If you are heading to Tokyo, changes are you are looking to experience eclectic Japan. While temples and history are nice, so is soaking in the vibe of cool and young Tokyo. It is hard not to drool cliches when writing about Japan these days, especially when talking about the eclectic youth culture located in Harajuku, Tokyo. Just about every guidebook recommends “people gawking” along the Jingu Bridge where you can usually catch Japan’s insanely strange youth fashion. You’ll find everything from lolita to goth, french maids with a sweet spot for fake blood, to cross dressing little bow peeps.
At times the Jingu Bridge area just next to Harajuku station feels a bit contrived, teenagers dressed up waiting to have their picture taken by photographers, hoping to land in a fashion magazine. Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to gawk, and if you are headed to Meiji Shrine you have to pass over the bridge anyway (this is a must-see shrine in Tokyo). But if you are looking for a slightly more authentic creative spirit, and you like to walk, continue past the bridge towards Yoyogi Park.
Travel Tip: Your best chance at premium gawking is on a Sunday when most people are out on the bridge and running around Yoyogi Park (yes, rebellious youth have to work and go to school on the weekdays too).
Map of Harajuku, Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park
To get to Yoyogi park, just cross the Jingu Bridge and instead of turning right into the Meiji Shrine with the large, beautiful, shaded, wooden torii gate, take a left and follow the sidewalk around the corner to the right. You’ll see the Harajuku entrance to the park right in front of you along with some delicious street food vendors!
Yoyogi Park Tokyo
Yoyogi Gyoen (park) is Tokyo’s largest and has a number of wonderful wooded areas that will make you forget about city life for a short while. The park comes into its own on Sundays when groups gather from all over Tokyo to meet and share their mutual interest in just about anything you can think of. This includes everything from skateboarding, to freestyle cycling, African drum circles, dance troupes, cross dressing senior citizens, bird watchers, musicians, jugglers, martial arts and students practicing for upcoming plays.
For me this is where the excitement of the Japanese culture is on display best. You will still get outrageous fashions of the young and bored. But what you will get more of is the Japanese predilection for forming groups and trying to perfect a certain task. It doesn’t matter what that task is, what matters is being part of the group and progressively getting better (or trying to).
What is “Normal”?
So while most guidebooks will tell you to come and witness “crazy” Japanese society, I’d challenge you to come and witness “normal” Japanese society. Sunday is a time for groups to gather, for creativity to be let loose, and for people to polish their stones with a singular conviction. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dancing elf, a cross-dressing little bow peep, or a juggler. They are all welcome in Yoyogi, they are all involved in the same cultural experiment, just expressed differently at times.
Once you’re done in Yoyogi don’t forget to take a walk around the Meiji Jingu grounds for a more subdued expression of Japanese culture. Once you are calm you’ll be ready to shop for the crazy costumes in Harajuku’s back streets and especially along the always crowded Takeshita Street, just across the street from the train station.
What do you think? Are the Japanese youth in Yoyogi creative or conformists? Is this a must see for a visitor to Tokyo?