Japan is frequently described as a country of contrasts between tradition and technology, a country of paradoxes. This does not fully encapsulate the Japanese ying and yang. Harajuku shows a different set of contrasts – the contrasts within the Japanese people; how they can be studious and shy during the week, wild and extreme on the weekends.
Harajuku – a reflexion of the inner Japanese
The strangest set of modern Tokyoites gather in this area. On leaving the train station, take a left and cross the street. On the right stretching before you as far as you can see is Takeshita Dori. A sea of heads moves slowly through this street; the clientle are consumers of Gosurori, the new wave punk called Visual Kei (Japanese pop culture with elements of punk and glam rock) and Rockability. These are alternative youth fashions. The young and not so young of Tokyo come to this place to see and be seen.
The most striking fashion is Gosurori or Gothic Lolita. Girls dress in Victorian style fashions; the emphasis is on being infantile – the appearance of a porcelain doll but with a gothic spin. They wear dresses with black and white lace, as well as bonnets and long over-the-knee socks. Perpetrators of this fashion are often seen carrying coffin-shaped handbags in one hand and a teddy bear in the other. These fashions are not worn by wild out-of-control teenagers, but often by the desperately shy, serious and studious types who have a dissatisfaction with the norm and a desire to stand out – and they certainly do. Gosurori appears in the Manga comics and in Anime art; many will pick their favourite character and imitate it.
If Takashita Dori gets a little overwhelming, then a visit to the famous Meiji Jinqu Shrine is in order. Peel off the street over the picturesque Harajuku Bridge. On a Sunday afternoon the alternative youth fashions parade on this bridge, along with musicians and students offering free hugs. It is a social event where youths gather to be photographed.
As you pass the craziness, you quickly enter a wide wooded lane lined with stone lanterns leading to the shrine. It is empty and eerily quiet giving the impression of being in the deep countryside, not the deep city. The tranquility is only occasionally interrupted by the distant sound of a siren.
A long walk deeper into this "countryside" reveals a huge wooden tori gate (the large gates at the entrance to Shinto shrines) and further, the shrine is framed by the gate. Beyond that towering over the shrine is a skyscraper from the nearby business district of Shinjuku.
Meiji Jingu is Tokyo’s largest shrine. Built in 1920 to commemorate Emperor Meiji, it is large, beautiful and incredibly peaceful. It is well known for its traditional weddings, which parade in full view of the onlookers with regularity. The bride (dressed beautifully in a white silk kimono) and her dashing groom walk in the shade of the red umbrella with the traditional wedding party following, to the beating of the drum and whistling of the Japanese flute. It presents to us westerners more a funereal mood rather than a celebratory one.
On New Year's Day you can buy an arrow as a charm at this shrine. The following year on the same day, you return the arrow to the shrine and burn it. Bad luck from the previous year is burned and a new arrow is purchased.
Within the traditional and non traditional, there is another shining light in Harajuku – Fujimama’s; a restaurant favourite of Japanese and Gaijin (foreigners). It's a great place for dinner. If the culture gets too much, it does a fabulous breakfast with a Bloody Mary. Should you feel guilty at this western indulgence, a ginger and wasabi Bloody Mary comes highly recommended to relieve both guilt and sake hangovers.
Getting there: Take the Yamanote line from Shibuya station – one stop.