A few years ago I was visiting an art fair in Aspen and a big dude on a trick bike trundled across a busy intersection. Like the charmed hippo in Heart of Darkness, it was a miracle he wasn’t struck down immediately by several Lambourghinis, a Hummer, and a series of Range Rovers. He sort of looked like he was on the drug bender of his life, but, maybe he just did this every day. With some people, it is hard to tell if they are lucky or skilled, or an uneven mix of both.
As I walked through Harajuku in Tokyo, I pretty much felt like Aspen Drug Bender Bike guy. Walking through Harajuku as an American, you can feel your brain oscillating between thoughts of “Am I lucky or am I skilled?” The scores of fellow shoppers in Harajuku sort of avoid you, they don’t immediately plow into you, but you also have to work for it.
My inner self glaring up at the diffused sun, for reassurance, I wandered into a Harajuku store with several stores in it, an unfolding Russian Doll minimart where each brand had a dedicated floorspace and cashier. Unseparated by walls, the brands ran together, yet they didn’t. If the streets of this place felt crowded and too small, the shops watered down some of the chaos.
Here, the real mind-oscillation begun. Harajuku has the funniest, most zen shirts I have ever seen in my life.
Seen above: Does Tempt Ably, Army (Not the real Army), a $2000 leather jacket based on an episode of Adventure Time, Describe Below, Belief Thing That Take A Side Sincerity.
I stared at the subtext of this makeup store for an awkward amount of time. To my jet-lag addled brain, the words seemed to shine, emblazoned on the vinyl signing like some kind of modern Charlotte’s Web:
Self confidence and liking yourself greatly benefits the process of becoming beautiful.
It felt like reading a weird translation of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, where an ancient and wise person was dishing on some eternal beauty facts that transcended any issue of Allure or Cosmopolitan. This store contained the secret to being beautiful, but the biggest secret was to like yourself. … What?
So (In Jerry Seinfeild voice) What’s the Deal With These Shirts? I really don’t know, but I loved the elaborately-written sentiments much more than I loved, say, a shirt with parrots and pineapples on it in the youth section at an American Macy’s. I’ve never seen shirts with so much to say.
Even if the zen-garbled sentiments aren’t fully understood by the person wearing the shirt, it’s not like every person in North Dakota with a Kanji tattoo knows the true meaning of the characters. Most Kanji tattoos probably translate to Belief Thing That Take A Side Sincerity.
Before visiting Harajuku, I saw a lot of other, more techy neighborhoods in Tokyo and a lot of western society’s problems solved: fast trains, omni-available healthy food, and safety in the form of unlocked bikes and polite policeman.
Yet, Harajuku solves one of the biggest Western plagues of all: the samey Hipster.
The helixing vicious cycle of Hipsterism is that it’s a movement toward individuality, yet, at a certain point, all hipsters start to look the same. There are only so many flannel pieces and tight-fitting jeans and boots you can buy, only so many carefully-sourced Anthropologie sweaters you can throw on yourself before you look exactly like the person next to you.
The vibe in Harajuku scatters away from the curve towards sameness. It’s on some other kind of graph altogether.
While the main walk in Harajuku pops with funny shirts, colorful contact lenses (legal!) and crepes, the real fashion gems of Harajuku lay enclosed by LaForet, a multi-level mall. LaForet has the magic of small, super small, and hyper-curated items that don’t appear anywhere else. Each store is like viewing an independent art show. These aren’t famous labels or famous names and they probably never will be, but they’re really fucking cool.
In addition to clothes each shop has hand-curated accessories, like the hip-things section of Urban Outfitters, only with the cultural memory of a person you’d actually want to hang out with. There’s Kermit the frog in a mini shopping cart, for some reason. Drawings that seem like they were made by your little sister. Pez dispensers? A Toy Story book straight out of 1998.
LaForet is home to the Sailor Moon store as well! One of the greatest things about Tokyo are the popup shops in malls that are dedicated entirely to just one anime, show, or pop culture phenomenon.
United States malls are great at pumping out aggregate pop culture fashion aimed like a laserbeam at youth culture and the even-more-lucrative geek culture - Box Lunch and Hot Topic are sure to have your favorite Godzilla T shirt. At Hot Topic, somewhere between Linkin Park tees and Full Metal Alchemist wallets, you’ll find Sailor Moon stuff, yeah. Tokyo draws in enough fandom, enough otaku, to have an entire Godzilla store, several stores just for Kirby’s Dream Land, and countless popups dedicated to new short runs of Anime.
It’s easy to see Harajuku and Laforet as a place just for young people. While there were mostly younger people in the mall, Laforet caters to one kind of person: those who want something both new and good. So, Harajuku proves to be another place in Japan that goes all out. Expression is everything and uniqueness is everything. Though I spent enough time in Tokyo to eventually see a sweater repeated in Shinjuku and in Harajuku, in both places, you get the feeling that if you don’t buy the piece today, you’ll never find it again. Harajuku is a bit punk this way. It’s not a thrift store, not Prada, not Macy’s - it’s a kind of fashion shopping experience that could only exist in Tokyo.
I knew I’d reached peak Harajuku when I found a shop with what seemed to be every ski jacket that my family and I wore in Colorado in the 1990s. At this point, I exited the store, texted my friends in the States who might have still been awake, and bought a crepe to relax and watched the crowds roll by until finally, all of the teenagers evaporated into the metro and I could go home. I metroed back to my Air BnB and flipped through my camera roll on my memory-starved iPhone, reliving the shirts one by one, laughing and texting them to whoever I thought might still be awake in the world, throwing them up on Facebook and Twitter to prove, somehow, that all of the shirts were real all along. Truly, there is a Harajuku shirt for everyone, every personality type can be found in the mystery of a shirt in Harajuku. I went back to Harajuku the next day.