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Tokyo Robe

The traditional, kimono-like garment has evolved to fit a more laid-back crowd. Popular now in hip Roppongi clubs, it's looser and more forgiving--and you can get it with a pre-tied obi.


TOKYO — It's as old as an ancient Japanese poem and as new as the latest dance craze. As tacky as a bad Hawaiian shirt and as refined as a swaying cherry blossom. It's being dumbed down, evened out, gussied up, tucked in.

At a time when many Japanese traditions are withering away, the Japanese yukata--a light kimono-like robe worn during the summer to festivals and fireworks--is back with a bang.

The yukata is the kimono's lowbrow cousin, traditionally made of cotton, unlined and worn only in July and August. While a good kimono can run to $30,000 or more, yukata top out at around $400 and can be found for as little as $10.

Retailers report that sales are up 20% this summer across the board. High-end U.S., French and Japanese designers are jumping in with new patterns and fabrics. Yukata-adorned young hipsters strut their stuff at trendy Tokyo nightclubs.

At the Velfarre disco in Tokyo's Roppongi district, up to a third of dancers on any given night are wearing yukata as they line up to do the "para-para," Japan's newest dance craze. To the thump of European techno-beat music, the packed crowd of 20-something men and women runs through the complex steps, swings and turns in unison.

Outside the club, 18-year-old Yukari Shimizu says she really enjoys wearing yukata to clubs. As insurance, however, she wears a second layer underneath to avoid embarrassing slips should the obi, or decorative belt, come loose. "Yukata makes me feel liberated," says Shimizu, sporting a loud blue yukata, matching sparkling fingernails, teased brown hair and a cell phone. "But it's also a bit hard to stand up straight. My back starts to ache."

Young women these days are far less willing to endure the fuss, discomfort or restrictive etiquette that their yukata-bedecked ancestors did, forcing manufacturers to adapt.

Today's yukata are looser, more varied and more forgiving than in the old days. And because most Japanese no longer know how to tie the 5-inch-wide obi into the complicated butterfly, sparrow or hydrangea shapes required--a skill once handed down from mother to daughter--more companies now offer pre-tied obis secured with hooks or Velcro, Japan's equivalent of the clip-on bow tie.

Other companies rely on new technology. Apparel retailer Sagami offers a yukata made with cypress and cedar extract to prevent mosquito bites, good for up to five washings. "Women feel more secure that they won't be itching while out with their friends or boyfriends," says Hideo Hasagawa, Sagami's apparel designer.

And kimono-maker Suzunoya offers a reversible yukata so customers can change colors to fit their mood while getting two for the price of one. Another Suzunoya innovation: a yellow see-through yukata, recommended with a black sports bra and leggings.

Of course, some women still hew to the traditional yukata style, even wearing padding to achieved the desired cylindrical effect.

During the Heian period, from the years 794 to 1190, yukata were only worn indoors, generally for baths. By the 17th century, they escaped the water closet to become everyday summer clothing. Today they're worn mostly at fireworks or summer "bon" festivals, where traditional dances are held to welcome ancestral spirits. (In Southern California, many Japanese American women annually don the traditional yukata for such festivals held at local Buddhist temples.)

Marketing experts attribute the garment's newfound popularity in part to Japan's skill at reinventing old forms, along with a cultural willingness to combine the traditional and the nouveau, Eastern and Western, the conservative and the outrageous.

"Putting together odd or seemingly very different elements to create something shocking, surprising or fun has a long history in traditional Japanese culture," says Atsushi Miura, marketing expert at the Research Institute of Consumption.

Miyuki Tsunoda, a 23-year-old information technology company employee, says wearing yukata is a way to get in touch with her native culture and childhood memories of local festivals, something easily lost in the hubbub of Tokyo. "I love yukata because it looks cool," she says, dressed in a blue-and-white yukata at a giant fireworks display held over Tokyo Bay. "I also feel very 'Japanese' when I wear them, which I'm not always aware of otherwise in my daily life."

As the style spreads, men are also getting into the act. Tsunoda bought one for her boyfriend, 23-year-old Takehiko Kobayashi, and then nudged him to wear it by telling him she thought it made him look sexy. "I felt a bit awkward at first, since I'm not used to wearing kimono and didn't see a lot of men wearing them," says Kobayashi, an assistant at an accountancy firm. "But now I feel very comfortable. It's really quite stylish."

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