Guide to Harajuku
Harajuku was one of the most anticipated locations we were going to visit on our trip to Tokyo. For as long as I'd read mangas and watched animes, I'd dreamed of strolling down the colourful and cute streets of Takeshita Dori. When we arrived, it was a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon (which is possibly the worst time to see it). There were hundreds of people there, so many in fact that we could barely walk down the street without pushing through the horde. It was so neat to see local kawaii kids and a few Lolitas meandering around, but as an overall experience, it was rather stressful and challenging. You couldn't shop with ease, and getting food was out of the question with those lines. I insisted on returning another day to give the area another. I wanted to see if this was the scene every day or only on such a perfect day as we were having. The next time I arrived, it was a slightly rainy morning, and the street was almost empty. Below is a combination of photos from both times I visited the famous streets of Harajuku.
Harajuku is an easy destination to get to. The Harajuku Station on the JR East Yamanote Line lets you off right across from the main street or get off at the Meiji-jingumae 'Harajuku' Station served by the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line. You can even take the Tokyo Metro on the Fukutoshin Line - so no matter where you are, it's only a train ride away.
Outside the train station on busy days you can see hundreds of teenagers hanging out, listening to cute boys singing K-Pop songs and selling their CDs. Girls giggle and blush as the singers seem to point to them as they move into their next romantic ballad. We were sure to people watch here for a few minute before moving along. Above the train station when we were there was a huge poster advertising the next big manga series with an image of a somewhat androgynous man with his arm leaning against a mousy looking girl. The classic tale.
Harajuku isn't just one street. It's the name of a general area spreading from Harajuku Station to Omotesando. In this area, you'll find dozens of tiny alleyways and side streets where you can discover the newest in alternative, youth fashion.
Although Harajuku has become more of a tourist attraction and has lost some of its original uniqueness, there are still lots of interesting stores if you get away from the main drag. Streets like Cat Alley are where you can still find independent retailers selling the hottest Japanese fashions and lifestyle accessories.
In addition to clothes and accessories, you can also find Japanese souvenirs at pretty good prices, so it's a good place to pick up some presents for back home while you're here.
Paris Kid was probably my favourite store. Inside are thousands of accessories in amazing kawaii (cute) Japanese designs. Doughnut shaped earrings and cute kitten headbands were plastered all over the walls. Everything was really cheap, most things going at a rate of 3 for $10, 5 for $15, etc., etc. Since it was almost Halloween when we visited most of the speciality items were Halloween themed and seemed the perfect place to visit if you needed a quick Halloween costume or just some random accessories to get you in the spirit.
Harajuku initially became the hot spot for Japanese fashion back in the 1970's. A large fashion house called "Palais France" was built on Meiji Street near the exit of Takeshita Street and sold fashion-forward clothes, accessories and more. With this one large store drawing people down to this area more popular fashion chains started opened up. Then small independent retailers popped up to take advantage of the fashionable crowds.
Although the masses of people seem overwhelming, these Sunday crowds have been happening since 1977, when they closed down the street to traffic and turned it into a pedestrian only walkway. On Sundays you'd see local bands gather to play and fashionable Lolitas, punks and creatives modelling their incredible wearable creations. Now a days, more and more people are moving away from the streets and over to the nearby Yoyogi park to gather on Sundays, but you can still see your fair share of uniquely dressed individuals any day of the week, shopping for the perfect accessory to complete their outfit.
In addition to the clothes along the street, there are two other big draws. One is the incredible architecture and design seen on the outsides of these buildings and in their store windows. The other is the inventive food being served up from tiny little nooks and crannies under brightly coloured awnings.
Crepes have had a surge in popularity in Japan. It might seem like a recent phenomenon since the creation of Instagram and "food selfies", but crepes have been a Japanese fascination for over 40 years. "Marion Crepes" has stood in the same spot since 1976. They brought pancakes to Japan, but instead of the traditional savoury crepes you found in Europe, they added brightly coloured fruits and ice cream to their desserts. Now, you'll pass many different crepe shops, each with dozens of flavours showcased by intricately designed plastic models. You don't even need a knife and fork; they come folded into a cone for a portable sweet treat to enjoy while pursuing the local shops.
Although Lolitas were once always seen walking the streets of Harajuku, their popularities has shrunk over the years. They do like the attention, but it became too overwhelming, and often it's almost impossible for a Lolita to walk down the street without being hounded for hundreds of selfies. But, there are still many Lolita fashion shops in Harajuku selling darling, lacey dresses.
You can also find stores dedicated to cosplaying, selling costumes and wigs. These are not very cheap, but you can find designs and colours you'd never see anywhere else in the world.
The clothes might have all run a little small for people as tall and curvy as me, but there were so many stores which sold darling accessories with an overwhelming Japanese/kawaii flavour. Other souvenirs many visitors buy while they are here are cosmetics from Etude House, a Korean makeup company who have set up a dollhouse inspired store front. Korean makeup is known the world over as one of the best, and even local Japanese girls will travel down here to get their hands on some of these goods.
No matter where you look while you're on this street, you're bound to see something surprising. As we walked, I saw a giant, rainbow cotton candy being carried across a busy street and placed into the welcome hands of an excited teenage girl. The line up was a bit long for us to wait but I've got my heart set on that for the next time we visit.
The street's busy and bustling atmosphere is hard to ignore, but we tried our best to make an effort to look up as much as we could. On top of some of the buildings were incredible works of art by local artists and intricately painting "graffiti" colouring the sometimes drab skyline.
"Daiso Harajuku" was one of my favourite shops. Daiso has now also found its way into the US, but we still don't have it in Canada. Inside this massive four-story building is one of the largest 100 Yen Shops in Tokyo. You'll find anything from clothes to kitchenware, food and best of all - stationary. Unlike dollar stores in North America, everything is 100 yen ($1), and you'll find some absolute bargains for items you'd never believe are only $1.
6% DokiDoki is one of Harajuku's most iconic stores. Selling crazy coloured clothing and accessories. It looks like a Lisa Frank store exploded made just for those adults who never grew up. Hearts, stars and sparkles are mandatory in everything you see, and neon is the base layer for almost everything.
I had a great time exploring the store, everything is created with such love, and even just a small piece would brighten up any outfit. The cost of these clothes was pretty high, but for such unique things, it is something worth picking up.
I had to stop on the stoop of this store to take a picture of their fantastic pastel tiles. Because...it's just so pretty!!!
Most of the shoe stores here didn't have my size, but if you have feet any smaller than a size 8 US than you'll be laughing! There are such amazing designs to be found here from random companies you'd never heard of. Some might not be the best quality, but at such a low price, they're always worth giving a try and will be a huge conversation piece when you get home.
Japan is also home to some very cute, delicious and almost "too pretty to eat" candies. So if you're suitcase it already too full with souvenirs, you can always grab a small handful of candy to munch on while you explore. Any reason to go into these shops and take millions of pictures of the adorable coloured gummies.
At the end of Takeshitadori, you'll find the actual "Harajuku" street. You'd think the main drag would be Harajuku since it's the name of the area but the real Harajuku street is a tiny, quiet laneway.
Harajuku street itself is one of the best places to get away from the crowds. There might be a fair few people right at the entrance where the sign is but they die off quite quickly since most of them just want the photo. Along this street, you'll find vintage stores selling fashions from decades past for reasonable prices.
Also at the end of Taskieshitadori, you'll find an enormous clock. Bright pink and covered in neons toys, furry, felt and more. This is the Moshi Moshi Box. The Moshi Moshi Box provides tourists with sightseeing information, free wifi and a currency exchange. The piece was designed by kawaii impresario Sebastian Masuda. Stand beside it and look at all the different bits of ephemera used to create this visual sensation.
I wasn't in the mood for a crepe, but I was desperate to get something from on of those decora sweets shops. I opted for a bubble tea parfait, complete with whipped cream topping. It was as beautiful as the plastic model and tasted even better.
One thing that no tourist area is complete without is a Starbucks, but surprisingly enough, the Harajuku Starbucks is devoid of decoration and is a pretty standard design. I was hoping that they gave themselves the freedom to do something exciting, but unfortunately, it was pretty disappointing.
As you walk towards Omotesando, you'll pass by Jingumae crossing. It's hard to ignore the building which stands on the intersection between Omotesando and Harajuku. This is the Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku. It houses all the high-end fashion brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Gucci and Chanel. As you approach your eye will be immediately caught by the dazzling kaleidoscope of mirrors that serves as the entrance to the mall. They call this the Stargate. And with good reason.
The building was designed by Hiroshi Nakamura. He wanted it to reflect, "the time and the season, for an ever-changing view,". Standing outside or in, you can see all around the crossing. The people, the landscape and the colours that change within it.
We headed back towards Harajuku station to head back home. On the way out, we stopped at the newly built Tamagotchi store opposite the station. A Tamagotchi is a handheld digital pet, created in Japan by Akihiro Yokoi bin 1996. Inside this little digital egg was a pet which you had to feed, clean and care for to keep it alive. There were three buttons, and I don't think anyone ever figured out what they did. Everyone I knew had at least one of two of these. You think kids on their phone are annoying now? Well, we all were playing these under our desks in class when we were young. They were a cultural obsession. It's been 20 years since they were released and for their anniversary, Bandai decided to bring them back for a new generation. Looking at all the promotional material and picking up a Tamagotchi again for the first time in 20 years brought me back to memories of recess time in grade eight. The new version has a lot more bells and whistles and costs an ungodly $50. I would have easily bought one if they were still only $20 but $50 seemed just a little too steep. Kids these days must make a lot more allowance than we did.
Despite the crowds, Harajuku is just one of those places you must see. Even if you don't like shopping or fashion, the uniqueness of such a place is something worth exploring if you find yourself wandering around the streets of Japan.