Here it is – the first post where I explore the individual neighborhoods of Japan’s major cities. That’s what I loved about living in Tokyo – every neighborhood had a different personality, a different character. This being the week of the Olympics, I thought the perfect place to start would be the site of Tokyo’s own Olympic stadium from the Summer Games of 1964.
Harajuku has a reputation and, depending on who you ask, it’s not always a good one. For years, it’s been known as a cosplay (costume play) mecca, the locale where disenfranchised youth from the working-class suburbs would congregate on the weekends and show off their outrageous, exotic and just plain out-there costumes. The prime spot to catch them was always Meiji Bashi, or Meiji Bridge, just outside the Meiji Shrine. They still gather, though not in the same numbers as before – I’ve seen photographers and tourists idly tapping their feet on many a Sunday afternoon, waiting for the action to start.
Before the cosplay kids, however, another group caused quite a stir on the bridge – the Rockabillies. With slicked back hair and poodle skirt-clad groupies, these Grease wannabes would shimmy and shake to the music of the 1960s. At the time, it was quite the scandal – beaucratic strings were pulled and the Rockabillies were booted … but they didn’t go far. These days, they’re just around the corner, at the main entrance to Yoyogi Park.
Yoyogi Park (Yoyogi Koen) is Tokyo’s fourth largest park and an ideal place for people watching, especially on a weekend. After the Pacific War, it housed the Washington Heights Army Barracks for soldiers on assignment in post-war Japan; with all of the buildings in place, it was the logical pick for the Olympic Village in 1964. Athletes didn’t have far to walk for events; the wavy building across the way (Yoyogi National Stadium) hosted swimming and diving competitions. Today, the only diving going on is by rock stars flinging themselves headfirst into the crowd – the acoustics of the building make it great for concerts.
If you circle back towards Harajuku Metro station or Omote-sando (Tokyo’s equivalent of the Champs-Elysees), note the designs on the bridge running parallel to Meiji Bashi. Panels depicting athletes in action grace the bridge’s pylons, a fitting reminder of the neighborhood’s Olympic ties.
Aside from the Meiji Shrine and the photogenic spectacle of the cosplay kids, these three highlights are what bring me back to Harajuku again and again:
- Takeshita-dori – Remember when everyone told you that young Japanese dress really crazy … and yet all you’ve seen on the metro are people in business attire and/or jeans? Wander just a few blocks down Takeshita-dori and you’ll see everything from 7 inch platforms with goldfish in the heels to maids’ costumes and racy undergarments. This is the mecca for alternative style and while you might not be tempted to make any purchases, your camera will have a field day.
- Ota Memorial Museum of Art – Just a block down Omote-sando from the Harajuku JR station is one of my favorite museums in the entire city. Ota was a business man who collected thousands of ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints over his lifetime. His small, hushed museum (where you trade shoes for slippers) holds monthly exhibits on varying themes.
- Tokyu Plaza – When I lived in Tokyo, this used to be GAP. Now, at the big Jingu-mae intersection, the just-opened Tokyu Plaza is my new favorite breakfast stop, thanks to the opening of Bills restaurant on the top floor. My pineapple, kiwi mint smoothie was so memorable I’ve been trying to recreate it at home and the coconut bread was amazingly good. They don’t take brunch reservations but the line moves pretty fast, especially on the weekdays. If you don’t want to wait, skip down a floor to the Starbucks, where you can grab a scone and enjoy the view.
Want to see more Harajuku highlights? Let me help plan your Tokyo itinerary and you’ll get all my insider information to this fun and off-the-wall area.