All You Need to Know about Traditional Japanese Fans

Fans have been around in Japan for a very long part of its history and have an elaborate journey of evolution. Japanese fans also cannot be bracketed into a single category as there are several types of fans in Japan.

The following is a brief guide to Japanese fans and some basic facts and factoids you may like to know about this cultural artifact.

history of japanese fans

History of Japanese Fans

The earliest history of Japanese fans can be traced back to burial sites in the 6th century CE. These sites were full of images and paintings of fans so you know that this object has some cultural significance.

There is documentation that Japanese folding fans were gifted to the Chinese emperor in 988 by a Japanese monk.

These cultural exchanges continued over the ages and both China and Korea have their own versions of the folding fan. 

Japanese fans are called by many different names, depending on the type of fan you are referring to.

The rigid, non-bendable one is called uchiwa. They can be made of a variety of materials, including palm leaves, straw, etc.

The folding fans that can be opened and closed at will are called sensu. They can also be made of different types of material, including silk, paper, sandalwood, etc. 

There are also war fans and brisé fans which were used for signaling during war and for decoration, respectively.

fan uses in japan

What Are Japanese Fans Used For?

While the straightforward answer would be that the Japanese fans were a way to alleviate the heat and keep one cool, it also has deep cultural significance and denotes the social status of the person using the fan.

The number of wooden strips in a typical Japanese hand fan would denote the social ranking of the owner. The more ornate fans would, of course, belong to the aristocrats and samurai class.

In fact, the war fans were an important part of a samurai’s uniform. 

Today, bigger cities like Kyoto and Tokyo do not see these fans being used even to provide relief from the heat, let alone as markers of social class.

Japanese hand fans are more decorative in purpose and make for great souvenirs for tourists to take back home.

Japanese Fans and the Performing Arts

The fan is an important part of Japanese dance forms. The traditional Japanese fan dance typically has a young woman or a group of women at its center.

The movements are slow, lilting and deliberate. The fan can be both an uchiwa or a sensu and there can often be a story or a narrative that is built alongside these movements.

Another Japanese dance form that has a prop at its center is the Japanese parasol dance which has similarly slow and deliberate movements, again performed by women.

Conclusion

The Japanese fans are one of the biggest symbols and cultural representations of the country outside its borders.

Even if you see a Japanese fan in a museum far away from Japan or at somebody’s house as a decorative item, your social education will typically tell you that this is a Japanese item or a replica of a Japanese item.

Given the long and colorful history the hand fans have had in Japan, it is befitting that they stand in as an image for Japanese culture abroad. 

Hanten: The Essential Japanese Jacket You Need to Know

Japan boasts of rich culture and tradition and a big part of Japanese culture is the attire or the various kinds of attire.

You may have most commonly heard of the kimono as a popular Japanese garment but there are actually several different things that make up a traditional Japanese attire.

In fact, there is no singular Japanese attire that is considered the norm. Depend on what part of Japan you are in or what season you are looking at, the traditional attire changes.

The following is a brief guide to the different kinds of attires or pieces of garment you may find in Japan. 

classic japanese hanten

What Is a Hanten?

A hanten is a traditional Japanese jacket that is typically worn during the winters. This is a short coat that is worn on a daily basis and has a warm padding or lining of cotton through the body.

It also has a smart collar and is a marker of style meets tradition. This is typically a lightweight jacket which is why it can be worn even on the slightly cooler days of summer as well.

There are no restrictions with regards to who is permitted to wear the hanten, unlike some of the other Japanese jackets and coats. There are also no restrictions in terms of gender and the hanten can be worn by men and women alike.

Haori vs Happi vs Noragi 

Now, the haori, noragi and happi all look similar to the hanten, but not only are they different from the hanten but they are also different from each other. 

The haori looks very similar to the hanten. It is a short coat that comes till the hip and is also worn over a kimono, like the hanten. Traditionally, however, the haori was a reserve of only the social elite while the hanten was adopted by the common people.

Even though the haori was typically worn by the elite it did not look very extravagant because the unabashed display of wealth was looked down upon in the Edo period.

Any stylizations in the haori, therefore, are very discreet and possibly only in the linings of the garment.

The happi could also be worn by anybody and was not reserved only for the Edo elite. It has a very simple and uncomplicated design and is made of cotton. This is a more casual coat and does not need to be worn over a kimono.

The happi is typically dyed into a single color but emblems and certain motifs provide relief from the monotone. They are still worn during various festivals in Japan by the traditional Japanese laborers, like farmers. 

The noragi is also a casual Japanese workwear and is typically worn by laborers working in the field or engaged in more physical forms of work.

The noragi comes down till the hip or slightly above the thigh. It has a simple, informal design and this too does not need to be worn above a kimono. Interestingly, American singer-songwriter John Mayer is frequently seen in a casual Japanese noragi. 

yukata vs kimono

Yukata vs Kimono

The yukata and kimono are also similar looking but there are some subtle differences between the two.

They are both robes that come till the ankle and have long, almost bell sleeves. But there are also some differences that will be elaborated upon in the following sections.

Can Men Wear a Kimono?

Both the kimono and yukata can be worn by men and women alike. The main difference between them is not the gender of the wearer but in the collar.

The kimono has a wide collar, while the yukata collar is stiffer and is half the width of a kimono’s. The sleeves of a yukata and kimono are also different.

While the length of a kimono sleeve can differ and traditionally, an unmarried woman’s kimono sleeve can even touch the ground (so eligible bachelors can identify the available women), a yukata’s sleeves will never touch the ground.

 Can You Sleep in a Yukata?

If you visit a ryokan, a traditional Japanese-style inn, during your visit to the island, you will be provided with a yukata. This yukata is made of a soft cotton and can be worn as a robe during your stay at the inn.

The robe is used as loungewear, sleepwear and even as bath wear. If you visit the traditional Japanese onsen, or hot spring (typically built within the inn), you will be expected to wear the yukata.

In contrast, a kimono is a more formal attire and you are not supposed to sleep wearing a kimono. Sleeping in a kimono can be compared to sleeping in a tuxedo — it is not practical.

What Do You Wear under the Kimono and Yukata?

There are special underclothes that are worn underneath both a kimono and yukata. But contemporary fashion has seen both these robes paired with the more casual flared jeans as well!

Hakama Japanese

Hakama

So far we have spoken about coats and robes, but a kind of traditional Japanese pants is the hakama. The hakama is part of the attire that samurai wear and is popularly worn by some aikidoka (those who practice akaidoki — a kind of martial art).

There are seven pleats that the hakama has — two in the back and five in the front. Each pleat has a name and significance. Men and women both wear the hakama, however, the rules are different.

Conclusion

The traditional garments and attires have taken a beautiful contemporary turn and you can often see versions of these traditional pieces of clothing emerging in street fashion and in more casual fashion.

Someone who has a close eye for Japanese aesthetic will be able to tell the minute differences between the coats described above. But from the point of view of contemporary fashion, elements of all these can be used to put together a look that also draws from tradition.

It is, however, important to be informed of the historical context in which these garments were worn.

Japanese Cutlery: An Essentials Guide

Every region of the world has a specialty — something that it is known for around the world. While you may think of sushi as Japan’s specialty, the pieces of equipment that go into making this delicacy are what you should be looking at.

guide to japanese knives

Any true craftsman can tell you the difference between a good knife and a bad one that you could potentially use in your kitchen, regardless of whether you are a professional chef or a home chef.

Japan is known for crafting some of the best pieces of kitchen cutlery in the world and during the course of this guide, you will be able to understand why that is the case. Whether it is the materials used to build these knives or the techniques employed, the final product is a result of exquisite craftsmanship, which truly sets them apart from many of the local chef’s knives that you may have used in the past.

History of Japanese Knives

Japanese knives are known to be of the highest quality and if you are wondering why that is the case, you need to go back and look at its history.

Japan may be a small island nation but its history is marked by a period where the samurai carried a Japanese sword — or Katana — into the battlefield or on their person. While the swords were large and beautifully crafted, they also needed a separate weapon for close combat. 

This is where the smaller side-inserted sword, or Wakizashi, came into use as backup. Restrictions on the length of both these weapons were set during the Edo period but in the years following the Meiji Restoration — 1868 — the swords were banned altogether.

As no one was allowed to possess or even create these swords anymore, artisans who had been crafting these weapons for centuries leading up to this period had to find alternative use for their skills, which had been passed on from generation to generation.

Domestic usage, in the form of knives for the kitchen, was not restricted and could also be extremely lucrative, which gave them the idea of using their craftsmanship for building knives that would be taken as the gold standard for specialized chef’s knives around the world for years to come.

What Are the Best Japanese Knives?

There are many different companies manufacturing different types of Japanese knives, which will be discussed in more detail in a later section.

However, you must understand that while there are some brands that are more popular than others, you need to choose one that suits your individual needs and not just give in to the hype around a certain product.

What Knives Do Chefs Recommend?

Many professional chefs around the world recommend Japanese knives for multiple reasons. First and foremost, there is an enhanced level of skill that goes into crafting a Japanese knife.

This isn’t something that you can just pick up for fun, passion is incredibly important when you opt for a Japanese knife. Second, these knives are known for being extremely sharp, which helps in giving you exquisite cuts each time you use it.

Finally, these knives are designed to be an absolute pleasure to work with. They are usually relatively lightweight with beautiful handles that don’t tire you out even after hours of usage.

You may find yourself confused between choosing a Japanese knife or a German knife, both of which are known to be of impeccable quality.

The main difference between both these types of knives is that Japanese knives are designed for more precise work, therefore they are much thinner and lighter.

The kind of precision that you get with Japanese knives is ideal for situations where you want to preserve the integrity of the ingredients and help bring out more flavor.

German knives, on the other hand, are bulkier with thick blades. While these knives may be more sturdy, they are only suitable for heavy-duty work.

If you use these knives for delicate tasks, you may not be to get a finer outcome. In the end, the right knife for you would be the one that is in line with your requirements and nothing else.

What Are the Best Japanese Kitchen Knives?

If you are looking to purchase a Japanese kitchen knife but don’t know where to start looking, there are some companies that have been known to create some of the most beautiful knives in the world.

Some of these kitchen knives are mentioned in some detail in this section so that you know what direction to look in.

Shun Classic 8 

Shun is one of the best-known names in the field of cutlery, not just in Japan but across the world. The chef’s knives manufactured by the company are the ideal choice for people who don’t wish to experiment but want their hands on a superior quality product.

Shun Classic 8

With the Classic 8, you get a knife that fits snugly in your palm and offers a good grip. This is a multipurpose knife that can be used to complete a range of tasks, including working with meat or slicing vegetables.

The company’s patented VG-MAX steel is used to craft the blade, which is finally coated in Damascus steel for additional durability. Get your hands on this knife here.

Global 8 inch, 20 cm Chef’s Knife 

If you are looking to invest in a chef’s knife from another well-known Japanese brand, the quality offered by Global at this given price point is tough to beat.

Instead of many different layers that are present in different knives, the knives by Global are constructed using one piece of stainless steel.

This means your knife will be relatively thinner than many other options available in the market. The part where the blade meets the handle — called the bolster — is also thinner than most such knives.

An interesting addition is a sand-filled handle, which helps keep the knife balanced. You can buy this knife here.

Yoshihiro VG10 Japanese Chef’s Knife

No one wants a mass-produced knife when they are investing their hard-earned money in a product of quality.

With the Yoshihiro chef’s knife, you get an impressive blade with three layers where the core is made of VG-10 stainless steel.

This means that you get impressive durability, edge retention and a degree of sharpness that will help you get through finer tasks with great precision.

The wooden handle is made with mahogany and offers a good balance. All of this makes this knife a great option for people who don’t have too much experience as chefs. Buy this knife here.

Miyabi 34373-203 Chef’s Knife 

While most chef’s knives come with handles made out of regular wood or stainless steel, the more long-lasting types of Japanese knives are those that don’t compromise on the kind of wood used to make them.

A good example of such knives is the Miyabi 34373-203 Chef’s Knife with its Masur birch handle that offers a sleek and soft yet strong grip.

Miyabi 34373-203

This wonderful handle is complemented by the fantastic blade, which is made up of 100 different layers of steel without bulking up the knife.

Not only does this Japanese knife offer great edge retention, but it is also one of the most beautifully designed knives that you can get your hands on. Click here to buy this knife.

KUMA 8-inch Chef Knife 

Another highly durable Japanese kitchen knife that you can get your hands on is the KUMA 8-inch Chef Knife.

The main reason behind its sturdiness is the fact that the blade of the knife is created with 67 layers of high-quality Damascus steel that increases its longevity and makes it resistant to chipping.

One thing that gives this knife a better balance than a lot of similar options is the fact that the blade runs all the way through the handle of the knife.

The knife also has a sturdy handle and a hand-finished look for the best performance. You can buy this knife here.

Korin Ginsan-Ko Kiritsuke

If you are looking for an exquisitely designed piece of equipment to add to your set of kitchen knives that will completely overshadow every other knife that you have ever held in your hands, the Korin Ginsan-Ko Kiritsuke is worth considering.

By no means is this an inexpensive knife but it is important to note that in Japanese culture, the kiritsuke is only used by the executive chef of an organization, almost as an indicator of his or her status.

It gives you the most amount of precision that you could ask for from a chef’s knife and is designed for keeping long-term use in mind. Get this knife by clicking here.

Shun Premier 8 

Another knife from the trusted house of Shun to make it to this list of the best Japanese kitchen knives is the Premier 8-inch Chef’s Knife with its pakkawood handle and classic build.

Handcrafted in Japan to give you the best finish possible, the hammered portion of the blade adds a degree of drama to an otherwise relatively classic blade.

The blade is very thin, allowing for an easier handling of ingredients and a more comfortable experience for the chef. If you want a knife that you want for life, this is the one. Click here to buy it.

Mac MTH-80 Professional Hollow Edge Chef’s Knife 

While you may be inclined to think that Japanese knives are usually geared towards cutting fish or meat, there are also some that work exceptionally well with vegetables.

The Mac MTH-80 Professional Hollow Edge Chef’s Knife is an example of such a knife with an impressively thin blade that will work through even stickier items of food with great ease.

The blade is built using a high-carbon aluminum alloy so you should try to wash it by hand and dry immediately. Buy it here.

Hinoki S1 Gyuto Chef’s Knife

Another wonderfully crafted chef’s knife that finds itself on the higher end of the spectrum in terms of pricing and quality is the Hinoki S1 Gyuto Chef’s Knife.

If you choose this product, you will receive a masterpiece that has been crafted by expert bladesmiths working out of Osaka.

One of the unique features of this knife is that is is made out of tamahagane carbon steel, which is as close as it gets to ancient swords in Japan.

There are three different designs available for the handle. If this knife meets your fancy, buy it here.

Shun Hiro SG2 Chef’s Knife

The last Shun product to make it to this list is the extremely versatile SG2 Chef’s Knife. With 32 layers of Damascus steel used to give this knife its impeccably sharp edge and a handle made using pakkawood, this knife practically screams luxury.

Shun Hiro SG2

The blade is handcrafted in Seki, Japan, which means that you can be assured of the kind of quality you are getting your hands on. You can buy this stylish knife here if it is in line with your requirements.

Are Japanese Knives Cheaper in Japan?

A common question that arises when you are thinking of purchasing a Japanese chef’s knife is whether it will be cheaper if you buy it on your trip to Japan or not.

While there was a time when you would get better rates if you were buying it from the country, a number of online portals have been established, which give you access to premium-quality Japanese knives even as you sit within the comforts of your own home.

Regardless, if you are looking to buy Japanese chef’s knives in Japan or in the United States, this section will help you find the right places.

Where to Find Japanese Knives in Japan?

All major cities in Japan have a range of specialty stores that will offer many different styles of Japanese kitchen knives that have been discussed in greater detail in a later section.

For example, if you are visiting Tokyo, shops like Kamata and Tsukiji Masamoto will offer a number of handmade knives as well as knives made in factories.

The knives are available at many different price points so that there is something for everyone’s budget. In Osaka, you can try Tower Knives if you are worried about facing language issues.

Otherwise, there is an entire street — referred to as the Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shopping Street — for kitchen equipment. Finally, if you are in Kyoto, try out the Nishiki Market, where the Aritsugu store may offer a great range of knives.

Keep in mind that there are strict laws that govern the sale of knives in Japan. While it is possible for tourists to buy knives in Japan, they have to package and seal it in accordance with the law and carry it only in their checked-in luggage at the airport.

Are Japanese Knives Available in the US?

In the age of the internet, everything that is worth purchasing can be delivered to your doorstep. This applies to Japanese kitchen knives as well.

All the major companies mentioned in the list above have their dedicated websites from which you can order a knife and get it delivered to your house.

There are also separate websites that offer knives from a range of knife manufacturers — all under one portal. As mentioned before, some of these websites — including Amazon — often have a number of deals and offers on their Japanese kitchen knives, which can make them relatively more affordable.

Japanese Knives Composition

There are two main components of a knife — the blade and the handle. The handle can be made of many different materials, for example, wood, plastic or metal.

The better Japanese knives, however, usually have handles that are made with good-quality wood that is comfortable to hold yet sturdy.

The other big part of the composition is the blade, which is usually made out of carbon steel or stainless steel — maybe even both.

What Is the Best Steel for Japanese Knives?

Japanese knives are typically made using stainless steel, carbon steel or a combination of both these types of steel.

While one particular type isn’t the absolute best, the type of steel you’d use for your knife would depend entirely on the use.

best steel for japanese knife

For example, if you aren’t a professional chef and are just looking for a Japanese knife for cooking at home, you may want to choose a stainless steel knife as the upkeep is relatively easier.

On the other hand, carbon steel knives usually retain their sharpness for longer periods of time.

At the same time, you can sharpen the knife with greater ease if it is made of carbon steel. This tends to suit professional chefs more as they tend to routinely sharpen their weapons of trade.

The only thing that you need to keep in mind is that carbon steel also tends to rust quite easily, especially if you leave the knife wet or don’t clean it properly. This can render the entire knife useless. Chefs are usually more particular about this.

Finally, keep in mind that you should avoid ceramic blades in this context. While they may look very interesting, these knives cannot be sharpened, which is a major deal breaker for people who need sharp knives in their kitchens.

Better Options? 

One option that hasn’t been discussed in the last section is an amalgamation of stainless steel and carbon steel blades.

While this doesn’t mean a literal amalgamation, this involves a regular carbon steel blade that is coated with stainless steel, which offers you the best of both worlds.

For example, the carbon steel element brings the additional sharpness to the blade, while the stainless steel adds protection to make the knives last longer.

Keep in mind that if there are any exposed areas built using carbon steel, they will rust if proper care is not taken.

However, if you are a professional chef or just a home cook who is exceptionally meticulous, you will be able to deal with carbon steel and enjoy the sharp edges that it offers.

Steel is a generally good option with limited efforts going towards upkeep and a decent finish product.

Types of Japanese Knives — In Detail 

While you have already been introduced to some of the best known Japanese knives, it is important to know what different types of knives are traditionally a part of a Japanese kitchen. All of these have different shapes, sizes and uses.

Gyutou/Chef’s Knife

If you are looking for the perfect alternative to the traditional chef’s knife that is used in North America and Europe, Gyutou is the knife you need.

The literal translation of this word — “gyutou” — is a “beef knife” but its use is not limited to that. Used for a wide range of tasks around the kitchen, this knife is usually made out of a more resilient form of steel, which makes it lighter than its European counterparts.

Overall, this makes your work so much easier. The design is typically very simple and you can easily sharpen it according to your requirements.

Santoku/Multipurpose Knife

In Japanese, the word Santoku translates to “three virtues”. This is very apt for this knife as well, as it is a multipurpose knife that can be used for completing a number of different tasks as you cook.

Traditionally, the three virtues mentioned above can be associated with the knife’s capacity for cutting meat, fish and vegetables with just as much ease.

If you compare this knife to gyutou, you will find that it is easier to chop things in an ‘up and down’ motion with this knife because of its flatter belly. The other requires a rocking motion.

Sujihiki Slicer

Sujihiki/Slicer

Slicing traditionally requires a separate knife that offers edge retention for more precise work.

In Japanese culture, sujihiki is the knife that will allow you to complete tasks like carving and filleting — amongst others — with great ease. In terms of construction, you will notice that this knife has a blade built using a significantly harder type of steel.

This is primarily because the knife has to be thinner than a lot of chef’s knives. The bevel is also sharpened at an angle that is steeper than other knives.

Petty/Paring 

Not all work in the kitchen requires you to bring out the large and relatively heavy chef’s knife.

If you need to get some finer work done, for example cutting herbs or smaller vegetables and fruits that could get ruined by larger knives, you need to get your hands on a petty knife.

This utility knife will go a long way to help you take on smaller tasks.

Honesuki/Boning 

There are primarily two different boning knives that are used in Japanese kitchens. The first of these is the honesuki, which has a unique shape and blade.

This triangular knife has a fairly stiff blade, which means that it will not display much flexibility. For this reason, it works increasingly well when you take on tasks like deboning poultry.

Soft joints on the meat can also be cut through using the honesuki. The edge is usually not symmetrical, which means it may be more suitable for people that are either left handed or right handed.

You can also get your hands on 50/50 balanced versions if you don’t want this restriction.

Hankotsu/Boning 

Another popular boning knife that is found in Japanese kitchens is the hankotsu.

While you may already have some expectations from this knife on the basis of what Western boning knives look like, this one will surprise you.

There is no “flex” in the blade of this knife. The spine is quite thick, for a more durable look and feel.

This makes it ideal for tasks like cleaning loins despite being used traditionally on hanging meats.

Nakiri/Vegetable Knife 

The usuba knife, which will be discussed later, is a traditional single-edged knife used in Japanese cooking and the nakiri is its double-edged version that looks a lot like the knives used in Western cooking.

This type of knife can be used for julienning and other similar cuts that require more precise work.

Yo-deba/Butchery

While Japanese knives are known for being lightweight, the yo-deba is a butchery knife with a thick spine that is relatively heavier than most others in the category.

The yo-deba can be used for meat or fish, and the size will depend on that. If you are worried about not finding the right one for left-handed chefs, these knives usually come with a 50/50 balance so that anyone can use them.

Yanagi/Slicer 

One of the most popular Japanese knives that you may come across during your hunt for the perfect kitchen tool is the yanagi.

A slicing knife with a single edge, this is an extremely sharp knife that is used by chefs for cutting thin slices of crudo, sashimi and sushi for the perfect end product.

Takobiki Slicer

Takobiki/Slicer 

Originally developed in Tokyo, this slicing knife is very similar to a yanagi with a slight difference.

These single-edged knives are very sharp so that chefs can slice their sushi and sashimi with greater ease.

A common explanation for the takobiki having a blunter tip end is that space in Tokyo is limited, which means chefs have to be more careful about safety.

Deba/Butchery 

Another traditional Japanese knife is the deba, which is primarily used for butchery.

Designed to be a significantly heavy single bevel knife, the deba also has a thick spine to make this knife as sturdy as possible.

The size you opt for will be dependent on the animal or fish that you are working on.

Usuba/Vegetable Knife 

The conventional knife used to cut vegetables in a Japanese kitchen is often referred to as the usuba.

This single-edged knife is known for being very sharp, which allows it to cut through different vegetables with great ease.

There are many different variations of this knife available all over Japan, with some models being specific to certain areas of the country.

Kiritsuke/Slicer 

If you visit a restaurant in Japan and study the way the chefs work, you may notice this one knife that is only used by the executive chef of the establishment.

This is referred to as the kiritsuke and is a fantastic slicing knife used in Japanese culture. The tip of the knife is angled, which makes it ideal for use either as a regular multipurpose knife or a sashimi knife.

Pankiri/Bread Knife 

The last knife on this list is the pankiri, which has been specially designed on take on tasks related to baked goods.

For example, if you are looking to slice some bread, you’d reach out for this knife.

As it has ridged teeth, the hard crusts and the delicate insides of the breads or other bakery items will not be damaged with this knife.

Are Japanese Knives Better?

Before making the plunge into the realm of Japanese knives, many people have doubts about whether or not these knives are actually better than their Western counterparts.

There is no straight or simple answer to this question. The suitability of a particular chef’s knife depends entirely on what you need from a knife.

For example, professional chefs will need to work with their knives for longer periods of time, both in terms of hours per day and days in total.

On the other hand, a home cook will spend only about 30 minutes a day preparing food with their chef’s knives.

Japanese knives are different from European or Western knives, mainly because they tend to be lighter and thinner without compromising on the quality in terms of durability and support.

The materials used are usually sourced from within Japan — types of Japanese steel — and many of the good knives are also crafted by skilled artisans all by hand.

Therefore, while it may be tough to generalize and say that Japanese knives are better than any other types of knives, it is important to note that they offer a level of precision and fineness that may be tough to achieve with the larger German-style knives. The final decision on what you choose, however, will depend on what you need!

Traditional Japanese Sandals Explained

Geta Sandals: What You Need to Know

Most people know what to expect when they think of traditional Japanese attire, for example, the kimono comes to the mind almost instantaneously.

The next time you see someone wearing a kimono, take some time out to look at their feet. As is the case with most different cultures around the world, footwear also forms a big part of traditional dressing.

In Japan, this footwear, that is adorned by both men and women, is referred to as geta sandals. Designed in a manner that is quite similar to the slippers you see around the world today, your initiation into the culture cannot be complete without delving deeper into geta sandals.

geta sandals explained

What Are Geta Sandals?

Geta sandals are a form of traditional Japanese footwear that is worn with outfits like a kimono, usually during festivals or cultural events these days.

The base of these slipper-like sandals is made with a piece of wood that is elevated because of two smaller pieces of wood under it. There is a fabric thong that goes through this base to keep your feet in place as you walk. 

While it may seem like this is an uncomfortable piece of footwear to wear on a regular basis, it has been known for being quite comfortable, adding height and also proving to be an inspiration for a number of newer styles of footwear that have become increasingly popular in the recent years.

History of Geta Sandals

The earliest use of the Geta — then referred to as the “Ta-Geta” — can be traced back to the Yayoi period where people were getting involved in cultivating rice but facing difficulties and getting through the muddy fields.

The Ta-Geta, where Ta refers to the rice fields, were used to make the process easier. For many centuries after that, these elevated sandals served utilitarian purposes and made the life of people so much easier.

Maiko or geishas in training also wore distinctive geta referred to as okobo as a part of their traditional attire. If she became a geisha, she would also have the chance of rising to the highest rank of courtesans in ancient Japan, referred to as the oiran.

The geta worn by the oiran were called the koma-geta. They were usually higher than the rest and had a more expensive lacquered design. Just by looking at their feet, people would be able to make the distinction between a maiko, geisha or oiran.

Another popular type of geta work by young girls was referred to as the pokkuri or koppori, which had a small bell attached to the bottom. 

Many people confuse the straw sandals work by the samurai and commoners in the Edo period with geta sandals but that is a mistake that can be avoided. Those are the waraji sandals in particular.

How Should Geta Sandals Fit?

There is a common misconception that you should wear your geta sandals in the same way that you wear flip flops at home. This leads to people pushing their toes right to the front of the sandal.

Instead, your feet should be kept back so that there is a small gap between your foot and the corner of the geta sandal where the fabric goes through the middle of your big toe and the finger next to it. This allows for better balance on the elevated platform. 

If you are looking to purchase a pair of geta sandals, always try to make sure that it is slightly smaller than what you are used to. The back of your foot should protrude a little so that you can maintain your balance. Finally, practice walking before you hit a festival or event!

Why Do Japanese People Wear Geta Sandals?

After going through the historical evolution of the geta sandals, you would understand that there is a range of reasons why Japanese people over the years have opted for the geta sandals.

First and foremost, the elevated platform can add to the functionality of this footwear, especially when people were working through dirt or mud. It was also a good way to distinguish between people holding different positions in society. In a more modern context, these sandals are used to complete the traditional look when you step out in your yukata.

modern geta sandals

Geta Sandals with Yukata

The geta sandals are traditionally worn with the yukata, a summer kimono that is usually found in a range of bright colors and patterns. The fabric used to make this kimono is usually lightweight and breathable so that it can help you stand the sun.

As the yukata is an informal dress, the geta sandals are also considered quite casual and can be found at many different stores around the country. These sandals are also more suitable for work as they are quite sturdy. In many cases, people also wear these with Western clothes as well. Finally, you may also spot sumo wrestlers sporting this style.

Zori Sandals with Tabi

While geta sandals are the footwear option that most Japanese people turn to when they are wearing the yukata, more formal occasions call for a more formal pair of footwear. This is where the zori sandals come in.

Designed with a relatively narrow heel that is shaped like a wedge, these sandals have a covering of some expensive fabric — brocade, leather, vinyl or more — which gives it a more finished look. Zori sandals are usually quite expensive, which is why they are reserved for special occasions like weddings. Here, they are work with tabi or white socks. You can also get handbags to match the zori that you are wearing.

Even though you may be tempted to think that geta sandals are no longer relevant in today’s time and age, these sandals have actually served as an inspiration for some of the most popular shoes that you find yourself turning to for comfort and style. The Papillio Collection by Birkenstock, which offers platform shoes for better comfort is one such example. The tatami sandals by the same company are another great example of how geta sandals serve as the basis for many modern shoes.

What are Noren and Why You Need Them

Noren: All You Need to Know

If you have visited Japanese restaurants and shops, it is highly likely that you have come across the noren, which is a regular fixture at Japanese establishments, regardless of whether you are in a city or a village.

This is a curtain-like piece of clothing that has an important place in the Japanese culture and can found across the country — both in homes and businesses — which you will find if you travel around Japan. If you want to learn more about norens but don’t know who to turn to, this guide will act as a helpful primer to the noren and its uses.

What Does Noren Actually Mean?

The Japanese fabric used as curtains or dividers between different rooms or simply placed against a window or wall is traditionally known as noren. The most common form of the noren will feature at least one slit that is made out from the bottom of the cloth almost all the way to the curtain rod.

In some cases, there may be more. While it is usually rectangular in shape, there is no limitation on what kind of material is used to make the noren or the kind of colors, designs and sizes that it is available in.

Noren are traditional Japanese fabric dividers hung between rooms, on walls, in doorways, or in windows.

They usually have one or more vertical slits cut from the bottom to nearly the top of the fabric, allowing for easier passage or viewing. Noren are rectangular and come in many different materials, sizes, colors and patterns.

Why Do Japanese Restaurants Have Curtains?

When it comes to utility, the slit between the fabric allows patrons to enter the establishment with greater ease or just peek through if required. The uses of noren aren’t limited to just that.

In most cases, the noren will be indicative of what you can expect when you go through. A lot of restaurants and izikayas get creative with the noren in order to showcase what is being offered inside or attract more people with their creativity. It is also a very useful tool when you want to get the maximum utility out of limited space by compartmentalizing.

Things to Know

In many cases, the noren used will become a big part of the establishment’s brand with people associating certain designs with certain places. Not only do lend the business a distinctive touch, but they are also very helpful in keeping dust, dirt and bad smells at bay.

Interestingly, there was a time when the noren was also used by customers to clean their hands as they walked out of the restaurant. In such a case, your popularity could be easily ascertained by looking at the noren!

If you are wondering whether you need to match the grommets to the rods you are using to hang the noren, you will be happy to know that there are no such complications involved.

Norens can just be slipped over the curtain rod you have in mind and adjusted to fit the door or window that you are using it for.

Traditional Japanese Formal Wear Explained

If you do not hold a considerable understanding of the Japanese culture, you may find yourself confused about the traditional attire that the Japanese wear.

In many cases, even people who have visited the country are not able to make the distinction between two of the most commonly worn pieces of clothing in the Japanese culture — the yukata and the kimono.

If you want to learn more about these traditional Japanese garments or want to purchase a set for yourself, it may be helpful to go through this guide that is designed to increase your knowledge about the yukata and the kimono.

kimono vs yukata

What Is the Difference Between a Kimono and Yukata?

In order to understand what is the difference between both these pieces of clothing, it is important to know what each entails. This is discussed below in some detail.

  • Kimono — This is the more formal of the two, usually being made of expensive materials like brocade, silk and others. The origin of this garment goes further back than the yukata. The kimono — where “ki” stands for “to wear” and “mono” means “thing” — has two different layers and two different collars.

The style of kimono that you choose will depend on the time of the year it is, for example, an unlined kimono for the hotter months and lined ones for the cooler periods of time.

For the winter, the kimono is padded for extra warmth. The style of the kimono may differ on the basis of what occasion you’ll be wearing it at or your social status (historically).

  • Yukata — If you are looking for a garment that is more easily accessible and cheaper to purchase, the yukata may be more suitable for you. Usually built using lighter materials like cotton, this garment is categorized as informal, which means that you don’t really need an occasion to whip out a yukata, which roughly translates to bathing cloth and is often referred to as a summer kimono.

As there is no limitation on what a yukata looks like, there is more of a chance to experiment with the kind of patterns, colors and styles that you can use for your yukata.

When Do You Wear a Kimono?

The kimono is made up of four different pieces of cloth that are put together to give a ‘T’ shape. There are many different folds that add a degree of formality to this garment.

The entire look comes together with an obi, which is a belt that secures the intricacy of the outfit. This makes the kimono ideal for formal occasions and ceremonies that need you to step out with your best foot forward.

While many people may not be able to tell the difference between a kimono and a yukata, a look at both these garments will be enough for you to understand why kimonos are more ideal for ceremonial events.

As the kimono is usually made up of multiple high-quality layers — often lined — it is more suitable for the cooler months of the year.

 

When Do You Wear a Yukata?

The yukata is usually much brighter than the kimono, as there is no restriction on what colors and patterns you can incorporate.

This traditional garment is worn for many different festive occasions, for example, parties, public events, festivals and more.

However, you might not want to wear the yukata for more formal occasions that call for a kimono, which has an overall more expensive appeal.

The yukata is more appropriate for the summers, as it is usually much lighter than the kimono.

Made using fabrics like cotton, which are more breathable and ideal for the hot summer, the yukata also works well for the times that you have stepped out of a bath as it is relatively quick drying.

If you are stepping out for a festival in Japan, you may want to look out for a synthetic yukata, which may help in keeping you dry.

shop yukata

Can Men Wear Yukata and Kimono?

The kimono and yukata are not gender specific, which means that they can be worn by both men and women.

While the kimono is more formal and therefore worn for ceremonial occasions by men and women, the yukata wasn’t always as widely worn by men but its convenience and comfort make it a popular option now.

One major difference between the kimono and yukata for men and women is the color palette that people choose.

For example, the kimono worn by women tend to be brighter or with deeper hues, while men opt for more muted tones.

Similarly, when it comes to the yukata, the male versions tend to be of darker colors and not as much variation in colors, while women tend to be more bold with their choices in patterns and colors when it comes to yukata.

There may also be more variations to the kimono and yukata when it is worn by men.

Things to Know

While the kimono is a term that is widely used to describe the traditional Japanese attire, there are many different types of kimono that are available.

Some interesting forms are the semi-formal homongi, the more casual tsukesage, the Kuro-Tomesode that is worn by married women at formal occasions, the Iro-Tomesode that is worn by unmarried women at similar occasions and more.

There are multiple designs available for purchase, which can sometimes baffle you about what works and what does not.

If you are confused about whether the yukata or the kimono is more suitable for your requirements, there are a couple of questions you must ask yourself.

First, what time of the year are you planning to wear it? If it’s going to be quite hot and you want to stay cool, the yukata may be the better option for you as the kimono tends to be heavier and warmer.

Second, what is the occasion that you’ll be wearing the garment for? If it is a ceremonial occasion, a kimono may be more suitable, but the yukata will work better for parties and festivals!

Japanese Wooden Kokeshi Dolls Explained

Japanese Kokeshi Dolls — All You Need to Know

Japanese culture is a famously artistic one and boasts of various kinds of artistic traditions. Through the different dynasties and ages that the Japanese civilization has been through, different practices and styles of art have emerged, whether in painting, textiles, calligraphy and most importantly, dolls. Japanese dolls can be divided into several different categories and each category of dolls have a significance of their own. The style of making these dolls are different, the material used is usually not the same for one as it is for the other, neither are the designs of the paintwork. The following is a short primer on a few different kinds of Japanese dolls, including kokeshi dolls.

What Is the Significance of Kokeshi Dolls?

Kokeshi dolls are Japanese wooden dolls that have a simple design without arms or legs. For centuries they have been handcrafted and are often used as toys for children. The dolls typically only have a simple torso, usually, a cylindrical shape, and a head — though modern designs are slightly more elaborate and may add a layer of hair. They sometimes have floral designs on the body made with thin, painted lines. 

Popular history traces kokeshi dolls to the Edo period (17th-19th century) where they were crafted as souvenirs for people visiting the hot springs in Tōhoku, in the north-eastern region of the country. Since Japan is volcanically active, it is not hard to find natural hot springs all over the island nation. Today, they are popular souvenirs for tourists to take back from Japan and make for great toys for the children as well.

What Does Kokeshi Mean in English?

It is difficult to find an exact translation for kokeshi in English. There are a few different ways that kokeshi is spelled — the traditional ateji spelling and the more widely accepted hiragana spelling. Kokeshi may be derived from wooden ( ki, ko) or small ( ko). ‘Keshi’ may mean dolls (芥子). Of course, it is difficult to arrive at a direct translation into English.

There is also a darker, more sordid theory attached with kokeshi dolls. It is that the suffix ‘keshi’ may have been derived from the word ‘kesu’, which means to erase or remove. ‘Ko’ means either ‘small’ or ‘child’. When the two are symbols are put together, it points to practices of infanticide which has been found to be common during bouts of extreme poverty during the Edo period. The kokeshi doll would come to represent the child who has passed away in the household and would be placed in the shrine in his or her honor. There is no way to historically validate this but it is still a popular theory that has been going around for a while.

Are Kokeshi Dolls the Same as Daruma Dolls?

Not quite. While both kokeshi and daruma dolls are wooden dolls that are built without arms and legs, the ritual significance of daruma dolls is different. Daruma dolls are hollow, wooden dolls that depict the face of a bearded man. The doll is usually presented as a gift for encouragement. The two eyes of the figure are left blank. When you set out to do something, you paint into the left eye. Once that goal has been achieved, the right eye is painted. The completed doll is then a souvenir of that achievement. Daruma dolls are a popular symbol of Japanese folk art and can frequently be seen in tattoos. Since the doll is a symbol of good luck, by having the doll tattooed on your body, you can carry the talisman with you at all times. 

What Does Daruma-San Mean?

Daruma-san is a popular children’s game which is similar to what is called ‘Statues’ and ‘Red Light, Green Light’ in some cultures. There is a den identified as ‘it’. The ‘it’ is supposed to shut their eyes and turn their back towards the other players. The ‘it’ then says Daruma-san ga koronda, which roughly translates to — “the Daruma doll fell over”. The objective of the game is that all the other players have to come as close to the den without being seen. 

Now, What Is a Kimmidoll?

Kimmidolls are the dolls you may have seen outside of Japan, most commonly. They can be confused for traditional Japanese dolls, but they are actually a contemporary take on various kinds of traditional dolls. They are inspired closely by Japanese kokeshi dolls and embody the simplicity of these traditional dolls. They can be purchased easily online and come in a variety of colors and designs. The Kimmidolls also do not have arms or legs, but there is an element of hair that is attached to the doll, which is usually not seen in the traditional dolls. 

About the Japanese Doll Festival

The doll festival or hina-matsuri is held annually in Japan. It is also known as Girls’ Day where families get together to celebrate the future and prosperity of their young daughters. It is held on March 3rd every year and cities and towns in Japan witness hina dolls dressed in costumes from the Heian Era. The tradition is said to have started in the Heian period when dolls were said to be able to ward off evil spirits. The dolls were placed into a river that flows into the sea and as it floated away, it was said that the dolls would take evil spirits away with them and cast them in the open seas. 

Today, the festival is celebrated in several parts of Japan but a common tradition, after releasing the dolls in the water, is to retrieve them later and then burn them collectively at a temple.

Conclusion

Japanese dolls are an important part of Japanese culture and traditions. Over the years, their ritual significance may have evolved and many of them, today, are more souvenirs for tourists than dolls with everyday significance. But they have strong symbolic value and denote different periods of Japanese history and culture. The beauty of the time we live in is that you can purchase Japanese geisha dolls, hina dolls and various other kinds of dolls online, even without visiting Japan.