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Olympic Tourists Admire Kimonos

February 19, 1998

NAGANO, Japan (AP) _ Olympic tourists who are thinking of buying a kimono for a souvenir had better think again. Dressing up like a geisha can cost as much as one _ or possibly two _ compact cars.

A fancy kimono runs about $40,000. Even a cheap one is about $4,000 _ the reason few Japanese have been seen wearing them at the Olympics, except for the official medal-carriers.

Just the sash alone, called ``obi″ (pronounced Oh-bee), can cost hundreds of dollars.

``I’d definitely like to try one on,″ said gold-medal winning U.S. ice hockey player Alana Blahoski. ``I think they’re beautiful material. It’s very elegant looking.″

But will she dish out thousands of dollars?

``I could, but I don’t think I would.″

A cultural program at the Olympic Village allows athletes, both male and female, to try on a kimono for free. Yekaterina Dafovska, the biathlon gold-medalist from Bulgaria, tried it. So did Canadian speedskater Jeremy Wotherspoon.

Most tourist-shoppers at the Olympics are settling for cotton kimono-like robes called ``yukata″ (pronounced you-kah-tuh), which cost $50, or short jackets called ``happi coats,″ at about $30.

Both are genuine Japanese wear. But they are not kimono.

Unless they’re rich, Japanese rent kimono to wear at weddings and funerals, for fees ranging from about $600 for a relatively undecorative but respectable affair, to thousands of dollars for a bridal outfit in full splendor.

One Nagano store, Komura, bought used kimono from rental shops especially for Olympic tourists. The second-hand kimono, which no Japanese would ever buy, went for bargain rates of about $100 each. They sold out in three days.

The clerks at Komura were surprised that Westerners were snatching up faded kimono to hang around their rooms, or to cut in pieces for framing.

``Foreigners don’t see kimono the way a Japanese does,″ said Tatsuo Komura, the 69-year-old owner, who claims he’s not making much money from the sales. ``But I want them to go back feeling happy about being in Japan.″

Just putting on a kimono can be a complex art, and there are schools to teach one how to do it. It also requires the purchase of expensive paraphernalia, including special undergarments, special leather ``zori″ (zoh-reeh) slippers, a matching bag, several ropes and ribbons, plus the sash.

``I’d love to buy a kimono,″ said Cindy Bowling, 41, who works at a Florida state pavilion during the games.

Bowling, from Clearwater, Fla., was willing to pay $200 for a kimono. ``And that won’t buy me anything,″ she added quickly. ``I just can’t spend $5,000. No way.″

Brad Earley, 38, a photographer with WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, hasn’t bought a kimono yet, even the fake kind, but did buy ``geta″ (gay-tuh) wooden clogs for $15.

``It’s unique and says `Japan,′ ″ he said.

Lance Cross, a 21-year-old hospital worker from Burlington, Vt., bought a $4 bandana, which doesn’t exactly say ``Japan,″ but he was satisfied. Like many other tourists, Cross isn’t looking for expensive souvenirs.

``We like the hot baths,″ he said.

Japanese rarely get more than one or two kimono in their lifetime. Women get a colorful one called ``furisode″ (fooh-reeh-soh-day) from their parents when they turn 21.

This reporter has just one kimono, which used to belong to her mother. But she has never worn it, partly because, like most Japanese women, she has no idea how to put it on.

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