Saturday, March 07, 2009

Japan '08: Harajuku

Entrance to Yoyogi Park in Harajuku.

There is an obnoxious stereotype that underlies much of the discussion of Japan on the internet, and even worms its way into supposedly serious consideration of the Far East in mainstream media. Apparently, the country's population consists mostly of pretty ladies in kimonos who spend their days performing tea ceremonies, and weirdos who wish they were American. Nobody I know in Japan fits into either category, but walking around Harajuku on a warm Sunday afternoon, you can sort of see where a naive visitor could get that impression. I would not presume to say that the guys in the photo above (or their poodle-skirted girlfriends) literally want to be 1950s Jerseyites, but they certainly have a peculiarly well-developed interest in certain aspects of American pop culture.

Walkway in Yoyogi Park.

Harajuku is in the western portion of Tokyo, midway between Shibuya and Shinjuku, and thus on the opposite side of town from where my gang was staying. We headed there on a Sunday, which is when amateur musicians congregate in Yoyogi Park, as well as a peak time for people to visit nearby Meiji Shrine. Quite a few fellow tourists apparently thought out their sightseeing itineraries along the same lines that we did. So, the place was completely overrun by visual rockers, goths, German backpackers and ladies in kimonos, and was eerily similar to the Japan of internet and TV fantasy, at least superficially.

Prime Addict at Yoyogi Park. These guys struck me as one of the more enjoyable and polished acts in the park that day.

The musicians congregate along the road through the southern side of Yoyogi Park (best reached from the JR Harajuku Station: just follow the throngs over the bridge over the tracks, and bear left). The performances ranged in degree of elaboration from lone guys with guitars, up to nearly professional bands with truckloads of equipment and cadres of groupies.

Path to Meiji Jingu from Harajuku Station.

Meiji Shrine, dedicated to Emperor Meiji (1852-1912), is one of the major Shinto shrines in Tokyo. It's located on the east side of Yoyogi Park, in a densely forested area that also functions as an arboretum of native trees. The trees at the entrance in the photo are Camphor, Cinnamomum camphora.

Giant gate along the way to Meiji Jingu.

I probably saw more people in kimonos during a quick dash through Meiji Shrine than on the entire remainder of the trip, including lengthy tours of Nara and Kyoto. It's a pleasant walk to the shrine from Harajuku Station; you'd hardly think you were in the middle of Tokyo.

Street protest in Harajuku.

Later, we ran into this protest march, which as near as I could tell was concerned with poverty and the banking crisis. 60s-style student radicals, with hardhats and bandannas covering their faces, were conspicuous by their absence, which was sort of disappointing.

John and Sujith at Fujimamas.

My ex-pat friend John was kind enough to show us around Harajuku for the day. After getting the tour, we headed to Fujimamas, an Asian fusion bar and restaurant that John frequents. The Japanese beer industry has long been dominated by a handful of giant breweries, which produce quality if somewhat monotonous product. Small independent brands seem to be starting to catch on, though, and I wonder if the Japanese beer market isn't going through something like the microbrew revolution that happened in the US 30 years ago.

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