A few years ago I was visiting an art fair in Aspen and a big dude on a trick bike bumbled across the street. He had his head craned back as he rode, and he looked up at the sky as if birds or bombs or birds shaped like bombs were plowing down at his head. He seemed to be on the drug bender of his life - either that, or this was just his morning Aspen-4-life routine: biking around absentmindely and staring occasionally at the sun while Range Rovers nearly pummeled him into a 2D discman.
As I walked through Harajuku in Tokyo, I pretty much felt like Aspen Drug Bender Bike guy. Walking through Harajuku was like taking in the world through some kind of cooler beer goggles while careening down a street on a bike that is way, way too small for you.
My inner self glaring up at the 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.
Here I found the funniest and also most zen shirts I have ever seen in my life.
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 slays the curve towards sameness.
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.
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 - 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, reliving the shirts one by one, laughing and texting them to whoever I could. Truly, there is a Harajuku shirt for almost everyone, every personality type can be found in the mystery of a shirt in Harajuku. I went back to Harajuku the next day.