Tokyo’s Harajuku District, a fashion paradise where the catwalk got its claws, rivals L.A.’s Venice Beach for uniqueness. So why then does the Harajuku/Omotesando district trump what Venice Beach has to offer?
Harajuku Girls, you've got that wicked style
Street Fashion meets the Concrete Catwalk
A fashion center of the world, Tokyo’s Harajuku District has long been renowned for its unique street fashion. Ranging from Gothic Lolita to Visual Kei, Decora, Mori Girl (Forest Girl) and Dolly Kei, Harajuku has been a haven for pop culture trendsetters, helping to launch prominent designers and fashion ideas on the international scene. While not strictly fashion, cosplay (costume play) also emerged from the district to gain world attention. In her 2004 hit song “Harajuku Girls,” American singer Gwen Stefani helped popularize the concept of Harajuku in the Western world and described why she is such a huge fan: “You’re looking so distinctive like D.N.A., like nothing I’ve ever seen in the U.S.A.”
Controlled Chaos on Parade
Every Sunday during the 2000s, tens of thousands of foreign tourists were confronted with controlled chaos as they got off the train at Harajuku Station (between Shinjuku and Shibuya on the Yamanote line). Rockabilly dancers rocked around the clock in Yoyogi Park. Butoh dancers writhed on the sidewalk. Businessmen stood off to the side in Lolita costumes. Teenagers painted themselves in fake blood and proudly displayed their leather, Tokyo’s Harajuku District, a fashion paradise where the catwalk got its claws, rivals L.A.’s Venice Beach for uniqueness. So why then does the Harajuku/Omotesando district trump what Venice Beach has to offer? spikes and body piercings. Girls posed as their favorite anime characters. And Japanese cosplayers gathered on Jingubashi (the Jingu Bridge) between Harajuku Station, the Meiji Jingu Shrine and Yoyogi Park. The traditional school uniforms worn throughout the week were nowhere to be seen as Japanese youth donned the costumes of their favorite anime characters and musicians while passing tourists snapped shots of them. Their photos spread over the Internet and through the fashion book Fruits, helping to further popularize Harajuku around the world. All of this took place on the doorstep of Meiji Jingu, a century-old Shinto shrine surrounded by a 700,000 square meters (173 acres) of land filled with 120,000 evergreen trees right in the middle of bustling Tokyo. The Harajuku concept has caught on in other countries, where locals have embraced the culture and arranged similar gatherings at such places as outside the Virgilio Barco Library in Bogotá, the Opéra Bastille in Paris and on the streets of Tijuana, Mexico. Unfortunately, there is a regretful side to the busy expansion. The Harajuku phenomenon has grown so big that the huge crowds of tourists unintentionally have chased away the cosplayers on the Jingubashi to other places, while the police have clamped down with a ban on gatherings on the bridge.
On the other side of the Pacific, the vibrant energy of Harajuku is rivaled by the carnival atmosphere of Venice Beach. Venice is known as a Southern California hangout for the creative and artistic, having housed some of Los Angeles’ early beat poets and artists. For the past several decades, the collection of off-the-wall characters, bodybuilders and roller skaters has appeared as background video imagery for songs at karaoke places throughout Japan. Hollywood has featured the eclectic environment of Venice Beach in movies like “The Doors,” “L.A. Story,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” “American History X” and “Million Dollar Baby.”
Carnival in the Sun
In addition to the beach, Venice Beach includes the promenade/boardwalk that runs parallel to the beach as well as Muscle Beach, handball, paddle tennis and beach volleyball courts, a skate dancing plaza and bike trail. A host of businesses and residences have addresses on Ocean Front Walk, a 2.5-mile pedestrian promenade featuring circus-like performers, snake charmers, artists, fortune-tellers, vendors, tattoo shops, smoke shops, medical marijuana dispensaries, and physicians specializing in prescribing cards for anyone who can claim they feel stress relief after smoking marijuana. The basketball courts have launched the careers of NBA stars, while Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting career got a start after his regular bodybuilding sessions at Venice’s famous Gold’s Gym.
Home to the Stars
Notable celebrities have lived in the area including Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, Robert Downey, Jr., Jim Morrison, Hulk Hogan, George Carlin, The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening, South Park creator Matt Stone, renowned graffiti, street artist and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and musicians from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Suicidal Tendencies. If Jim Morrison hadn’t met Ray Manzarek in Venice Beach, the Doors may not have come to be.
Does Venice Beach Out-muscle Harajuku?
Although the Venice Boardwalk is one of the world’s greatest melting pots of culture, diversity and random creepiness, TJ has to tip its hat to Harajuku. Take how Gwen Stefani describes Harajuku: “The underground culture, visual grammar and language of your clothing is something to encounter - a ping pong match between Eastern and Western!” Venice Beach’s history of being home to the stars pales in comparison to Tokyo’s trendsetting fashion spot. tj
This story appeared in Issue 270 of the Tokyo Journal.
To order Issue 270, click here.