Two tales of a city.

The first inkling appeared before even crossing the bridge. She was young, confident and comfortable with the spotlight. Comfortable with the attention and the cameras snapping her every move, her every detail. Her frilled and voluminous black skirt sat below a figure-hugging bright red top and above exaggerated platform shoes and frivolous long socks. Hair in pigtails, adequately accessorised.

Her friend was just as pleased with the attention. This itself is a rarity in a culture which traditionally expected women to defer to men and display humility and subservience. They were also comfortable with the beats of western pop and hip hop drifting across the stream.

The teenage girls were the precursor to Harajuku Street, the epitome of Japanese counter culture and youthful rebellion against a stereotypically conformist culture. Harajuku Street is the birthplace of alternative self-expression and youthful resistance to Japan’s hegemonic culture.

Harajuku Street was at one time the only place to see, or even consider, outward displays of challenges to conformity, and certainly the only place to see a woman with tattoos.

It is thought to have become commercialised these days. Counter culture and expressions of freedom replaced with overpriced must-have fashion statements catering to the coolest kids of the capital. A stroll through the precinct doesn’t necessarily challenge this view.

Items of immense value lie inside the shops, judging by the queue stretching from the door and around the corner, and by the presence of the bouncers managing the flow of traffic. Objects of high quality and expert craftmanship perhaps. Garments of exceptional beauty or simply items that no one else possesses – not yet. Items found only in this store, at this time, which will set their buyers apart from from everyone else on the street, at their school or university.

That explains the queue. Not the quality, the appearance, the fabric or the production, but the originality. Originality and the rejection of conformity created Harajuku Street and drives its energy. Keep in mind, this was before the age of Instagram, and even Facebook.

What is it like now for image obsessed teens?

I left the trendy young things and continued my journey around the streets of the city. The dichotomy of Tokyo revealed itself within an hour.

She was demure, eyes downcast; inching forwards slowly with tiny steps. Adorned in traditional Japanese attire and make up and tottering on tiny sandals to the soothing tones of traditional Japanese music. She was participating in a wedding procession which had been practiced for hundreds of years in Tokyo and throughout the country.

The bride’s family completed the age-old ensemble and were also dressed in traditional wedding clothing and following rituals passed down from generation to generation.

Japan’s traditional culture and Harajuku Street’s inherent modernity present two tales of a city.


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