In Japan, warmer weather marks the switch from the traditional silk kimono to the cotton yukata. Both with similar silhouettes, the kimono’s fabric is a heavier silk worn typically with an underlining for more formal gatherings or occasions, while the yukata is a casual and unlined garment worn as daily wear or at summer festivals.
The yukata is slipped on like a wrap dress or bath robe, and folded right under left. The obi, or the sash used to hold up the yukata, is then wrapped around the waist 3 to 4 times and tied in a distinct bow worn on the back. The yukata is accompanied by geta, or wooden flip-flop sandals raised on two wooden platforms.
Yukata’s are traditionally worn both in and outside of Japan each summer during Japanese-Buddhist gatherings called Obon or ‘Bon’ festivals. A celebration to honor one’s ancestors, Obon festivals are held during June, July, and August around the world. Japanese people gather with their local communities adorned in yukatas or happi coats (a ‘half’ kimono consisting of straight sleeves, and imprinted with a distinctive monogram of one’s Buddhist temple or family crest.)
These festivals are a form of celebrating the ancestral spirits through traditional Japanese dance called Bon-Odori. Yukatas and happi coats are accessorized for the dances with flowers, towels, fans, or kachi-kachi, small wooden hand instruments. The Bon-Odori is the focal point of the Obon festivals—each song, or ondo, accompanied by taiko drums. The songs range an extensive scope of sentiments: from upbeat and carefree like Mottainai, Shiawase Samba, and Sakura Ondo, to slower and more contemplative dances like Tanko Bushi.
Obon festivals bring people of Japanese heritage together—whether they take place in Japan or someplace else in the world. The yukata and the happi coat are the garments that link people to their Japanese roots, and allow its wearers a beautiful means of expression of their culture through their clothing.
Although I won’t have a yukata or happi this year, and cannot attend my usual Pasadena Buddhist Temple and Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple Obon Festivals, I am looking forward to finding an Obon this summer in London. Let’s dance!
By Arielle Murphy
All photographs are with permission from the author, Michelle Han, and Jennifer Gee.