is perfect. Like so many things in this country, things done without thought in the West have become an art form in Japan. It's not the importance of the act, but the expertise one brings to it that matters.
The mark of a kimono dresser is in the tying of the obi, the sash of the costume. There are a variety of knots that can be tied at the back. Traditionally, the complexity and design is determined by marital status and the occasion.
The obi is my favourite part of the whole outfit - scarlet red with embroidered gold birds. It's folded in half, wrapped around my waist, and as Ms Sagara makes the base knot, she pulls hard. I'm breathless as she begins her work at the back, and I wish there was another mirror so I could see what she is doing.
I feel her wrap, tie, adjust, tuck. Then come the final obi accessories - a thin scarf tucked into the top, a decorative cord around the middle - and I am ready.
The full outfit, especially the sash, is heavy, though mine is rather lighter than the 5 kilograms bridal kimono can weigh. It's the constriction around my waist that strikes me most. No-one could ever slouch in a kimono. With the decoration, the weight, and those long sleeves, I feel like I'm dancing when I simply raise my arm.
This must be the most elaborate outfit I've ever worn - I'm colourful, eye-catching. As I take a step, I think back to the geisha in Kyoto, and I realise their delicate movements were all a person can make so wrapped up in silk. It wasn't an affectation I saw as I stared.
And we certainly stared, foreigner and Japanese alike. It was the first moment since coming to Japan that I, and my pale skin, green eyes and blond hair, wasn't the one standing out on the street.
The geisha handled our attention with grace. A subtle, almost embarrassed smile at us - that was all. There were press photographers in the crowd, snapping away, and they got the same treatment.
No hiding, no hands flung into the lens, and certainly not the glaring that I was guilty of when I'd been stared at.
It was something I decided to take with me - repaying curiosity with grace. Something not just to remember, but to learn.
- © Fairfax NZ News