Until recently my first and only association with Harajuku was Gwen Stefani’s less mainstream clothing line called ‘Harajuku Lovers’; the quirky-cutesy, colorful character-stamped look of the ‘Harajuku Lovers’ design is the epitomy of Harajuku’s street style.
Sundays were supposed to be best for a visit there, as that’s when teenagers engaged in ‘cosplay’ show up and hang out around Harajuku train station dressed up in unique costumes to represent animie (characters from the Japanese animated films), some version of Lolita and others of the like. Generally, the underlying idea, as far as I understand it, is to demonstrate cuteness (kawaii – 可愛い), or to appear lovable and adorable both visually and behaviorally. Based on what I read on the subject, this strive for being ‘cute’ appears to be the current face of the urban Japanese youth. This, of course, may be too broad of a generalization, but my sporadic personal observations seem to agree with it.As expected, this was also the area’s most crowded day of the week. Takeshita Dori, the main street in Harajuku, greeted us with a river of people as soon as we walked out of the train station.We dived in the crowd and flowed with the stream with a steady step until, some 400 meters later, the river gently spit us out at the other end of the street. The few who had chosen to move in the opposite direction seemed like trouts swimming upstream, inching slowly through the oncoming avalanche of people.From what I could see, if you ignore the people and the signs in Japanese, the area very much reminded me of ‘The Village’ in New York City. It had the small fashion boutiques and trendy shops, geared towards people with a funky fashion sense.It also had cafes, and ice cream parlors, crepe stands and fast food outlets and generally the atmosphere was saturated with the same casual uniqueness that ‘The Village’ possesses.And while we did meet a dozen young people dressed up dutifully as part of the so called ‘cosplay’, most were just attired in what seems to be Tokyo’s prevalent youth fashion – hip, with a slice of hippie and a rainbow of colors. Pink, being the girliest (and the essence of ‘cutesy’) of all colors was omnipresent, more or less. Ladylike purses and handbags were seemingly not in style, replaced instead by backpacks and fabric shoulder bags. A good part of the girls also lugged around small suitcases on 4 wheels which seem to be more part of the styling rather than anything else.Harajuku is also the home of Yoyogi Koen, one of Tokyo’s largest city parks. I don’t have pictures to show, however, as our stroll through the park was very brief. It was still very early in September and the humidity in the air was high, which created a hospitable living environment for the mosquitoes in the park. After a few bites we chose a quick way out without truly enjoying the splendor of Yoyogi, as promised by the guide books. The part of the park, which is right behind Harajuku station is pretty dark, with high trees blocking the sunlight and once inside, there is this persistent high pitched noise coming from some creatures (birds or insects), echoing back and forth. My ears just begged me to run away.
On a more practical note: here is a map from japan-guide.com of Harajuku and Omotesando (a post on the latter is to follow).Getting to Harajuku is fairly easy once you have access to the Yamanote line on the JR train system. Harajuku station is two stops after Shinjuku and one stop after Shibuya. It is not a big station like the previous two, yet lots of people get off here, so naturally the area outside the station is always packed up with people hanging out in groups.Random observation: At the time of our trip, large flip phones appeared to be the norm among devices for mobile communications available to Japanese consumers. I could almost swear that I didn’t see a single Apple phone or a Blackberry in the hands of anyone, and considering we used the train (where people tend to fiddle with their phones) a few times daily, we’re talking a statistical sample of at least 50 phones. All of these were uniformly flip, no exception.