FOR MOST OF the week Ichiro Tonogi is a typical salaryman, squeezed anonymously and uncomfortably like millions of Japanese office workers into a plain off-the-rack suit that has the shirt sticking to his back by eight in the morning. But by the weekend he's transformed into Kimono-man when he dons Japan's traditional costume and strolls around his suburban neighbourhood looking more like a feudal lord than a wage slave. 'It looks and feels a lot better than a suit,' he says, fingering the collar. 'I feel free in this.' Fellow kimono fan Kyoko Ishihara agrees. 'Men and women look strong and sexy in traditional Japanese clothes,' she says. 'They should wear them more often.' Few do, however. Already a fading tradition before the second world war, silk kimonos were swept aside by the cultural transformation that accompanied urbanisation in the 1950s and 60s. Expensive, unwieldy and increasingly viewed as an anachronism in a country aping all things western, they are one of the many victims - along with tea shops, decent parks and clean politics - of Japan's modern lifestyle. For years, kimono wearers were like exotic plumed birds stranded in Japan's urban landscape. Recently, however, they've been making something of a comeback. Although sales of new kimonos have been plummeting for years, falling prices, cheaper materials and a recent recycling boom is rekindling interest, particularly among the fussy twenty and thirtysomethings that help prop up Japan's huge consumer market. More than two million second-hand kimonos have been sold since 2001, while the market for used and replica kimonos has swelled from six billion yen ($434 million) in 1999 to an estimated 50 billion yen this year, according to industry watcher Yano Intelligence. Antique kimono shops and kimono cafes have sprouted up in some of Tokyo and Kyoto's most fashionable areas, and a five-volume series of books called Kimono Hime (Kimono Princess), which proselytises for Japan's ethnic costume, has sold more than 300,000 copies in three years. Earlier this year, Kyoto put the seal on kimonos' new trendy status by offering free subway and bus rides to anyone wearing one. The success of Kimono Hime underlines the changing status of a costume once worn almost exclusively on formal occasions such as weddings and coming-of-age ceremonies - celebrated when teenagers turn 20. Read, according to editor Mayumi Tanabe, mainly by women in their late 20s, the series has helped take kimonos out of their musty landscape of tea ceremonies and flower-arranging obaasans (grandmothers) and into the hands of younger enthusiasts hankering for authenticity in a world of synthetic blandness. 'When I started to get interested in kimono, I could only find publications on formal clothes,' says Tanabe, who describes herself as a kimono lover. 'I wanted to create something with a more casual take on these clothes. We are trying to focus on the visual appeal of kimono rather than the practical aspect, so the book is like a fashion magazine.' Kimono Hime sparked a minor fashion revolution by showing youngsters brought up on jeans and T-shirts how ethnic dress could be worn with designer handbags, high heels and mobile phone straps. The series arrived as thousands of old kimonos came on to the market, driven out of dusty drawers by Japan's decade-long economic slump which created an enormous demand for recycled goods. Firms such as Tokyo Yamaki, which was set up in 1999 and now has more than 80 branches nationwide, created a market almost from scratch by buying and reselling kimonos; quality items that 10 years ago cost as much as 300,000 yen a pop can now be had for the price of a night out. 'You can pick up antique kimonos now for 5,000 yen,' says Kazuo Tonogai, of the Kyoto Foundation for the Promotion of Japanese Dress. 'Young people wear them now during everyday life, instead of just on special occasions. It is one of the main reasons for their popularity.' Yuko Iitaka, 32, says she always slips into a kimono on her days off. 'Kimonos were so pricey when I was growing up they were only used for special occasions like graduations, not going out on the weekends,' she says. 'But you can pick up beautiful designs from the Taisho era [1912-1926] so cheap now.' Her friend, Tomoko, says they are now cheap enough to wear around the house. 'I wear it even when I'm cleaning and washing,' she says. 'My husband likes it.' Thanks to these changes, pigeon-toed kimono wearers, some sporting accessories such as dyed blonde hair and leather boots that would once have had traditionalists spluttering into their green tea, can now be found gliding along Tokyo's voguish Harajuku district, a short physical distance but a cultural world away from the kimono's more natural habitat in elegant Ginza. The silk kimono's poor cousin, the colourful cotton yukata, patterned in pastels, goldfish and chrysanthemums, is even more ubiquitous thanks to Japan's increasingly hot summers when moving around in a stiff office suit is an exercise in sweaty endurance. Many younger women have learned how to put together a kimono ensemble, not from the dull picture books that lie in houses all over Japan, but from fashion magazines. 'I read about how you can combine the obi [outer sash] with matching accessories like shoes and mobile phone covers,' says 19-year-old Emi Ishii, whose grandmother would surely have frowned upon the idea of wearing a Hello Kitty brooch on a silk kimono. Young enthusiasts increasingly gather in places such as the Rentier Cafe in Takadanobaba, where a small coterie of silk-clad customers sip coffees and silently demonstrate the kimono's mysterious ability to transform the wearer: short, unprepossessing men become squat and powerful, and the plainest of women take on an exotic and sexual quality. 'I definitely feel more ladylike when I wear one,' says 26-year-old Miho Iketa, who comes to the cafe regularly with college friends, including Kanako Morii who says: 'I think they have a lot of charm and elegance, the way you can choose a unique design that suits your personality and look.' One question arises though: aren't kimonos, which can take up to an hour to put on, a lot of trouble, especially when nature calls? 'Older kimonos were like that, but not any more,' Tomoko says. 'They're as convenient as jeans and more comfortable.' Rentier's kimono days are run by amateur enthusiasts such as designer Eri Tanaka and architect Junko Nasumo, two 28-year-olds who say they're trying to blend tradition with a new appreciation for a culture they love. They are two of many fans who have set up websites dedicated to the 'way of the kimono'. 'Some people are upset I suppose but I think it's good that the rules of kimono have loosened,' Tanaka says. 'I like that you can wear them anywhere now, and that you can add your own personal touches. I just wish more men would wear them. They look great in them.' Lurking at the back of the mini-boom though is something deeper and more resonant than just aesthetic appreciation. Even while racing to the future, Japan has always been ambiguous about the loss of its cultural heritage to western-inspired modernity. And as the once seemingly invincible economic miracle has faltered and Japan nervously embraces globalisation, many Japanese are increasingly looking to the past for clues about where to go next, one reason why many traditions - and historical revisionism - are resurgent. Many of the kimono enthusiasts say they think the appeal of the kimono is partly its link with the past. 'I'm not particularly patriotic,' says Tonogi, a Rentier regular. 'But every country should protect its own culture and this is Japanese culture.' Tomoko agrees. 'Japan lost something when it became an economic power and that's sad, but this is our chance to get something back,' she says. 'Of course I don't think it would be sensible for people to go to work every day in a kimono, but it would be nice if we could just remember once in a while where we came from.'