From historical shrines, to futuristic technology, to off the wall avant-garde fashion; Japan has it all. For those short on time, all three worlds collide in the fantastically bizarre neighborhood of Harajuku. Located just a few minutes away from the trendy shopping district of Shibuya; Harajuku is where Tokyo lets its weird side out to play. Let’s dive in.
A Brief Overview
Since the 1970’s, Harajuku has been Tokyo’s mecca of youth culture and fashion. Today, it attracts everyone from high-end shoppers, to designer-hopefuls, to innocently curious spectators… To whatever the hell is going on in this photo.
Step off the train and you’ll be face to face with Takeshita Street; Harajuku’s most famous pedestrian shopping area. I’ve been to many different places in this world, but I’ve yet to find anywhere else that seamlessly blends shopping for trendy dog clothes and stuffing your face with rainbow colored confectionery quite like this place does.
So what can one expect to find during a visit?
Let’s start with the obvious. Things are going to get weird.
If you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in the area on a Sunday and want to feel horribly out of touch, head to Harajuku Bridge to see what the kids are up to in the world of fashion. Here, you’ll find styles ranging from steampunk geishas, to zombie school girls, to anthropomorphic cupcakes, and everything between and beyond. Bring your camera, as most of these fashionistas don’t mind having their photo taken. Just be sure to ask permission first. To ask in Japanese, you can say “shashin wo totte mo ii desu ka?“.
One of a Kind Shopping
If you are feeling inspired after your visit to the frontier of fashion, Takeshita Street is home to some of Japan’s coolest boutique clothing stores. Not quite ready to push your own wardrobe boundaries? No worries. You’ll be happy to know that there are many options for the more “fashionably-modest” among us as well.
Enjoy the Confectionery Arts
Just a short walk away from Takeshita Street is Omotesando; a trendy little neighborhood filled with high-end luxury stores. Now, since this is a budget travel blog, we won’t be talking about those stores. However, there is one cool spot you should stop and visit that won’t cost you a dime. Candy Show Time (〒150-0001 Tokyo, Shibuya, Jingumae, 6 Chome−31-15 マンション31 １F) is a relatively small sweets shop, but offers one of the coolest live candy making demonstrations I’ve ever seen. It’s tough to describe, but stop by and be amazed as they expertly craft tiny images into bite-sized hard candies right before your eyes.
Escape to Nature
If the throngs of people are becoming too much, the nearby green spaces of Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park may be just what you need. Meiji, with it’s towering traditional gateways and hand-painted kazaridaru (sake barrels), embodies the juxtaposition of old-world and modern Japan that I love so much. Walking the grounds to the shrine feels a bit like stepping out of time and visiting the Japan of the past. If you’re lucky, you may even witness a traditional ceremony or wedding taking place here.
Yoyogi Park is Tokyo’s answer to New York’s Central Park; a sprawling 134 acre area where one can lay out on the grass and forget about the glittering neon robots that await just outside. Again, Sunday is the day to be here for interesting photos, as Japan’s resident rockabillies come out to dance to 1950’s rock and roll classics. It’s a great opportunity to snap some vintage-looking black and white photos, or to simply join in for The Twist. Your call.
So. Many. People.
If you don’t do well in crowds, you’re probably better off avoiding Tokyo altogether. This holds particularly true in Harajuku and the surrounding neighborhoods. Quite simply, the streets are packed with tourists and locals alike; all presumably competing in an unspoken game of “Who Can Walk The Slowest”. This point is really driven home on long, narrow streets like Takeshita. Once you’re in the flow of foot traffic, don’t expect to change direction until you’ve reached the end of the road.
Boutique fashion and tight budgets typically don’t go hand in hand. Unfortunately, Harajuku is no exception to the rule. If you want unique, “ahead of the trend” clothes, expect to pay “beyond your budget” prices. If your inner Gwen Stefani won’t let you leave without bringing home some of the signature local style with you, just be prepared to manage your expectations… and maybe skip dinner.
This one belongs in a category all on its own. In addition to all of its other oddities, Harajuku is also home to the famous Kawaii Monster Cafe. This place is almost beyond description. Imagine for a moment that instead of tumbling down the rabbit hole, Alice instead fell into a vat of LSD. Now we’re getting closer to what you can expect.
For those not familiar with the word, the name translates to “Cute Monster Cafe”. Everything here is bright, colorful, and exactly the amount of weird you would expect from a Tokyo theme cafe. The sugary, rainbow-hugged theme is applied to everything from the bathroom decor down to the food. Every hour or so, performers gather at the dessert carousel in the middle of the restaurant (obviously) for a dance performance. If you are prone to epileptic seizures, you might want to sit this one out, as it’s the perfect embodiment of “sensory overload”.
The cafe is slightly on the pricey side, but if you’re determined to experience the weird and wonderful Tokyo you’ve seen in movies and on TV, this is not a bad place to start doing so. I’d recommend making reservations ahead of time, as you will most often find a line outside the door waiting to get in.
So there you have it. Harajuku is a bizarre, saccharine-fueled day dream that is not to be missed by any traveler with a penchant for coloring outside the lines of life. If you’re in Tokyo, be sure to pay it a visit. As always, if you have any questions or have your own Harajuku travel tips to offer, send me an email!