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In Djibouti, Africa, with Matsuda (right)
Kenzo Takada

Kenzo Takada (11) Halfway around the world on a wondrous trip

Awed by traditional clothing, I realized the connection between style and culture

The boat trip took a month. It was a leisurely voyage that took us to Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe, with numerous stopovers as we traveled from Yokohama to Marseille.

The waves were rough in the East China Sea and I became seasick, but perhaps because I was still young, my body became accustomed to the motion in a matter of days.

Due to my financial circumstances, I was only able to buy a one-way ticket. Still, there was a French cabin boy who did everything from making the bed to cleaning and bringing meals, so I got a taste of what it must be like to be an aristocrat. I soaked up the dazzling sunshine by the poolside and enjoyed parties, concerts and film screenings every day.

Once aboard, there was no need to worry about food or lodgings. Because we stayed one or more nights at each port of call -- Hong Kong, Saigon, Singapore, Colombo, Bombay, Djibouti, Alexandria, Barcelona, Marseille -- we had plenty of time to observe local cultures, customs and lifestyles.

Dazzling and shocking

I was shocked at the two sides -- the light and the shadow -- that this international city possessed

The first stop we made after leaving Japan was Hong Kong. As this was the first time I had ever set foot in a foreign country, it was a profoundly moving experience. The view from Victoria Peak, the setting for the movie "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing," was breathtakingly beautiful. Buildings and homes spread out on the lush, green mountain slopes, and brown junks could be seen floating on the blue ocean below. 

Mitsuhiro Matsuda, his wife and I talked excitedly as we took a rest in a hillside cafe.

"Wow, look at the view from here. I've seen this in a movie."

"It's wonderful. It's like we're starring in a film."

But when we glanced toward the seashore, we could see people who lived on the water in crude boats. I was shocked at the two sides -- the light and the shadow -- that this international city possessed.

At night, we went out to a disco on a busy street. A Philippine band and dancers livened up the atmosphere with a brisk rhythm. The women in that dark hall were decked out in splendid Mandarin gowns. I was captivated by the bold cuts and bright colors.

On the streets of Saigon, women on bicycles let the long hems of their traditional ao dai dresses flutter in the breeze. The deep slits in these dresses made it easier for the women to move, and also emphasized their femininity. This functional beauty, so full of wisdom, made me sigh unconsciously in appreciation. 

In Bombay, we took a walk through the slums. Buzzing with flies, the alleys were the epitome of unsanitary conditions. Adults and children alike went around barefoot. The extent of their poverty left me speechless, but the richly colored saris that the women wore and the accessories they adorned themselves with were so beautiful they took my breath away.

In Djibouti, which is sandwiched between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, the bold colors of loincloths and boubous, a type of gown worn by folding a large piece of fabric in two, shimmered against the wearers' brown skin. In a land of such blistering heat, I realized, such styles made perfect sense.

Although we call it all "clothing," each area, with its own history, climate and temperament, has produced its own unique style.

The world was far broader than I had ever imagined, and so full of variety. Having been born and raised on an island nation in East Asia, this was a shocking discovery for me.

I wrote postcards and letters home to my mother telling her of my wonderful experiences in each of these locations. Each day was so fresh and new that I never had the time to feel homesick.

Our ship, the Cambodia, passed through the Suez Canal, entered the Mediterranean Sea and docked at Barcelona before finally arriving at Marseille. It was New Year's Eve 1964. A salute of guns rang out loudly. The port city in southern France was overflowing with a lively mood of celebration.

Kenzo Takada is a fashion designer known for his eponymous label Kenzo, which he left in 1999.

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