Thoughts from Places: On Stage for the 2017 World Kimono Competition

Written (mentally) on April 9, 2017;  written (actually) a week or so later. My parents finally sent me pictures, so now I can share! Enjoy a collection of my thoughts as I went on stage to dress myself in kimono in front of about 800 people.

Act I: In the Wings, Waiting to Compete

Okay, Karen, you got this.

Don’t trip in your zori, stop shaking, all you have to do is put on clothes.

…Put on clothes in front of an audience…while they judge you.

Let’s not think about this. Let’s look at the adorable kids who are competing right now.

Kawaii! Kawaii, ne? This is about as deep of an exchange as I can get in Japanese right now. Luckily, this is a totally appropriate thing to repeat endlessly to the foreign women around me.

Yep, those kids are pretty damn kawaii. Especially that serious little boy with the samurai sword!

How long has it been now? Four minutes? Five? These kids are fast…

That tiny little girl there made such a complicated obi! And she’s only maybe 7 years old… I was not that disciplined at 7 years old. I would have frozen on stage at 7 years old. Well, I never would have gotten on stage at 7 years old.

They’re almost done, only two kids left!

My palms are sweating.

Glancing right and left, the other foreign women are nervous too.

Let’s shoot another panicked smile at the girl from Bangladesh. Kinchou shimasu!  That’s probably not perfect but she understands. Yep, she’s just as nervous. We’re all in this together. Ganbatte!

The curtain is falling, we’re being ushered on stage!

It’s showtime!

Act II: On Stage

Lay out my obi neatly beside me, organize all the clips and ties neatly beside me…

My hands are shaking.

Deep breath in… and out… and another. C’mon Karen, you’ve practiced this a hundred times.

Of course, in your last practice three days ago, you messed up brilliantly two out of the three times you dressed yourself…the obijime fell to the floor as soon as you stood up… one of the ties loosened and you had to re-measure the length of your kimono, costing you nearly 30 seconds…

Thank goodness Kimono sensei just laughed at your errors instead of freaking out that you failed at kimono just days before the competition.

Ahh!! The curtain is rising!!

Okay, bow~ head almost to the floor~ Kimono sensei once told me to imagine an egg between your forehead and the floor~


Grab the far corner of your obi with your right hand, sweep it across your body fast and fluidly~ I always feel cool doing this for some reason.

Now more folding. Deep breath, just concentrate.

This isn’t so bad, really. I know exactly what to do. My fingers are dancing across the obi without me even really thinking. I really have done this a hundred times before.

Aside from folding, I must remember to smile. SMILE.

I can’t look like a lost puppy on stage like I did during the Kanto competition last November. Smile, Karen, smile.

Pretend that you are relaxed. Pretend that you are back at school, in the secret tatami room above the dance studio, with only Kimono sensei and S-chan. No, pretend you are on a beach, even more at ease, smiling away in the stage-light-sunshine.

Am I smiling? My face feels broken. Do I look sick? Is my mouth sullen? I CAN’T TELL.

Nevermind, my obi is finished! And it’s definitely not the worst obi I’ve ever made.

Swivel to the side, unfasten the tie…

Stand up gracefully, okay~ thank goodness you didn’t trip over the kimono hem like you did last week. Now measure the kimono’s length~

Whoa, the foreigner guy from Mexico is already finished!! He’s the fastest foreigner! Of course, a male kimono is so much less complicated than a female kimono, so it’d be more shocking if he wasn’t the first one done.

Is anyone else close to being finished? I want to look around…

NO, just focus on you, Karen!

Did I tie the kimono too short? From my vantage point, the hem looks like it’s skimming the ground, but is it actually? Screw it, it’s long enough, next!

Do the cool trick that Kimono sensei taught you to make the collar neat~

Kneel back down, grab your finished obi… now I just have to tie it on and I’m done!!

My hands are still shaking, dammit. Why? I don’t need to win, I don’t even especially want to win, I just want to do my best. C’mon calm down. Smile. SMILE.

These stage lights are staggeringly hot. Sweat is seriously running down the back of my neck. I hope nobody can see that.

Oh god, doesn’t make-up run when you sweat? Do I look like a melted clown?? This is why I don’t wear make-up! Well it can’t be helped now…

Just the obiage left, you’re almost finished!!

Tying… tying… done!

Okay, now double check everything is right~ smooth your kimono, pinch the bows of the obi and pull, measure the collar again…

Offically DONE. Now grab the number, slip on the zori, and walk to the front of the stage. Ready to be judged. And I’m the fourth to finish! …out of 8 people. Well, I’m not last!

Am I smiling? I’m trying! I seriously can’t feel my face.

Oh god, they’re going to interview everyone as they finish. I’m next. Shit, everyone here speaks better Japanese than me, I’m going to look like an idiot. A smiling/grimacing idiot.

Dammit, the interview lady is here. Let’s get this over with!

Is Japanese okay? Sukoshi. Sukoshi dake. A little. I’m serious.

Uhhhh…… I think you are asking how long I’ve been here? Ni nen kan. 2 years. Not quite, but close enough.

…. What?? All I understood was “pink.” Yes, my kimono is pink. WHAT ARE YOU ASKING?? Hai, pinku suki desu. Yeah, sure, I like the color pink… although honestly it’s my Kimono sensei who loves pink, she only lets me wear pink kimono.

Damn everyone is laughing, that was not the correct response!!

Keep smiling!

Next question…. Ummm…. I think you asked me which is more difficult, kimono or Japanese? Kanji ha muzukashi desu! There are a thousand kanji and I barely remember 30 of them, so Japanese is definitely more difficult!!

Nooooo everyone is laughing again!! Oh, they think I didn’t understand the question. Damn, retrace your steps! Both! How do you say “Both are difficult!??” Ryohou?

Thank god it’s done, the interview lady is moving on to the girl from Bangladesh.

I wonder how badly I messed that up?

Hey, I finally see my parents! And J! And Kimono sensei! And S-chan! Wow! I don’t think I’m allowed to wave but I’ll smile extra big in their direction.

Okay, now I’ll turn back to the judges… they all look bored…

Wait, how come the girl from Canada got the “What’s your favorite Japanese food?” question?? I could’ve answered that perfectly! And she doesn’t need an easy question, because she’s fluent in Japanese! Damn that’s unfair.

Are we almost done now? I’m sweating so much, my back is damp. Three layers of silk on a bright, hot stage… we’re all baking under these lights…

Thank goodness, it’s the end. Now we gracefully turn around, show the judges our obis… now we are ushered off the stage… into the dark coolness of backstage…

DONE! Where’s a mirror, what did I mess up??

Oh damn, I knew my hem was too short.

Act III: Back on Stage, the Award Ceremony

Back under these lights… there must be about 100 of us in kimono standing in neat rows, waiting for the curtain to rise and reveal us to the audience…

We’re all nervous again. We just have to stand and smile, but we’re all nervous.

The music they are playing makes my heart beat even faster, what is this witchcraft?

Okay, now the curtain is rising… I see my parents… and the presenters are jumping straight in and announcing the high school division’s winners!

Next is us~ Now it’s us~ Now it’s the foreigner division~

Number three~ drumroll~ heart pounding~

The guy! The guy won third place!! What the heck?? I mean, congratulations for him, but a man’s kimono is so much less complicated than a woman’s kimono that I ruled him out of the contest from the start… I wonder what made the judges choose him?

Oh shit they just called my name.

Wait what? Oh my god… wait, I won 2nd place?

Walk to the line, Karen, walk to the line… what is happening, I didn’t expect this! They did call my name right? Oh shit, did I imagine it? That would be mortifying!! No, they’re ushering me forwards. Okay, stop and bow deeply to the judges, I think that is what I’m supposed to do… Oh god I didn’t pay attention to what the winners were supposed to do… but bowing is always safe, right? Better to be respectful… keep smiling, keep smiling…

And first place is~

The girl from Canada!

That’s not so surprising, her obi was the most intricate out of everyone’s… damn though I really wanted the girl from Bangladesh to win, she’s a sweetheart and her kimono always looks flawless…

Okay, we can leave now, right?

Nope, the guy has to present the certificate to the girl from Canada… oh, and here are our trophies…

Whoa, these things are heavy!! They must weigh 10 pounds!! Okay, now we can move to the side of the stage right? Yes! Moving away from the center stage~

The children’s awards! The men’s awards!

Finally, the most important awards… the top two winners each for casual kimono, formal black kimono, and furisode—the “court”—followed by the absolute winner from the furisode category—the “queen” of the competition! All the finalists look so nervous.

Yep, the music’s gotten more intense for the final announcement!

Oh, the “queen” winner looks like she’s going to cry of happiness.

The roar of applause, the flashes of cameras from the black hole of the audience, the disco ball bursting over the winners…

And the curtain falls.

It’s over.

Where are my parents? Where are J and Kimono sensei? I bet they’re going to make me take a million pictures.

Ughh, I’m so hungry. Let’s strip, scrub all this makeup off, deflate my hair, and go eat!!

By this point, I was done with photos. Can you tell by my face?!?



2 thoughts on “Thoughts from Places: On Stage for the 2017 World Kimono Competition

    • karen.m says:

      Thank you so much! I’m honestly not sure if I deserved to win, but I was in it for the experience and my Kimono sensei was overjoyed that I got 2nd place, so I’m really happy that she is happy. Especially after training me for over a year now!


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