Walking down the congested crosswalk in front of the train station, an arch of blue snowflakes looms ahead, identifying the well-known street. Passing underneath it, as far as the eye can see, shops line the streets with splashes of pink and pastels and bubbly lettering and lace. A trio of girls chatters and giggles as they bypass you, their puffy short dresses, bows and frills, and laced up platforms reminiscent of Victorian clothing, making you sneak another glance as you try not to ogle.
Store clerks, dressed in the attire representative of their workplace, linger by the entrances beckoning and calling out to passersby in an attempt to lure in customers. This is nothing like the business suits and casual wear you are accustomed to normally in Tokyo. But then you remember that Tokyo isn’t just a typical city, but rather, it is divided into wards and districts that have cultivated their own distinct identity. With its little niche, Harajuku is no different.
As you wander further down, the sweet smell of cream and sugar wafts toward you. Small crêperies are interspersed liberally among the clothing stores and purikura places, offering both sweet and savory crêpes. For the number of them all clustered in such close proximity, one would think that some would be unable to compete and go out of business, but considering the sheer amount of traffic of the street, it is unlikely.
Perusing the storefronts, you notice a trend. Male clothing looks grungier with chains and black coloring. There is a darker, edgier feel with the graphic t-shirts and distressed jeans. It is also one of the few times in this highly homogenous country that there, you see a number of men with African origins as they promote their stores. On the other side, with female clothing, the variety is much greater. As much as there is normal attire, there are also shops that sell doll-like, Victorian-esque dresses like the ones that the girls you passed by earlier wore. However, there are also shops that sell tight, brightly colored, sequined, gaudy clothes that might make you exclaim, “What the heck?” as you gawk, wondering if anyone dares wear them in public before you reassess that thought. People in these parts seem to want to express themselves in the way they wear things. It feels as if this is the way that they set themselves apart from their peers when everyone else dresses similarly and are for the most part Japanese. At the same time, it also seems like Harajuku is a place where individuals who do not exactly fit the grain have somewhere that they do. Dare I call it an air of rebellion against the stiff homogeneity that exists elsewhere?
Parts of Harajuku are eclectic and vibrant, thrumming with youth and vigor. It pushes against the status quo with its graffitied walls and vending machines, which elsewhere are pristine and unmarred.
But as you continue wandering down paths aimlessly, you find yourself spat out in front of a busy street that intersects tall commercial buildings that scream Dior, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and retro cafés nestled within brick walls in contrast to the steel and glass. It is a scene that can be pulled out of San Francisco or any of the big cities back in the U.S. It is jarring, and it is like stepping out of another world or dream to rejoin reality. And despite the appeal of chandeliers with their artificial lights and slick floors that reflect back at you, the mini-culture of the part of Harajuku you just left seems more genuine with a life of its own.