Summer time means matsuri (festival) time in Japan! And there is simply nothing more fashionable to wear to a traditional Japanese festival than a yukata! This casual version of a kimono is lighter in fabric (cotton or synthetic), and is the perfect practical garb for Japan’s hot and humid summers!
The History of Yukata
The first example of a yukata appeared around 1200 years ago and was called yukatabira. People started to wear them as bathrobes to soak up sweat and protect their skin from burns during steam baths. At the end of the Edo period (1603 – 1867), the number of public bath houses increased significantly, and the common population spread yukata culture as both an after-bath gown and as casual streetwear.
After World War II, the Japanese lifestyle became even more westernized, making the yukata attire less common. Beside during summer festivals and firework displays, they are most commonly worn in onsen (hot spring) towns. Ryokan, traditional Japanese hotels, provide these garments as standard robes for their guests, and many even wear them as they stroll through the streets.
CHIKUSEN, art shaped by tradition
If you are looking for a yukata that doubles as a piece of traditional art, Chikusen is the place to go. Dating back to 1842, the closing years of the Edo period, Chikusen took its first steps in the Asakusa district of Tokyo.
Kabuki: The Stepping Stone for Traditional Craftsmanship
Sen’nosuke (仙之助), Chikusen’s founder, ran a yukata shop specialized in dyeing filigree patterns. With his deep interest in theatre and haiku (traditional Japanese poetry), many in his circle of friends were kabuki (Japanese classical theatre) actors, novelists and other types of artists.
Since plain yukata were the norm, Sen’nosuke’s elaborate designs captured the attention of kabuki actors, who started asking him to design their stage costumes. The audience were impressed and the name Chikusen spread among the general public in no time. According to a book telling Tokyo’s historical anecdotes, “Chikusen” is a combination of the owner’s name, and chinchikurin, the Japanese word for “short person.” He took “chiku” from chinchikurin and added “sen” from his name – giving birth to the name Chikusen.
Asakusa: New Cultural Mecca
In Edo (present day Tokyo), people tended to spend a lot of money at markets and theaters. To control and improve the entertainment business, the Tokugawa shogunate decided to move the three biggest kabuki theaters of Edo to Asakusa. Edo culture was characterized by kabuki, which was at that time considered to be a casual sort of entertainment, and whose actors were considered to be trendsetters. The audience was impressed by the outfits and wanted to adapt to the new fashion, therefore Chikusen’s yukata became popular among the general population.
Relation with Nihombashi Mitsukoshi Main Store
Asakusa turned from a business to an entertainment district. Meanwhile, department stores opened in Nihombashi and this area developed into a business district. Due to Chikusen’s strong relationship with this department store, the then-president suggested moving to Nihombashi. With yukata’s popularity at its peak, Chikusen had to deliver its products to Mitsukoshi three times a day. As it was only deliverable by hand carts, the new location could save a lot of time. Therefore, Chikusen relocated to Nihombashi shortly after World War II, and its headquarters have remained there.
Key Dyeing Methods
Nagaita Chugata 長板中型
During the Edo period, a special dyeing technique for yukata was invented called nagaita chugata. First, a 12-meter long piece of fabric is tightened on a 6.5-meter long fir tree plank. Next, a stencil of about 40 centimeters is placed over the fabric and a special glue for resist printing (bosen nori in Japanese 防染糊) is added to the parts which are not supposed to be dyed. To obtain an even result, the glue is separately applied the same way to both the front and back. The most difficult part is adjusting the stencil on the back toth e print on the front evenly, in order to achieve a flawless pattern without fading the colors.
Nagaita Chugata 小紋中型
Another dyeing method is komon chugata, also called Edo komon, which is an original dyeing technique developed by Chikusen. The pattern is engraved on the stencil with a small, semicircle blade, which produces an intricate pattern of small dots or other detailed designs. This technique is especially challenging, since adjusting the delicate pattern on both sides is very complicated. Looking at the fabric from afar, it seems that there is no pattern at all, but as you take a closer look at the simple yet detailed design, it reveals its pure elegance. Since it was only possible to dye two rolls of fabric per day, many of Edo’s craftsmen were not able to produce nearly enough yukata for the whole population of Tokyo.
With the beginning of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), a new dyeing method called chusen was introduced, which enabled the production of fabric in larger quantities. The patterns itself and the procedure of applying them stayed the same, but the stencil length changed from 40 centimeters to 90 centimeters. The glue is applied on a 12-meter long fabric, folded like a folding screen, and when this process is finished, it will be placed on the dyeing table. Afterwards the dye is applied with watering cans. With this new process, a craftsman was able to produce more than 100 rolls of fabric per day and the production increased dramatically.
Traditional Designs with a Modern Twist
Chikusen’s trademark can be found in its historical patterns. Designers use stencils remaining from the Edo period and adapt and reform them to the current fashion trends. Compared to Japan’s western regions, the patterns of historic Edo are very simple and understandable for everyone. Simple designs such as dianthus, bamboo, sakura (cherry blossoms), hydrangea, waves and lilies are very common. Today, Chikusen is the only place that uses dyeing techniques from the Edo period.
Edo: Japan’s Trendsetter
Things which were popular in Edo spread throughout the rest of Japan, making the city the nation’s trendsetter in terms of all things cultural, including fashion. The “Edo-style” yukata with its dark indigo and bright white color combination were in high demand. According to a book written in late 19th century introducing Edo’s famous products, yukata was one of the popular souvenir item and had significant value.
Hours: 9am – 5pm Closed: Sat, Sun & national holidays (open Sat from Apr – Jul) Address: 2-3 Kofuna-cho, Nihombashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo