Kimono Romance in Kyoto

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Tour Leader Ben Walker was recently tasked with the responsibility (and honour) of introducing bestselling romance novelist Erica James to Japan’s most romantic city, Kyoto. Here’s how he got on.

I have a confession to make, and I’m going to ruin the tough guy image I’ve built up over the years in the process. (All I can say is thank goodness only three people ever read my blogs!) Here it goes – I don’t mind a romance novel now and again. Yes, that’s right, I actually read Pride and Prejudice at school and thoroughly enjoyed it.

A Love Affair with Romance

I guess you’re wondering how all this started (all three of you), so I’ll fill you in. When I was a kid visiting my Nanna’s place, in between pile-driving my cousins into the lawn in games of backyard footy and chasing them with cricket bats when they bowled me out, I had a guilty pleasure. When we’d have a tea break in the back room, while they were perusing my Pop’s racy Australian Post magazines, I’d have a flick through the stacks of Mills and Boone romance novels my Nanna collected. Say what you want about Mills and Boone novels – ‘formulaic’, ‘simple’, ‘smutty’ – the way they introduced the love interest struck a chord with me, and I always hoped that one day, that could be me portrayed on the page (told you I was going to ruin my image). They were always tall, dark, handsome and mysterious. I was tall, fair and freckled, so I knew my secret wish would remain a fantasy unfulfilled. Until…

Ben and Erica James during Kimono Dressing Experience
Portrait of talentless blogger with real life author. It only took us about twenty minutes to learn how to sit properly.

A Chance Encounter

Fast forward about thirty years, and here I am, a tour leader in Japan, who suddenly finds out he has a novelist on one of his group tours. Age hasn’t been kind to me, but I’m still tall, and I see what may be my very last chance to be immortalized on the page – enter one, Erica James!

For those of you not in the know, Erica James is a prolific novelist with over twenty published books to her name, including the 2006 Gardens of Delight, which won the ‘Romantic Novel of the Year’ Award. If I was going to be the model for a love interest in a book, this was who I wanted writing about me – someone who sure knows how to write a good romance novel. I spent most of the tour dropping the occasional hint (like – I’ve always fancied myself as the love interest in a romance novel), sucking in my stomach, making sure my hair was always combed over my bald spot, and striking heroic poses in good light (light, you three, light. Light is your best friend when you reach middle age). But she would not take the bait.

Getting desperate, and with only a few days left to go (quick plug, we were on Inside Japan’s Japan Enchantment Tour. Look it up, it’s one of my favourites!) I hatched what I thought would be a fool proof plan. I would dress up in traditional Japanese garb and take her on a tour of one of Japan’s most romantic towns, Kyoto. The plan of a genius. Let’s take a moment to bask in my brilliance. If you’ve ever seen Richard Chamberlain in the mini-series Shogun, that’s what I was aiming for.

Kimono Dressing in Kyoto

I knew I’d need help hatching my plan, so I got in touch with my friend Kumiko Kojima; my go-to when I need anything cultural in Kyoto (seriously, there is nothing this woman cannot help you out with; she has so many projects going on, my head spins every time I speak with her. She is a gem). As always, Kumiko managed to pull something out of the bag at the spur of the moment and arranged to meet us at Koan Kyoto, a beautiful teahouse in Miyagawa-cho, run by the wonderful Kazuki Miyamoto. You can do it all here – learn to cook like a Buddhist monk, discover the Buddhist sutras, try a tea ceremony, and most importantly, get dressed in a kimono! That’s as much as I’m going to let you know about Koan – I want to keep some of the really good stuff to myself.

We arrived at Koan, had tea, and then Erica was ushered upstairs to be fitted for her kimono. Koan arranges for all their guests to be dressed by a professional kimono dresser. Kimono dressers in Japan are licensed, and must pass a rigorous test to receive it. Kimono dressing is a career, and sometimes a lucrative one. I was left to my own devices, so had a good look around the beautiful building.

It took a while for Erica to be ready as the obi takes a bit of tying (an obi is broad sash worn around the waist). But when I was called upstairs to take a look, I must say she looked pretty good. Everyone kept telling her “tottemo niau!” (“It suits you!”) Having lived in Japan for over fifteen years, I was determined to show Erica how to rock a kimono.

Dressing a man in a kimono is a much faster process, and I was done in about ten minutes. As soon as I was dressed, I realised something was wrong. Not trying to stereotype, but in general Japanese men are not as tall as Westerners, and once I got my kimono on I realised I was showing far more forearm and ankle than was comfortable. Rather than a striking samurai, what I really looked like was a middle aged man in a dressing gown on his way to collect the mail from the mailbox. Whereas everyone told Erica she looked great, the only compliment I got was “kimonos suit men with a paunch”. As I sheepishly made my way downstairs, I knew I’d have to make my author fall in love with Kyoto if I wanted to be in that book.


Outside Koan Kyoto for Kimono Dressing Experience
Koan gets a double thumbs-up, and no, I don’t shave my ankles. Thanks again to Kazuki and Kumiko.

Kyoto Walking Tour

Luckily I have spent quite a long time in Kyoto, so quickly thought of a plan to take Erica to some of the most picturesque and romantic places I could think of. We started with a walk around the lovely Miyagawa-cho. Miyagawa-cho has a lot of the charm of the busier Gion, but is also more residential, and much quieter. To my delight we ran into two maiko (trainee geisha) returning from their music lessons. One of them was even wearing her full work rig (work rig, that’s the correct term)! Pretending I had planned it all along, I nonchalantly asked if we could take a photo with her. I could actually start to see myself in that book – “The light breeze whipped at his kimono, exposing his skinny, shiny, hairless ankles, and her heart was all aflutter….”


Meeting a geisha on the streets of Miyagawa-cho.
A good tour leader will seize the moment, and make a coincidence seem like it was planned. Talk about timing! The things you see on the quiet streets of Miyagawa-cho.


Feeling victorious already, I decided to head on to a nice quiet Shinto shrine I knew. A great place to get some good pics, and get me further into Erica’s good books – or at least one good book. (I was beginning to wonder what my name would be… would she use Ben? I was partial to either Balthazar, or Gary).

Step three of the grand plan was to walk up the narrow streets to Gion to be admired by the afternoon crowd. Erica San seemed to be managing moving around in her kimono quite well, whereas I was tripping over myself the whole time. We made our way over to Shimbashi-dori, probably the most romantic street in Kyoto. Shimbashi-dori is a very popular spot for couples out strolling in kimonos, but you don’t see many westerners dressed up, so we found it easy to make some new friends. I guess they were impressed we were trying (and that Erica was actually pulling it off, while I…. well, I was just trying).


Erica James in Shimbashi-dori, Kyoto.
Shimbashi-dori. Take a walk by the Shirakawa canal on the beautiful flagstone streets. Gorgeous all year around, stunning in cherry blossom season.

Not feeling as confident as I did earlier on, I decided to pull one more showstopper out of the bag, and whisked Erica over to Nanzenji Temple by taxi. Nanzenji is often overlooked, not being included amongst the five great Zen temples of Kyoto (Kyoto Gozan). What a lot of people don’t know about Nanzenji is that it actually ranks above all five of those great temples. The things I most love about Nanzenji are its simplicity, its natural setting, its aqueduct and the fact it is usually quiet (it can get busy in the autumn, but it’s the best time to see it). Another of Nanzenji’s attractions are its gardens, and as Erica is an avid gardener, I thought I’d score a few more points.

We finished up the day by visiting a beautiful Japanese teahouse from the thirties, also with really lovely gardens, before returning by taxi to Miyagawa-cho, to be greeted by Kumiko and Kazuki.


Erica James in Japanese teahouse
Not a bad place for a cup of tea.

And the denouement?

Having changed back into our regular clothes and headed back to the hotel, I tried to steer the conversation towards what kind of story Erica had in mind next. I cleverly joked – “You’re not thinking of doing some sort of period peace are you? Perhaps something about a foreigner in Japan?” (I’m very subtle). I was taken aback by her answer; she’s thinking of writing her first comedy. Hmmm….

Thanks, you three. I love you!

InsideJapan Tours can arrange a kimono-wearing experience as part of any tailored trip. Just get in touch with one of our experts to find out more.

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