Britta's Letters from (and sometimes about) Berlin

Saturday, 3 January 2015

An Obi and Japanese New Year Felicitations

©Brigitta Huegel

Dear You,

Times of year -

"On the first day of the year, the sky is gloriously fresh and spring mists hang in the air. It's quite special and delightful the way people everywhere have taken particular care over their clothing and makeup, and go about exchanging New Year felicitations." 

So writes Sei Shonagon in "The Pillow Book" at the Height of the Heian period (794 - 1186). Heian means 'peace and tranquility'. Sei Shonagun - born around 966 - became a gentlewoman for service of court to the Empress Teishi in spring 993, when she was in her late twenties, ten years older than the Empress.
I took the book, a Penguin Classics translated by Meredith McKinney, up again after I looked at my lovely birthday present: an old obi - the long sash for traditional kimonos.
It is 30cm (12 in) wide and about 4 metres (13ft) long (I hung it double on the wall).
I found it at an very interesting vintage shop in Berlin (address at the end of the post), and for a while I couldn't decide whether I wanted this one or another. The owner gave me 3 days to think about it - but when I came back (to buy both), she said: "I'm sorry - one is sold." I asked breathlessly: "Which one?" - for at that moment I knew exactly which one I wanted - and, good luck: it was still there!
(Insight: This is an excellent method when you can't decide: ask yourself which of the two alternatives you would choose in a second - and how would you feel if it were gone?)
The obi became part of traditional clothing in the Edo period (1600-1868); in the Meiji era (1868-1912) the textile industry witnessed a revolution with the advent of electric weaving looms from the West. Modern Japanese women don't wear obis any more, so the industry declined, and old obis became rare - vintage maru obis being the most valuable "as the patina of the gold thread resembles that of of an old tapestry". (http://www.wafuku.co.uk/kimonoinfo11.htm) 
Husband was very happy to have a birthday present that pleased me so well. I own two old kimonos (yes... one is pink - to be more accurate: rose petal coloured) and they are very, very long. I mean: I am 1.78m = 5.839 feet - so how could a tiny little Japanese woman wear them? Of course with an obi. And than husband and I philosophised on the way women were seen at that time: almost immobilized by the dress (silk is heavy), those Getas (high shoes), and a face powdered to a mask, laquered hair: beautiful and doll-like. But never underestimate women: the Pillow book of Sei Shonagon shows us that she observed a lot, had an opinion of her own, and was really interesting in her thoughts.
(Insight: Fascinating thoughts can be hidden behind a painted face - so don't judge a book by its cover).
When husband described my decoration intention for hanging up the obi, he said to our son -
Yes, yes!: the biggest birthday surprise for me! Son&DiL came to visit us on their way back from Prague: the best birthday present at all! -
"Britta wants to hint at a the impression of a Himmelbett, a word she only can say in English: a four-poster bed." (Not true: of course I know Himmelbett - but it is not exactly the same).


©Brigitta Huegel

When you start to look up things - the history of kimonos, of obis etc. - you soon get carried away and ramble on - so I became interested in the meaning of the peacocks. In Buddhism the peacock is a symbol of wisdom, and they are compared to bodhisattvas because they can swallow poisonous plants without being hurt - as a bodhisattva can take the toxin of human emotions while still attaining Enlightenment.
'In Japan the peacock (Kujaku) is the emblem of love, compassionate watchfulness, nurturing and kind-heartedness.'
Both explanations please me.
A Happy New Year to you, my blogger friends! 
 Britta 


PS: The wonderful little vintage shop in Berlin-Charlottenburg is called "Be A Diva", and you find kimonos, selected vintage and jewellery, and its owner, Michèle Orlia, is a well-known film-make-up artist (http://www.michele-orlia.de/



21 comments:

  1. I feel the same way about history; must always be going backward to see why this happened, why that, why so many different opinions.
    The obi is beautiful!
    Happy New Year to you and your house.

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    1. Dear Joanne, thank you! I would like to have you here to give me your expert opinion about "how they did it" - so many silk threads, the form of the peacocks always a bit deviating (one feather from another), the light caught in so many angles...

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  2. How lovely to have a birthday gift that pleases you so much. I like how you've hung it. I have not read the book, though I have encountered it more than a few times. I think I'll pick it up the next time. I was struck by the freshness of the writing in the quote from the first part of your post.

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    1. Dear Pondside, thank you! As I am not that much in surprises, (except surprise visitors, of course), I was on the sure side :-) The hanging was done by husband and son - 1.92m and 2.02m, standing on the bed, reaching up - I watching for exact balance of the bamboo.
      The book is interesting, a good read for "in between", many miscellaneous entries, and an astonishing way to see the court.

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  3. I'm glad to have found your blog. :) Happy new year to you!

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    1. Dear SuperLux, thank you, and a happy new year to you!

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  4. The obi is beautiful Britta and you have given me a marvellous insight into a little Japanese costume doll that I own from the Meiji period. I have just taken a look at her and she is wearing a stylised peacock design on her hat - thank you so much for the information.
    If you are interested Britta you can see my doll here:-
    http://wherefivevalleysmeet.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/antique-japanese-doll.html

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    1. Dear Rosemary, thank you! I looked at your post: the Japanese doll is so beautiful! And it is an interesting way to bring home presents from different countries - and a happy coincidence to find her in London when missing her in Japan!

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  5. Lovely post to start the New Year off right, Britta! And of course I loved your comment, "When you start to look up things - the history of kimonos, of obis etc. - you soon get carried away." Isn't that the truth? And I'm so glad you did!

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    1. Dear Susan, thank you! You are the one who taught me so much in the last year (if I had been a more diligent scholar I would be well-versed in modern music by now - but learning Italian takes a lot of time).

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  6. Your obi is absolutely beautiful! I think half the pleasure of it is in learning its background history. Thanks for sharing with us.

    I hope you had a wonderful birthday. And now, I wish you a very happy new year. May you always thirst for knowledge. (And then share it with us, of course...)

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    1. Dear Susan, thank you! My birthday was lovely, especially as our son and our daughter-in-love came as a surprise. I'm always ultra-happy when they are around.

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  7. When my father returned from serving in the Navy during WWII he had a kimono for his wife and his daughter. He had met neither yet. I wore that kimono until I could no longer squeeze into it. Your obi is gorgeous. The peacocks have an ethereal look to them.

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    1. Dear Emma, thank you! So our fathers might have met - mine was in the Navy and in Japan too, being so very young that my heart still aches when I think of him being at that time. After the war he fell in love with my mother.
      To get a beautiful kimono is a wonderful present - has one of your children it by now?

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    2. It passed down to my next sister. By the time I gave it to her it was well-worn. That beautiful kimono no longer exists.

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  8. Beautiful Obi Britta and belated happy birthday to you …. so sorry that I missed the actual day. Happy, happy New Year to you and all of your family and here's to lots of blogging friendship in 2015. Much love. XXXX

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    1. Dear Jackie, thank you! When I proudly told husband of your son's success (I bragged about it on Facebook too :-) he appreciated that very much. I hear quite a lot of electronic music because of a (very young) friend of mine (who was with me and other musicians on the narrow boat trip) who is a drummer in an electronic music band.
      And if I want classic: there is Georg Friedrich Händels Feuerwerksmusik - if you wait on the youtube video till the red curtain opens: it is amazing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWT4Qv67rdI

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  9. My wife has a kimono and obi which was a gift from a Japanese-American woman she befriended as a child. It is a treasured possession and memory of great lady who had a public school named in her memory and a scholarship fund that she founded. There are many such stories behind these lovely garments and accessories. You have done well to place the obi in a place of honor.

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    1. Dear Geo., thank you! Wow - that is a wonderful gift - does your wife sometimes wear the kimono? As binding the obi is very difficult, I assume it is more a cherished item to look at - and rememberances of the lady.
      Yes - a lot of stories might be behind things we get from others (that is why Chinese people always look up the history of former owners of a house). I am more pragmatic and do a little magic ("hex, hex!") if I do not know the origin of something (though I think one can feel the aura - but I will stop my rambling now in case that I get to esoteric at the start (!) of the year :-)

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  10. Dear Britta... Belated Happy Birthday wishes! Your present is lovely and looks splendid in its full length presentation. The best gift of all... The presence of your beloved son and wife! History and connections are always important.. Especially where I am from... A good Southerner (USA) always connects the historical dots! Sending love and good wishes to you and yours for a wonderful 2015!!

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  11. Dear Susan, thank you and all my best wishes to you and your family! You coined the wonderful expression "daughter in- love", which I annexed (to be sometimes corrected, haha).
    History is fascinating - at the moment I discover biographies, which add a spark of subjectivity.

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