Unraveling The Kimono: Vocabulary, Symbolism and Different Types

Kimono is so widely known that the word itself has become a part of the English language. From the very heart of Japanese culture, this iconic garment was worn on a daily basis in 19th-century Japan. Its beginnings can be traced back over a thousand years, to the Heian period (794–1185), from what was known as the kosode, the thought to be a precursor of the kimono. 

There are so many different variations when it comes to kimonos. In this article, we will break down seven common types you are likely to hear about in Japan especially if you decide to book a kimono experience or even purchase your own!

When Do We Wear a Kimono?

Nowadays the number of people that can be seen in kimonos in day-to-day life has drastically reduced across the nation as the number of people that know how to wear kimono continues to decline. But rather than a daily attire, for many Japanese people kimono is reserved for special occasions such as seijin no hi, the coming of age ceremony, where young adults celebrate turning 20, and for other big occasions such as kekkonshiki, wedding ceremonies, and even little children wear kimono for shichi go san (七五三), a celebration to mark the rite of passage for ages 3 (san), 5 (go) and 7 (shichi). And although the kimono is not seen on the bustling streets of Tokyo as it once was a century ago, it is still an integral and treasured part of Japanese culture.   

What is the Difference Between Yukata and Kimono?

Compared to yukata, kimono is considered more formal. There are many different types of kimono for different occasions whereas yukata is worn to casual events such as summer firework festivals and onsens. At some hotels and onsens, you can borrow a yukata to walk around the grounds, they are trendy at onsen resorts as they are easy to take on and off. A distinctive difference between yukata and kimono is that yukata are much thinner than kimono and hence why they are popular in summer for casual festivities.

The Different Parts of Kimono and Yukata:

kimono vocabulary
Kimono PartsMeaningExplanation
Tabi (足袋)Socks for kimonoTabi are socks that separate your big toe from your little toes which allow you to wear zori shoes that are traditionally worn with a kimono. Tabi nowadays can be purchased almost anywhere, however, tabi that are worn for formal occasions and photo shoots have a slightly harder bottom so the shape of your toes doesn’t show through. 
Obi (帯)Sash/ beltThere are many different variations of obi, some plain, some patterned, some with different widths and you can even get accessories to decorate your obi. It is important to note that some obi is more formal or casual than others to choose carefully depending on the type of kimono you wear or if you wear a yukata.
Zouri (草履)Kimono shoesZori is the most appropriate shoe to wear with a kimono and go best with tabi. For formal occasions, zori is white in color but you can also find colored zori like gold which is becoming popular to match the gold in many kimonos.  
Geta (下駄)Yukata shoesThese shoes are often made from wood and are slightly raised off the ground with two platforms. Geta goes best with yukata as they are more casual compared to zori.
Haneri (半衿)UnderlayerThis is a long underlayer that goes on before the kimono to prevent the kimono from becoming dirty and to protect it.

Seven Different Types of Kimono

1. Houmongi (訪問着): The Visiting Kimono

Houmongi translates to “visiting garment” and is considered semi-formal attire. The first two kanji, houmon (訪問), means visit and the last kanji () means garment. As the name suggests this kimono is often worn to outings such as tea ceremonies or the theater but it can also be worn to a friend’s wedding.

It is particularly popular in the summer months thanks to the thin comfortable silk and bright translucent colors. In summer you may find these kimonos feature autumn grasses to welcome the next season. As the temperature drops into autumn, autumn houmongi may have another layer such as wool to keep out the cold. In contrast to the summer houmongi these kimonos have darker hues with themes of oranges and reds running through to complement the autumn leaves. 

2. Furisode (振袖): Swinging Sleeves

Furisode literally translates to “swinging sleeves” and is the most formal kimono for unmarried women. A defining characteristic of the furisode is the long sleeves that sweep down from either arm. The long sleeves of the furisode were initially used to attract a love interest hence why they are worn by unmarried women.

It is further said that women could swing these long elegant sleeves around them to ward off evil and also cast good luck upon themselves and the people around them. The second kanji in furisode is for sleeves (袖) and is very useful to know as it is seen in clothing stores across Japan to indicate when shirts have short or long sleeves. You can look for nagasode (長袖) for long sleeves, hansode (半袖) for half/ short sleeves and sodenashi (袖なし) for no sleeves.

seijn no hi kimono

These kimonos are considered formal attire and represent high status. In fact, in the Edo period (1603 – 1867) it was expected that young women must wear furisode and they could even be refused entry through one of the borders without it.

Furisode can be bright in color and are often chosen by unmarried women to wear to wedding ceremonies. These kimonos can also be seen on seijin no hi, a national holiday otherwise known as the coming of age ceremony that takes place every year on the second Monday of January to celebrate those who just turned twenty. Furisode are worn in a wide variety of colors by the young girls and often with fur shawls to keep warm on the day of the ceremony. 

Despite furisode mainly being for unmarried women, there is one type of furisode that is called Hiki-furisode (引き振袖) which has very long sleeves that sweep the floor and it is one of the colored kimonos that brides can choose at their wedding ceremony. 

3. Tomesode (留袖): The Evening Dress of Kimonos

Tomesode is comparable to the evening dress of kimonos, it is the most formal attire for married women. This kimono is very elegant and can easily be identified by the pattern which is solely towards the bottom of the kimono, giving a modest yet beautiful finish. Compared to furisode the sleeves of tomesode are much shorter and more practical to move in. 

There are two types of tomesode, the iro-tomesode which means one with color and the kuro tomesode which means a black tomesode. The black tomesode is worn by married women who are family members of the bride and groom at wedding ceremonies. Black is a common color to see worn by guests at Japanese weddings as it allows the bride to stand out in all white. 

4. Haori (羽織): Kimono Overcoats

Once worn to battle as overcoats to keep warm, haori can now be seen in hotels and ryokans that offer yukatas to borrow, here the haori serves as an overcoat. They are an essential item if strolling between onsens in the mountains such as Kusatsu! 

5. Hakama (袴): Kimono Pants

Hakama offers a different style to kimono, rather than a dress, it is a pants-like garment. When wearing a kimono it is difficult to take big steps as the fabric is wrapped tightly around you. Hakama on the other hand, is more loose fitting and therefore easier to move around in. It was initially worn by men so that they could ride horses and move with more freedom. 

The formal kimono worn by men, monpuku, is a black haori coupled with striped hakama and are worn at wedding ceremonies by the groom with their family crest printed on the haori. Hakama are also worn by women, called miko, that work at Shinto shrines. They wear traditional white kimonos with bright scarlet hakama. Hakama is further worn by those that practice martial arts such as Aikido, but this black hakama is only given after achieving a high level. It is also worn by calligraphers and in traditional card game tournaments called hyaku nin isshu.

6. Shiromuku (白無垢): Pure White Bridal Kimono

Shiromuku is a traditional Japanese wedding kimono that is completely white including the obi and all the different layers. The Shiromuku was originally worn by brides at weddings of samurai families but since then it has become the bridal kimono for traditional Shinto weddings across Japan. White in Japan is the color of the sun and it represents purity and cleanliness, it further symbolizes how the bride will now take on the groom’s family colors and it is common for the bride to have an outfit change after the ceremony to a colored kimono such as iro-uchikake or hiki-furisode

Items that Accompany Shiromuku:

  • Tsuno-kakushi (角隠し) is a wig that is commonly worn with the shiromuku kimono on the wedding day and legend believes that this wig is to hide the horns of the bride which symbolizes jealousy and ego. By covering the horns it is said she will become an obedient wife. 
  • An alternative headpiece is the wata-boushi (綿帽子), an all-white hat that arches up and covers the bride’s face from the sides. Originally this headpiece was worn to keep away dust and keep warm but it has since taken on a role similar to the western veil as it keeps the bride’s face hidden from everyone except the groom until they are wed. 
  • Hakoseko (筥迫) is a traditional accessory usually made from fabric that carries auspicious items such as incense, lip crimson and a mirror. This is now purely decorative but still used as an essential part of the shiromuku tucked into the obi.

7. Iro-Uchikake (色打掛): Colorful Formal Kimono 

The iro-uchikake is usually worn at wedding ceremonies after the shiromuku to symbolize taking on the groom’s family colors. The outer layer of the shiromuku is replaced with the iro-uchikake so it is a seamless switch. This kimono, however, can weigh more than 5kg!

Embellished with traditional symbols, and silk lined with a gorgeous padded hem, these kimonos shout nobility and elegance. Their origins date back to the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333) when they were donned by the women of the samurai elite. Then during the Edo period, it became popular amongst aristocrats and merchants. Today the iro-uchikake is not only seen at wedding ceremonies but also on stage during performances and for other formal occasions. For weddings red, black and gold are the most popular but these kimonos can be found in a whole range of colors. 

Kimono Symbols and Their Meanings

You might notice that the kimono comes with a variety of beautiful, intricate motifs. These motifs can be interpreted in many ways. In Japan, people generally decide which kimono to wear according to the implicit meanings of their patterns, colors, and seasons.

Pattern or symbolEnglishMeaning
Botan (牡丹)PeoniesReferred to as king of flowers, peonies are a symbol of good fortune, nobility and ageless beauty.
Tsuru (鶴)CranesBelieved to live for a thousand years and inhabit the land of the immortals, cranes symbolize longevity and good fortune. A pair foretells a happy marriage. 
Ume (梅)Plum blossomsThe first blossom of spring, the plum blossom is the flower of peace, a protective charm that symbolizes longevity, renewal and perseverance. 
Yama (山)MountainsMountains depict sacred places between heaven and earth. If there are birds flying over then it symbolizes overcoming life’s challenges. 
Matsu (松)Pine TreeAssociated with the new year and winter, pine trees symbolize longevity, steadfastness and wisdom. 

If you are interested in learning more about kimono you can undertake a professional kimono course called omenjyo to acquire a license where you learn how to wear a kimono properly by yourself. Or you can opt for a kimono experience and be dressed by a professional with hair and makeup, a great way to practice some new vocabulary. 

Want to learn Japanese for cultural immersion?

It’s never too late to start your Japanese learning journey. Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced learner, Coto Academy can provide the right lesson plan that suits your style, long-term goal — and schedule!

Take flexible lessons in Tokyo, Yokohama or online. Wondering what’s the best course? We offer a free Japanese-level check and course consultation!

What's the difference between kimono and yukata?

Compared to yukata, kimono is considered more formal. There are many different types of kimono for different occasions whereas yukata is worn to casual events such as summer firework festivals and onsens.

Is kimono worn by men or women?

Today, Kimonos are most often worn by women, and on special occasions.

What are the common motifs in a kimono?

Kimono feature beautiful and often elaborate patterns depicting plants, animals, and more — all of them with special names and meanings. Popular motifs include peonies, cranes, plum blossoms and mountains.

What are the common colors in a kimono?

Green is a popular color in a kimono because it represents new beginnings and fortune. White (growth), blue (peace) and red (love) are favorite secondary colors.

Test your Japanese level!

Do a self-test to see which course fits you.

Check your level