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Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011
Trendy Harajuku draws crowds
Ground zero for fashion-conscious youths has evolved into a major tourist destination
For several decades, the trendy Harajuku district in central Tokyo has been a magnet for young people seeking the latest fashion trends and also for those who want to express their own style.
From imported luxury brands to "fast fashion," tiny individual stores offers shoppers and browsers a huge range of fashion goods, turning the area into Japan's fashion mecca.
Following are some basic questions and answers about Harajuku.
Where is Harajuku?
The area is in Shibuya Ward and can be reached by train or subway. It is actually hard to identify the boundaries of Harajuku because the name itself has not been used for addresses since 1965.
In general, many people tend to view the intersection of Meiji-dori and Omotesando avenues as Harajuku central. Those places are located between Jingumae 1-chome and 6-chome.
How did Harajuku become the country's fashion and culture center?
Seiichi Matsui, who heads Harajuku Omotesando Ke-yaki Kai, the area's biggest business owners' association, said he believes one major influence was Washington Heights, a housing facility for U.S. bureaucrats during the Occupation.
While Meiji Shrine, established in 1920, symbolizes traditional Japanese culture, Washington Heights injected middle- or upper-middle class American culture into the area, and shops that targeted the residents of that edifice were built and added some color to the town.
The coexistence of Japanese and American culture "was a big factor that made Harajuku what it is now," said Matsui, who has been working in Harajuku for about 40 years.
One of the most famous shops from that era is Kiddy Land, a toy store that opened in 1950.
American culture also played a role in the early to mid-1960s, when the so-called Harajuku-zoku — groups of young people who drove American cars and motorcycles to Harajuku — cruised the district.
What other factors contributed to Harajuku's fame?
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were many artists and creators living in Harajuku who actively promoted their works. Back then, Harajuku wasn't as expensive as it is today.
One well known building, the Harajuku Central Apartment, was a popular abode for many artisans. Within it, they created small ateliers from which they sold their products directly to the customer. It was demolished in 1996.
In the 1980s, Harajuku saw the another youth phenomenon blossom.
In an effort to give the district a break from the noisy motorcyclists and cars once a week, Harajuku experimented with banning vehicles every Sunday along Omotesando Avenue.
As a result, many young people instead gathered to watch and take part in music, dancing and other street performances, putting on unique, showy and sometimes bizarre clothing designed for the occasion.
These people were called the Takenoko-zoku (Takenoko tribe) because they got their clothes at a boutique called Takenoko, which is still thriving on Takeshita-dori, one of the most popular shopping streets.
Matsui also said the launch of Laforet Harajuku in 1978 was a landmark event that elevated Harajuku's fashion status.
The building gave up-and-coming designers a chance to sell their products. As other stores came and went, Laforet's popularity grew and kept providing shoppers with fresh ideas.
Harajuku's casual street-style fashions became more popular than ever in the 1990s, and the stores occupying its back streets, or Ura-Harajuku, started to become better known, especially among young males.
How did Harajuku become famous internationally?
Matsui thinks one reason is the arrival of such foreign brands as Benetton and Louis Vuitton, which swooped in after the bubble economy imploded in the early 1990s.
During the bubble, properties in Harajuku had become the targets of real estate speculators. Once the bubble collapsed, Japanese businesses were decimated and the high-flying properties vacated.
Since Japanese firms were in no position to buy the properties because the banks had been burned and were reluctant to offer loans involving property in the area, foreign fashion houses bought up the land and started building stores, Matsui said.
Also, as Harajuku became more famous as a fashion mecca, its reputation spread overseas through the media and the Internet.
Matsui said many young Asian tourists seem to get information about the area from fashion magazines in their home countries that write about Harajuku fashion.
"They tend to want to visit very small stores that we don't even know about," he said. According to Harajuku Jingumae Shotengai, an association that consists of about 100 local stores, some of the shopkeepers say that over 30 percent of their sales are to visitors from Asia.
"(What we hope now is that) it would be great if foreigners living here or working here can spread the word about Harajuku to people in their home countries. That would allow people who receive this information to feel more familiar with what's going on here," said Matsui.
What are some recent trends?
Harajuku has seen increasing numbers of Asians in the past several years, especially Chinese, Matsui said.
To celebrate the Chinese new year Thursday, the town has been striving to provide a more welcoming environment for Chinese tourists.
For instance, 300 stores are ready to accept the Ginren debit card, issued in China, and have set up tablet computers so customers can conveniently surf the web to find additional information.
Another trend, Matsui said, is the increase in "fast fashion" brands like Swedish fashion retailor H&M and Los Angeles-based Forever 21, who have concentrated along Meiji-dori, and major sports brands like Nike, which have already built their own stores.
One of Harajuku's more interesting cultural attractions, however, is showing off or posing, where fans of different genres of clothing, such as Gothic Lolitas, strive to be seen on the bridge between Harajuku Station and the entrance to Meiji Shrine.
Matsui said this kind of culture probably comes from the influence of the Takenoko-zoku who turned the area into their playground back in the 1980s.
If Harajuku is so popular, why aren't there any hotels?
Harajuku is actually designated by the metropolitan government as an "educational district" where buildings such as hotels and concert halls are banned to prevent teenage delinquency.
Matsui said many local businessmen want this old rule to be revised. As Harajuku has evolved, it is important to have facilities where people of all kinds can gather, they say.