My local shrine in Kyoto, Shimogamo Jinja, happens to be one of the city’s 17 World Heritage ‘properties’. Today it held a festival for used hanko seals at which there was a ritual of some thirty minutes for priests and parishioners followed by a demonstration of how to put on the traditional Junihitoe (12 layered kimono). The elaborate costume was only worn by court ladies, and in this case the wearer was dressed up by two attendants in front of an audience of about 100 people.
The whole session lasted some twenty minutes, and the wearer stood so still with her painted white face that a group of Japanese behind me thought she was a doll and gasped in amazement when she moved.
The arrangement started with thin layers and faint colours, gradually adding thicker and more striking colours. The woman at the front doing the arrangement remained on her knees the whole time, because it would be disrespectful to the aristocrat to stand up before her.
In former ages the number of layers was a signifier of status, and the more one could afford the higher the prestige. At one time the number rose as high as forty, but was later codified with the maximum being 12. Altogether the layers weighed 16 kilos, which when you consider Japanese women even today weigh as little as 45 kilos is a huge weight to be carrying around in 30 degrees of heat!
Afterwards there followed one of those curious Japanese incongruities. Inside the precincts was all the courtly elegance of a former age, with gagaku music, layered kimono and shrine aesthetics. The audience then came out to be greeted by one of those annoying cute ‘characters’ that appear at baseball games and other events. I’ve noticed that Shimogamo like other shrines has been trying in recent years to appeal to tourists in diverse manner, but I can’t help feeling that turning to Disney-type tactics in this way is most definitely ‘out of character’!