by Lucy Dayman
The kimono is Japan’s most iconic garment; its uniform silhouette makes it an excellent canvas for all types of unique, traditional, powerful, and meaningful designs. The diversity of the kimono means you can wear it all year, but did you know the kimono actually has its own seasons?
You might know that yukata are typically reserved for the warmer summer months, that’s not the only seasonal variation (check out Yukata vs Kimono: What’s the Difference?). Different kimono designs are worn throughout the year to represent seasonal changes, auspicious occasions, and celebrations of significant calendar events.
These seasonal kimono patterns are not obligatory, there's no reason why you shouldn't play around with different designs, and wear what feels most comfortable to you. As model, artist and passionate kimono collector Cherry Jerrera said in an interview with Japan Objects earlier this year, "people shouldn't be uptight about traditionalism because then traditions will die." Simply have fun and appreciate the beauty and diversity of this incredible garment.
Whether it’s the hanabi (firework) prints for summer fireworks festival season, or the cherry blossoms of spring, each season has its defining collection of traditional patterns. To learn more about when, how, and why people wear seasonal motifs, here’s an essential guide to 19 traditional Japanese kimono patterns you should know about.
Although these days spring hanami celebrations are synonymous with cherry blossoms, plum blossoms are an integral part of the season too. Before the Nara Period (710-94) the Japanese term for flower, hana, typically referred to the plum blossom. Plum trees bloom in the winter, so in Japanese culture they are seen as a precursor of the year to come.
Peacock designs feature heavily on furisode, formal attire for single women. To learn more about different types of kimono, visit 10 Popular Types of Kimono You Might Not Know About. The peacock design was popular during the more recent historical periods the Meiji (1868-1912) and Showa eras (1926-88). They grew to popularity in a time known for its western influence, hence the western style design.
Kusudama are decorative bags that are typically stuffed with medicinal herbs or fragrant aromatics. Their design comes from the Chinese influenced Heian period (794-1185), and they’re considered good luck charms. The best time to wear a kimono with this design is Boy’s Day (May 5) as it’s during Boys Day celebrations that people tie kusudama to their sleeves as a way to ward off bad luck.
Known colloquially as the king of flowers, the peony was introduced from China during the Nara period, but in art and design, Japan has really made this flower a local favorite. This popularity is why the peony is still one of the most popular kimono designs. People first grew peony for their medicinal properties, but they were also revered for their beauty too.
5. Hanakago (Flower Baskets)
SHOP THE LOOK | Hanakago Yukata
Bamboo baskets known as hanakago have long been a staple of everyday life in Japan. They are beautiful, but also very practical, and they’re used for flower picking in spring, which is why they’ve become a common spring kimono pattern. Many of the hanakago you see on kimono designs feature ikebana, the art of Japanese flower design. They’re simple, but when done just right they’re an excellent example of Japan’s love of form and function in harmony.
6. Shiji Floral (Four Seasons)
While it may be most common to see in spring, the shiji floral, or flower of four seasons design indeed features flowers for each season making it a suitable pattern to wear year-round. What makes this kimono pattern so special is the creative way its designers can incorporate the flowers from spring, summer, fall and winter to work in perfect unison. No two ideas are ever quite the same.
SHOP THE LOOK | Red Lilies Yukata
For such a beautiful flower, the lily doesn't feature all that much in historic kimono design. The lily motif became more popular during the Taisho and Showa eras (1912-88), perhaps thanks to the popularity of the flower in the west. Lilies were often seen as flowers to be worn by young unmarried women.
The iconic, tall, elegant bamboo is a motif that's multi-seasonal, but it's especially prominent in summer, maybe because many people love to eat crispy, refreshing bamboo in the warmer months.
Insects often appear on casual and formal kimono designs because they're representative of water. Dragonflies are one of the most common late summertime insects, while fireflies and crickets often appear too. More casual versions of this motif can often be seen on light, breezy summer yukatas.
No other flower features quite as heavily or with as much diversity in the world of kimono design as the chrysanthemum. In Japan the flower signifies longevity and rejuvenation, it was introduced by China during the Nara period and has remained a symbol of the nation's royalty. The best time to wear a chrysanthemum kimono is on Kiku-no-Sekku (Chrysanthemum Festival) held on the ninth day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar.
Fruit and nut motifs are representative of prosperous fall-time harvest, and one of the most common fruits to be represented are grapes. A design titled budo-risu mon (grape and squirrel crest) is a common kimono pattern said to represent good luck and a continuing family line. The background colors of these autumnal kimono often adhere to autumn colors: gold, red, and orange.
12. Maple Leaves
Leaf viewing parties, momiji-gari, are to autumn what hanami are to spring. This colorful turn of the season lasts a lot longer than the fleeting cherry blossoms, so it's a time for people to slow down. During this time of year, curtains would be hung under maple trees to show people where the leaf viewing parties would be held. The best time to wear a kimono pattern like this would be at a momiji-gari celebration.
13. Tale of Genji
During the Heian period, carts were used as the main form of transport for Japanese nobility. On the kimono, these carts are often seen depicted in conjunction with scenes from The Tale of Genji. Written in the 11th century The Tale of Genji is widely regarded as the world's first novel. This piece of literature is the most influential when it comes to kimono design. On the kimono you'll often see genji-guruma (Genji Carts) and moonflower leaves, together they represent the Evening Faces chapter of the novel.
The Edo period was when the art of depicting famous sights of Japanese cities became a popular kimono motif. During this time, the yuzen method of dyeing was being refined, the result: patterns with a lush, whimsical, painting-style look. Icons of Kyoto, like the Kiyomizu-dera temple and Yasaka Shrine, become hallmarks of this type of kimono art movement. Elegant designs of soft firey cedar trees in the fall are also synonymous with this type of design.
The folding fan was developed in Japan and introduced to China sometime around the early 10th century. This folding style fan has long been an essential icon of Japan as it represents prosperity, expansion, and development. They're also often used for greeting and during ceremonial occasions. What makes the fan such an attractive kimono pattern is the way it was used as a small, alternative canvas on which creators could add diversity and imagery within the kimono design.
The phoenix is a mystical bird that represents a multitude of meanings, but in Chinese characters, it represents 'fire' and 'female' making it a powerful kimono motif. Around the Showa period is when the design was most common, although the symbol of the firey bird was softened for a more feminine appeal during this time. It represents loyalty, wisdom, and benevolence. In many kimono designs you'll notice that bamboo also features, this is because according to legend, the phoenix drinks only sweet water and eats only bamboo shoots.
SHOP THE LOOK | Camellia Floral Yukata
Although it is a winter pattern, the characters for camellia in Japanese mean 'spring flower.' They're representative of the forthcoming warmer season, and wearing this design in winter is an anticipatory celebration. Throughout history, they've been seen as an essential flower of Japan. It was during the Edo period that the flower's popularity reached its peak, when the second shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty planted a vibrant camellia garden, inspiring others to do the same.
18. Game Box
Familiar everyday items are commonly used items within Japanese kimono design. Toys and utensils, decorated with flowers, were fun winter patterns suitable for both children and adults. Game boxes like this popular matching game are excellent examples of how such items can be incorporated into the design to create both a playful and delicate motif.
19. Tancho Crane
SHOP THE LOOK | Tancho Crane Kimono
There’s no image more iconic to Japan than this elegant bird. Cranes have long been admired in Japan for their mystical elegance. They live by the water, which is another key element of Japanese design, and they were seen as good luck symbols, especially during weddings. Kimono crane designs often feature both real cranes and paper cranes, the latter of which is seen as a symbol of peace in Japan.