Although not everyone might know it by its name, this place is definitely one of the first images that comes to mind when talking about Japan, or Japanese Fashion at the very least. Harajuku needs no introduction.
Here, you are transported into another dimension and sucked into what can only be described as a whirling vortex of intense energy, creativity, and borderline madness. It is the heart of Japan’s unparalleled fashion and art scene and inspires designers, artists, and visionaries the world over. Putting such a place into words is like describing a totally new color or explaining the difference between left and right to someone over the phone. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’ll just have to experience Harajuku for yourself to really understand the one of a kind charm of this dynamic wonderland that is truly unlike anything you’ve come across in your entire life.
Imagine yourself as a crab. Since we know that crabs can breathe both on land and underwater, as a crab, air and water would pretty much be interchangeable to you as forms of matter. One day, you meet a person who tells you: ‘Fish don’t fly, they swim!’. Imagine your tiny extended eyes start to shift and your shell start to quiver as you question your crabby existence that was so simple just a few moments ago. Now, if you were able to successfully picture yourself as a crab and fully internalize the odd scenario above, then I say that you’re ready for Harajuku!
How To Get There
Harajuku is located between Shibuya and Shinjuku, which are two of the most popular places to visit among tourists and locals alike. It’s actually walkable (around a 20-minute walk) from Shibuya, if the weather permits, but if you want to save up as much energy as you can, the Harajuku Station is one stop away from Shibuya Station and two stops away from the Shinjuku Station on the JR Yamanote Line.
Harajuku (原宿) translates to ‘meadow lodging’ or ‘post town in the plains’. You might be thinking that there’s more to this rather anticlimactic, ordinary-sounding name, but there isn’t. Well, it’s been around since the 12th century and has gained its colorful reputation only fairly recently, so it was named long before its major glow up.
True to its name, Harajuku had very humble beginnings. It used to serve as military housing for American soldiers after World War II and saw a boom in tourism during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics because it was so close to the Yoyogi National Gymnasium. Harajuku began gaining traction as a fashion district during the 1970’s when Palais France—a shop that sold clothes, accessories, and furniture—and Laforet Harajuku, a department store that focuses mainly on fashion, set up shop in the now world-renowned Takeshita-dōri. The advent of fast fashion in the 90’s fed the exponentially increasing demand for trendy retail items and spurred the establishment of many local independent clothing labels. Needless to say, it has come a very long way in a seemingly short span of time and has become the unparalleled mecca for all things Kawaii (かわいい /可愛い; cute).
Places to Visit
- Takeshita-dōri (竹下通り; Takeshita Street)
If Tokyo isn’t Tokyo without Harajuku, then Harajuku isn’t Harajuku without Takeshita-dōri. The word Takeshita literally means ‘beneath or below the bamboo’, but it actually pertains to a Japanese family name. This street was named after a high ranking naval officer and diplomat who lived here and brought honor to the area. Up until the 90’s, though, it wasn’t exactly the most honorable of places, as it was known for its brothels and wide assortment of counterfeit American and Japanese goods. But fortunately for Mr. Takeshita, the stricter implementation of zoning laws in 2004 drastically cleaned things up. Looking at it now, you would never have thought that had quite the shady past.
Today, this 400-meter street is lined with countless boutiques selling trendy clothes, accessories, shoes, and knickknacks. If you like pink, pastel-colored, cute things, then this place will take all your money. The stores are filled to the brim with so much stuff that it’s difficult to not get overwhelmed. The best advice I can offer is to look up because some shops on the 2nd floor are hidden gems and have better prices, more often than not. Even if you’re not into cutesy stuff or are not looking to buy anything in particular, Takeshita Street is an equally great place to people-watch. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a couple of cool kids clad in whimsical, avant-garde outfits that fit right in with the zany surroundings. Whether you prefer to shop or to people-watch, one thing unites us all… and that’s snacks. The good news is that you won’t run out of options and on the contrary, you might have a difficult time making up your mind because there’s just too much stuff to choose from. The food establishments, and the food itself, are mostly themed (or have some sort of gimmick to them) and are very Instagrammable. I recommend getting a crepe, but we’ll talk more about the food to check out below.
A couple things to note, though, is that it can be quite congested here, especially on weekends, so I recommend that you plan your visit on a weekday to avoid the crowds and long lines for food. And because this place is extremely popular among tourists, both food and merchandise can be on the pricier side, so don’t buy the first thing you see and check the shops that are off the beaten path for a sweeter deal. A number of shops do carry similar items and a little self-control can save you some serious snack money.
Speaking of better deals, Daiso is the place that makes everyone feel like a millionaire because you don’t have to look at the price tag of anything you want in this shop (because almost everything costs 100 yen anyway) and if you play your cards right, you get to leave with a lot of unbelievable steals without breaking the bank. Mind you, this isn’t your typical dollar or discount shop because Daiso actually has quite a number of high quality items, some that are even made in Japan. In fact, they are constantly developing new products and churn out hundreds of new items every month.
I particularly enjoy looking through their kitchenware because they have a lot of ingenious tools that you never thought you needed (like a silicon Onigiri (お握り; triangular rice ‘balls’ with sweet or savory fillings) molds / containers and microwavable food steamers). They also have a whole section of traditional Japanese goods (tea sets, bento boxes, Furoshiki (風呂敷; ornate Japanese wrapping cloth), and snacks) and exclusive merchandise that you can only find in Japan. Fun fact: Daiso sells 5 packs of batteries every second! Isn’t that incredible?
Their socks are another popular item and I would recommend getting Tabi (足袋; split-toe) socks that you can wear with slippers to keep your feet warm. They’ve got it all. Household items, beauty products, stationery, Japanese souvenirs, and some DIY items to boot. Daiso may have other branches elsewhere, but at 4 storeys high, it’s one of the biggest ones in Tokyo and who can resist the temptation of scoring the best deals in Harajuku or better yet, the best deals ever?
- Meiji Jingū (明治神宮; Meiji Shrine)
This Shinto Shrine that greets you as soon as you exit the Harajuku Station is dedicated to the deified spirit of the Emperor it’s named after and his wife, Empress Shōken. Interestingly, the name Emperor Meiji is actually a posthumous name which was given to Emperor Matsuhito (睦仁) after his passing.
It is important to note, though, that one must address the late emperor as Emperor Meiji because addressing him by his given name is considered disrespectful. Before World War II, the term Jingu was exclusively reserved for the highest ranking shrines and such distinction is only befitting for the commemoration of the great Emperor who spearheaded the rise of modern Japan. Do note that the graves of the Emperor and his wife cannot be found here. They are instead buried in Kyoto, in accordance with his wishes to be buried in the city where he was born.
Meiji Shrine is one of the most visited religious sites in Japan and a reason for this is its sheer size. It’s massive! With an area of 140 acres or 70 hectares of lush greenery, this literal giant engineered forest with over 120,000 trees in the middle of the city is both a spiritual and natural sanctuary that anyone can enjoy. Upon making your way into the shrine, pass through the 40-foot-tall Torii (鳥居; Temple Gate) that is a symbolic gateway from the realm of the earthly to the sacred. The premises are comprised of two main sections: The Naien (内苑; inner grounds) with the shrine buildings and the Treasure Museum, and the Gaien (外苑; outer grounds) with the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, the National Stadium, and the Meiji Memorial Hall where numerous traditional Shinto wedding ceremonies are held (on Sundays). Yoyogi Kōen (代々木公園; Yoyogi Park), a popular hangout place among locals, is connected to it, as well. It has all the features of your typical Shinto shrine and then some.
They’ve got a wall of large Sake (酒; liquor) offerings and another one made with Burgundy barrels donated by France, as Emperor Meiji was said to have loved this drink. The Gyoen (御苑; Imperial Garden) is another scenic and peaceful place to take a relaxing stroll while breathing in fresh air. It’s especially picturesque in June when the irises are in full bloom! Escape the noise of the city and enter this oasis, free of cost and gain a deeper understanding of Emperor Meiji through a visit to the museums and galleries for just 500 yen.
The Meiji Shrine will be celebrating its 100th anniversary along with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, so special festivities are definitely to be expected
- Yoyogi Flea Market
Honestly speaking, it can be quite difficult to catch this flea market because of its irregular schedule. It usually takes place on a Sunday and lasts from 10am to 4pm, but if you’re blessed by the thrift gods and come across it, then you’re in for a serious treat! Hundreds of vendors gather to sell their vintage clothes, houseware, CD’s, and other curiosities at reasonable prices. It’s a win-win situation because you aren’t just buying unique pieces with character, but you’re also shopping sustainably, as well. Even if you don’t intend on bringing anything home with you or you simply don’t have the luggage space, being surrounded by all these interesting stuff from the yesteryears can really bring out your inner picker.
They hold another market which you’re more likely to catch if you drop by on a Sunday. Their Earth Day Market happens once a month and mainly sells products of the edible variety—organic produce, food stalls—but they also sell some handicrafts too.
- Ura-Harajuku (裏原宿)
Also known as Ura-Hara, this refers to the backstreets and alleyways of Harajuku that play second fiddle to Takeshita Street. But as in this case, not being in the spotlight isn’t always a bad thing. Don’t skip out on Ura-Hara because you just might find a grail item you’ve been looking for here. As a first-time visitor of Harajuku, you may make a beeline for Takeshita Street for the experience, but it’s Ura-Hara that you’ll be going back to time and time again. It has small independent shops with quality, limited-release designs and vintage shops for a truly one of a kind, timeless wardrobe. It is also home to some of Tokyo’s best street art, which adds to its chic and cool vibe. Continue the art appreciation at Design Festa Gallery and browse through the awe-inspiring works of art in their constantly changing exhibits.
I personally make it a point to visit Cat Street every time I’m in the area and I never leave empty-handed. Despite its name, you won’t find merchandise of the feline variety here. Sorry, cat-lovers! The origin of the street’s name is unclear, but you won’t regret dropping by this place. Located between fashion behemoths, Harajuku and Shibuya, it has all the creative energy we love from these places, but in a more curated and subdued environment. The items range from vintage, second-hand branded goods, local independent streetwear brands, and high end international brands, so there’s something for everyone. Guys will be glad to know that Cat Street carries a good amount of menswear, definitely much more than Takeshita Street does, plus they have a couple of really good food joints!
They hold a sale twice a year during the summer and during winter and let me tell you, the sales can get crazy. I’m talking about some items being discounted by up to 90%. With sales as big as these, expect a certain level of chaos and be prepared to work hard to score them deals. Even if you miss the sales, Laforet is still a great place to shop because it provides over 100 stalls of indoor shopping, so it’s nice and cool in the summer, dry during the rainy season, and toasty during the winter. This fashion forest—la foret is French for ‘the forest’—also has its fair share of food establishments for refueling purposes, so you don’t even have to leave.
- Laforet Harajuku (ラフォーレ原宿)
Laforet, pronounced with a silent t, started out as a department store when it was first built by the Mori Building Company back in 1978. As mentioned earlier, it was actually one of the first establishments in the area that paved the way for Harajuku to be the fashion capital that it is today and boy has it flourished together with the rest of the district.
This ever-changing emporium carries everything from cute and trendy womenswear, menswear, cosmetics, accessories, and random pop-up shops, to its very own museum with modern art installations. Starting your day in the museum located on the 6 th floor can inspire you and perhaps push you to shop for more adventurous and artistic looks.
Do note that this place caters more towards the teenage demographic, as their offerings are funkier and more ‘out there’, but if you’re an adult and are going for this aesthetic, then you do you, by all means. Japan is very open to various fashion styles and there’s no better place to experiment with your style, so go for it! If you’re here towards the end of January or July, then I have three magic words for you: Laforet Grand Bazar.
- PURIKURA プリクラ LAND NOA
Nowadays, we all have our smartphones with front-facing cameras and filters that make us look better than we really do… Having photos developed isn’t really a thing anymore. Purikura, (プリクラ), an abbreviation of ‘print club’, is basically a photo booth wherein you can personally edit your pictures and decorate them before they’re printed on either photo or sticker paper. Newer machines are fancier and offer different filters that can make you look taller and skinnier, among other things.
PURIKURA LAND NOA has one of the largest collections of booths in Tokyo for every taste! Although you technically can download apps on your smartphone and achieve the same results, having a photo taken in a Purikura booth is a very entertaining experience. You get to laugh at each other’s distorted, alien-like faces and take a physical copy of this funny souvenir home with you for only 200 to 500 yen.
They hold special themed night parties that go on until midnight, 2 of them are family-friendly (Kawaii Oiran Night on Tuesdays and Tokyo Pop Culture Night on Wednesdays) and 2 of them not so much (Burlesque Night on Thursdays and Underland Drag Night on Fridays). The latter night parties are only open to people ages 20 and over. I do recommend having your main meal somewhere else and just getting snacks or desserts here. Check out the options listed below.
A newcomer in the crepe scene is Comcrepe, who has gained superstar status for its Creme Brûlée crepe. Rich, decadent, creamy. It’s everything you love about the Creme Brûlée in a handy crepe form.
- Kawaii Monster Café
Although it’s a café and should therefore be reserved for the next section, I think that Kawaii Monster Café is worth visiting more for the experience than for the actual food. Scaredy-cats need not worry because the monsters in this café are far from frightening and are more shockingly cute. Imagine the most hardcore fan of Lisa Frank, Care Bears, My Little Pony, Alice in Wonderland, the 70’s, and all things rainbow, made the café of his or her dreams. Now crank that image up to eleven. This place is like looking into a kaleidoscope. It’s psychedelia in concrete form. The food follows the theme and comes in an otherworldly color scheme rainbow pasta, electric blue rice, pastel smoothies, and unicorn monster burgers. It really messes with how you associate certain colors to certain tastes or foods and is quite the trippy experience.
In between the visuals, the food, the booming techno music, and the upbeat energy, it’s a total sensory overload! Don’t leave early or you’ll miss the parade of the adorable fluffy mascots and iconic ‘Harajuku Girls’ in all their technicolored kawaii glory on top of the Sweets-Go-Round, their own zany Candyland take on the already whimsical merry-go-round. By all means, it is a family-friendly place that the young ones and the young at heart can definitely enjoy. It would be best to make a reservation in advance because it can get fully booked, especially if you’re with a group.
Where to eat
- Harajuku’s National Snack
Despite this sweet treat not originating from Japan, the crepe has more or less become the signature food of Harajuku. You can find a crepe shop in every corner of Takeshita Street and it can be very difficult to resist the mouthwatering aroma from freshly-prepared crepes sizzling on a hot griddle. They come in the usual sweet variety with fruits, chocolate, custard, ice cream and whatnot, but the savory options are great too if you want to try something different.
If you base your restaurant choices on seniority like I do, give Marion Crepes a go. Established in 1976, their delectable crepes are generously filled and range from 200 to 500 yen. I personally love the custard crepe which is relatively simple, but it’s the best.
A few steps away, you’ll find Angel Heart’s baby pink shop, which also claims to be the oldest crepe shop in Harajuku. They opened shop in 1977, but can be credited with ‘inventing’ the cone-style crepe filled with fresh fruits, ice cream, and a lot of whipped cream. If you can’t decide on what to order and are a glutton for punishment (or crepe), Santa Monica has over 100 different flavors of premium crepes (made with select flour and butter) to choose from. Kidding aside, these crepe stores usually point out their top 3 ranking flavors and have very realistic product displays, as many Japanese food establishments do, so that can be pretty helpful in times of confusion.
- Trendy Photogenic Snacks
With a place as visually-stimulating as Harajuku, there’s a lot of pressure placed on the food to follow suit, and let’s just say that the food establishments do not disappoint. The giant rainbow cotton candy clouds on a stick from either Totti Candy Factory or Momi & Toys is probably one of the most popular snacks at the moment. These humongous treat is good for 2 to 3 people to share and the different colors actually represent different flavors. Rainbow Cheese Sandwich from Le Shiner serves rainbow-colored cheese in between toast. Although it tastes just like any grilled cheese sandwich, it’s popular because of how pretty it looks when you stretch the two halves apart. Think Nyan Cat. Ice cream lovers, on the other hand, can either go to Eddy’s Ice Cream for colorful ice cream stacked with crazy toppings (like red lips, hearts, and giant bows…all edible, of course) or Eiswelt Gelato for Ice cream scoops shaped as a bear, bunny, chicken, pig, frog, unicorn, or a featured Japanese character. The Zoo (Doubutsuen) is also a relatively new ice cream shop that specializes in animal-shaped scoops. If rolled ice cream is more your thing, then the Roll Ice Cream Factory and Rainbow Sweets have got you covered on all your bedazzled rolled ice cream desires.
- Croquant Chou Zakuzaku
This uniquely named dessert shop is best known for their churro-like pastry that’s coated in an almond crumble with warm Hokkaido custard cream freshly piped into it as you order. Personally, though, I come here for the soft serve ice cream sprinkled with the same almond crumble on a waffle cone. You really taste the creaminess of the Hokkaido milk produced by happy cows and the crumble just adds the perfect crunch. This sweet delight so good that you’ll have it even during winter.
There are only a handful of people in this world who are able to turn down a potato chip and unless you’re one of them, Calbee+ has a bag of chips with your name on it. What sets this place apart from your regular potato chip shop is that it serves this beloved Japanese chip brand freshly made as you order it. Talk about fine snacking! They also carry a wide variety of chips and some exclusive ones that are made with some unusual ingredients—chocolate covered chips, their signature shrimp chips (they have a chocolate-covered variety available during winter), Jagarico or cylindrical chips shaped like French fries, and chips made from Hokkaido potatoes, which are known for being a good source of potassium and vitamin C. So technically, that makes the chips healthy, right? Regardless of whether they’re healthy or not, they make great snacks and practical souvenirs because they’re lightweight and have a relatively long shelf life.
- Cat (Street) Food
Cat Street is not only a place for cool cats, but is also a place for some pretty awesome food. My go-to place to refuel after shopping here is either Luke’s Lobster—which serves crab, shrimp, or lobster rolls lightly drizzled with melted butter and spices—or Takoyaki (蛸焼; Pancake balls with bits of octopus and crispy rice with a generous sprinkling of bonito flakes (paper-thin dried fish flakes and sweet sauce) from Daihachi Takohanamaru. Harajuku Gyōzarō (原宿餃子樓) is a very popular restaurant that has perfected the art of preparing the Gyoza (餃子; Japanese dumpling or potsticker) and they sell them at a very reasonable price (290 yen for a plate of six pieces). You have the option of either original or garlic Gyoza and having them either steamed or fried. The filling is usually made with pork, but they also have a vegetarian option. The menu is quite simple, but simple is best. Do be warned, though, that there’s usually a line and you might have to wait for around 45 minutes, but this place is open until 4:30 A.M. and most people say it’s well worth the wait.
Needless to say, it is very difficult to stand out in an over the top place like Harajuku. And given all the stops the recommended places mentioned above have pulled to get the public’s attention, you’re probably expecting this ramen place to sell rainbow ramen in golden soup. Well, if you thought this, you aren’t entirely mistaken. Although there’s nothing psychedelic about the ramen, their food is indeed golden… not necessarily in color, but in a sense that it was deserving of a Michelin star. A special feature would be their use natural spring water gathered all the way from Mount Afuri, which undoubtedly adds a special touch to all their dishes. Their ramen may not look any different from your regular ramen, but trust me, its taste is definitely out of this world and unlike any other ramen you’ve tasted before. AFURI’s main star is their Yuzu Ramen, which comes in both Shio (塩, salt) and Shōyu (醤油, soy sauce) variety, depending on whether you prefer a lighter or more savory broth, respectively.
Either way, you get a generous serving of a carefully prepared chicken and dashi based broth (the soup is infused with Chi-yu 鶏油 or chicken oil and you can opt for either Tanrei 淡麗, the standard. ‘classic’ amount of oil, or Maroaji まろ味, a little extra oil for a thicker mouthfeel), thin noodles made from whole-wheat Hokkaido flour, Nitamago (煮玉子; half boiled egg marinated in soy sauce), char-grilled Chāshū (叉燒; braised pork belly), Mizuna (水菜; Japanese mustard greens), Menma (麺麻 or 麺碼; fermented bamboo shoots), Nori (海苔; dried seaweed) from Awaji Island, and of course, their signature Yuzu (柚子; a citrus fruit that tastes like a cross between a grapefruit and an orange) essence. The refreshing citrus scent of this unusual ramen ingredient hits you immediately upon entering this chic restaurant and it sort of gives you a hint of the exciting new flavors that await you. Vegans will be happy to know that they offer a 100% meat-free ramen alternative with the same depth of flavor as their other offerings, but it’s made with seasonal vegetables from Kamakura.
Aesthetically speaking, the colors of the freshly harvested produce are so vivid that it almost looks artificial, but I guess we only have Mother Nature to thank for that. This just goes to show how much effort they put into selecting their ingredients and making sure that each one passes their strict standards. They’re open from 10:00 A.M. to 3:00 A.M. daily and their ramen ranges from 980 to 1290 yen.
Harajuku is a short distance away from Shibuya (渋谷区), another fashion and shopping district of Tokyo, and an even shorter distance away from Omotesando (表参道), which is dubbed as the Avenue des Champs-Élysées of Japan. Find out more about this shopping paradise for the wealthy, and window shopping paradise for the rest of us here.
Harajuku is a paradox. It’s a lot of things. It’s cute, fashion-forward, crazy, intense, but at the same time, it’s also one of a kind. I guess it is precisely this contradictory nature that makes it so open and inclusive to different ideas and points of view. Even if you feel that it isn’t your personal aesthetic, it still is very much worth a visit just because no cultural excursion to Japan is complete without going down this rabbit hole.