Exploring the ever-changing trends of Harajuku, Tokyo's fashion-forward neighbourhood

Tokyo’s most famous district is the spiritual home of self-expression in the city, filled with quirky emporiums and indie clothing boutiques.

Shoppers on Takeshita Street, Harajuku, an area famous for experimental fashion boutiques.

Photograph by Mark Parren Taylor
By Jamie Lafferty
Published 27 Sept 2022, 15:00 BST

The well-documented pressure in Japanese society to conform is sometimes summed up by the idiom ‘the nail that stands out gets hammered down.’ For a long time, Harajuku, the celebrated fashion and shopping neighbourhood in the west of Tokyo, was blissfully hammer-free. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, it became the international poster child of Japanese eccentricity, a hub of genuine counterculture where young Tokyoites spectacularly rejected the standards of so many of their peers by dressing in madly creative costumes.~

Today, the commitment to bombastic fashion has lessened and the fashionistas are becoming an endangered species in their one-time stronghold. Clinging on to the petticoated Lolita styles of that era are Ai Akizuki and Hamuka (the latter, like all good eccentrics, refuses to offer her age or surname). The ladies are committed to their looks, which is to say that they dress up with Victorian-style bloomers, bonnets and parasols every day — for them this is an unending lifestyle, not just an option for events or, worse, Instagram. 

“Things are definitely become more boring,” says Ai, who’s leading me on the Harajuku Kawaii Tour around the neighbourhood. “It was inevitable that things would change — that’s how fashion works.”

‘Kawaii’ means ‘cute’ and is properly spelled with just two ‘i’s but is typically said with many more, elongated as though someone has stepped on the speaker’s toes. “Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii,” says Hamuka — whose style is a gothic take on the Lolita look, featuring dark eye makeup and plenty of black lace — as she attaches a large magenta badge to my shirt to signify that I’m part of the tour. 
The ladies are extremely into anything that is kawaii 
and, even though Harajuku may be evolving into something else, there’s no shortage of things that still qualify. 

In Alice On Wednesday, a multistorey shop themed exclusively around Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, there’s a near-infinite number of trinkets and accessories that are indisputably kawaii. Why Wednesday though? “Wednesday is the worst day of the week, so the owners wanted to make it more exciting,” explains Ai without a hint of irony. Back out on Takeshita Street, my guides are less enthused about the new fad for ‘poop’ ice cream, which is poured in such a way as to resemble the turd emoji. Hamuka frowns — this may not be quite so kawaii.

As we walk around, the girls get plenty of attention. Their brightly-coloured dresses are so striking and the number of similarly dressed people now so low that they really stand out. Ai explains that part of the reason for the changing fashion is pragmatic. The carefully curated costumes, the wild accessorising — none of that comes cheap. “It’s getting really expensive to dress like this,” she says. “For a lot of young people, it’s hard to start now.” 

There’s another existential threat, too — the local counterculture has become mainstream, which has also nudged it towards extinction. A number of Western pop singers have mined Harajuku for their own ends and if your style rebellion is being used by stars like Gwen Stefani, Lady Gaga and Avril Lavigne, then terminal decline is probably inevitable. 

Yet Harajuku remains a vibrant, diverse place. You still see people dressed here in ways you’re less likely to in other neighbourhoods. On the way to start my tour, I noticed a woman who’d coordinated a costume made of five shades of green, none of which exactly matched her hair, which was another hue. Moments later, I was passed by a man wearing purple bell-bottoms, a prodigious afro and a jaunty stovepipe hat, giving him the approximate look of Slash or Jimi Hendrix, but in any case, certainly not the sort of chap you’re likely to see on the more formal streets of Ginza. 

While the boulevard of Omotesando (which is sometimes referred to as Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées) hosts huge international fashion brands, in Harajuku’s side streets there’s still an abundance of shops that you simply wouldn’t find in the West. Take Moosh, for example, a satisfyingly onomatopoetic name for a shop that specialises in scented squishy toys. Some take the form of a giant stack of pancakes that really do smell like maple syrup, while others look like pieces of sushi but mercifully smell like pineapple. The bestsellers are the huge foam peaches, which look as much like derrieres as the fruit. “Which one’s your favourite?” Hamuka asks me. I reply that I have a soft spot for the fat hamster, the unseeing eyes of which seem to be boring into me at that moment. 
“Kawaiiiiiiiiii!” says my host, of course.

More info: The Harajuku Kawaii half-day tour costs 
20,000 yen (£130) per person.

Published in the October 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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