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Exploring SHINJUKU, Japan

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

In an over-priced city such as Tokyo, getting a freebie is rare and the Observation Decks of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Building in Shinjuku is a real pleasure.

We set out early one Saturday, hoping to still spot the elusive Mount Fuji while the winter morning skies were still crispy and clear.

Wandering just two city blocks north of the insanely crowded Shinjuku station, an unexpected quietness greeted us. Wide, empty sidewalks and quiet streets. One can only wonder what this place is like the rest of the week. The escape from the ever-present crowds was truly a delight.

The imposing, cathedral-like Tochō rises up to 48 floors, splitting at the 33rd into symmetrical towers. The observation decks on the 45th floor, reached by an elevator in 55 seconds, have apparently now superseded Tokyo Tower as the premier vantage point over the city. A nice touch is the larger than life panoramic photos above each observation window, with symbols pointing out the better-known landmarks. Even though the views of the city were wonderful, we were somewhat unmoved by it all after our Yokohama experience. Being on top of the tallest building in Japan may have that effect I suppose.

With not much else of interest in Shinjuku, we decided to walk to Yoyogi Park which is home to the Meiji Jingu Shrine. This is Tokyo’s most venerable and refined Shinto shrine which honours Emperor Meiji and his empress with simple yet amazingly dignified architecture. All surrounded by a dense forest it's a wonderful escape from the hustle of the city. It was almost peculiar in a way to find ourselves so secluded all of a sudden.

The Shrine itself is rather spectacular. After you've walked under the huge cedar torii at the entrance to Emperor Meiji's shrine, then down the gravel path as wide as a four-lane highway toward an even larger torii and the Inner Garden, you may begin to feel you've entered some sort of Shinto heaven.

Everyone is aware they are in a special place that is immaculately cared for. Visitors walk more slowly than usual and converse in a low voice. This isn't Tokyo.

We were rather fortunate to be witness to a marriage procession as we entered. (On a different note - apparently 3 ½ million people visit the shrine over the first couple of days during the New Year celebration).

Exiting Yoyogi Park at the Harajuku side, we came across a well-known gathering spot for the CosPlay crowd and wannabe bands. As for the bands: back in the day, it used to be possible for bands to practise inside the park. After being chucked out of the park, they are still a common sight at the Harajuku entrance.

“CosPlay” is a combination of the English words "costume" and "play" which in this case refers to “dressing up”. Everyone seems to have a different view or opinion on this oddity that has been around for decades. It’s well known that in Japan it’s (mostly) girls that partake in the activity of dressing up and parading themselves over weekends around the Harajuku pedestrian bridge.

It seems to be a predominately Japanese subculture centred on dressing up as characters from manga, anime, tokusatsu, and video games. However, for most of it, "CosPlay" has evolved to mean simply wearing a costume.

In Japan, "CosPlay" as a hobby is usually an end onto itself. Like-minded people gather to see each other's costumes, show off their own elaborate creations, take pictures, and possibly participate in best costume contests.

In the end, they might just be insecure teenagers trying to fit in, in their own Harajuku fashion way… and very much begging for attention. I think we all did it, even if it was just to listen to insanely bad music or drink an excess of beer.

The Japanese follow a strict path of life in modern times. You're expected to go to school, get a job, get married, have kids and die an honourable death. As teenagers, this may be their only time to find out who they are and to express it in a non-vocal way. They may also gain back the respect of their parents if they conform back to society’s belief by shedding their costumes and getting a decent job to live out the rest of the fairy tale.

The image of “Harajuku Girls” portrayed to the American pop culture by singer Gwen Stefani when she recorded a song by the same name, is very misleading and far from the truth.

Venturing into Harajuku towards Shibuya, we made the mistake of trying to locate some shops that were recommended to us either by friends or some or other city guide. It’s VERY difficult to find anything in Tokyo unless you know exactly where to look. And, inevitably, when you finally find what you were searching for, it’s very likely to disappoint. Either you have spent more time in transit than what is warranted, or the place is just a total let-down. We have learnt another lesson about this incredible city.

We were supposed to meet friends for dinner in Hon-Atsugi at 8 pm and thus made a timely departure from Shibuya to take a connecting train in Shimi-Kitazawa. And right there our blissful lack of experience with the marvellous Tokyo rail system threw us a curveball. We knew we were supposed to take an express to Hon-Atsugi – but there were none! All the trains were destined for stations we were not familiar with. After spending 45min (!) on the platform we bit the bullet and got on a “local” train to Hon-Atsugi. For the uninformed out there: The difference between an express and a local is, that the latter stops at EVERY station. So, a 40-minute trip turns into a 90 minute one. As can be imagined we missed our rendezvous by a good hour and had to flake out of our evening engagement. Very disappointing, especially when we learnt afterwards, that we could’ve gotten on ANY of the trains on that platform as long as they were not "local". Next time.





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