“Unfamiliar Street” is a travel series in which we introduce you to streets from all around the world, far from the well-trod gravel of Prospect Avenue.
Architect Toshiko Mori once said, “More than any other city, Tokyo demonstrates that ‘city’ is a verb and not a noun.” I was able to see for myself what she was talking about when I took a trip to Tokyo over fall break. Upon arriving in Tokyo, I could feel a steady pulse that suggested that this city was very much alive. As I moved closer into the Shibuya district, this pulse became a steady energetic rhythm further encouraged by the fast-paced lifestyle that defined the megalopolis. Nowhere was this more evident than in Harajuku, and at the epicenter of it all, Takeshita Street.
Takeshita Street is very representative of the fusion of tradition and modernity that permeates culture in Japan. A huge, decorated arch indicates that you have reached the entrance to the pedestrian-only, cobblestone street. The arch borrows inspiration from the impressive gate entries to the many Buddhist temples that adorn Japan. The bright, decorative images attached to the arch are indicative of the pervasive culture of cute that dominates in modern-day Japanese society. Once you make your way through these proverbial gates, if you are still looking up, to your left you will see a pagoda-style building, clearly a relic from Takeshita Street’s past. To your right, you will see a shiny, angular structure that is home to many modish shops and restaurants.
Once you fix your eyes on what is in front of you, you can see into a gaggle of tourists, locals and store owners. Take a couple steps and to your left you will see a McDonald’s where, as if in an auction, a McDonald’s worker bids people to come and buy food. The fact that this well-known food conglomerate needs to beg people to eat in its establishment is evidence enough that there must be many more interesting food options in the area. And there are. Two shops down from the McDonald’s you will find one of many ice cream and crêpe shops that dot the street. There is an exotic range of flavors and options, representative of the cosmopolitanism that dominates this area. You can choose a matcha ice cream and sweet potato crepe pairing or a banana and blueberry crepe with fudge chocolate filling.
If you are able to tear yourself away from there without buying one (I was not as disciplined and have the matcha ice cream stain to prove it), you can continue up the path to then be confronted with the unique clothing boutiques that define the street and Harajuku style. It is in these stores where the creativity and innovation that are distinctive to Japanese fashion become clearly evident. Walk into the bright pink shop with laser lights for bodysuits made of bright feathers and polka dots. Look to your left through the silk curtain to find dinosaur-patterned prom dresses. The hole-in-a-wall a couple paces down has sky-high velvet boots and anime character backpacks. While you are enveloped in this enclave of experimental couture, you might take a second to notice that the people who are cooing and encouraging you to come into their stores are themselves one of a kind. With their brightly dyed, avant-garde haircuts, colored contacts, piercings over every inch of their bodies and impossibly cool outfits, they looked like the proper characters for the magical realist land I was sure I had stepped into.
I was struck by the internationalism of the street hustlers who encourage you to walk away from the street to check out their multitude of fine goods. Nowhere else in Japan had I seen as many immigrants, and I was impressed by their ability to switch between multiple languages depending upon their assessment of their potential customer’s native tongue. I allowed myself a tactile engagement with the merchandise on the street. I float in and out of almost every store, pausing to allow my fingers to linger on and feel all of the different pieces, and run my hand down menus to try to figure out what gastronomic experiences the restaurants promised.
What I love about Takeshita Street is how unabashedly comfortable it is with itself. As an amateur fashion enthusiast, I couldn’t help but be thrilled at the ways in which people are free to experiment on this street. Risks are being taken. Daring choices are being made. New ideas are being had and realized. And within that exists a freedom that allowed me, even as a foreigner, to feel like I could be (and wear) whatever I wanted. However odd the ensemble created might be, I knew I would not be considered a standout, but a contributor to a movement of people who do (and dress) for themselves, without caring what the world deems acceptable. Once I had pushed my way through to the other end of the street, which led back to a busy road laden with monochromatic, shiny skyscrapers, I couldn’t help but turn around and feel a sense of longing and wistfulness for the wonderful world that I had the privilege of being part of, even if only for a moment, on Takeshita Street.