Harajuku Girls

Tokyo
April 2013

The tale of any city should begin with the low culture, in the present. The shrines, the ruins, the museums and history: There will be time enough for them.

Saturday morning in Harajuku. The fabled girls are not yet gathered on the bridge outside the train station, but they are everywhere else along the shopping streets. Pink, cotton-candy hair in pig tails, micro skirts, and absurdly high platform shoes — they are fashion forward, fashion sideways, fashion scrambled. Anime girls, teenaged baby dolls, neo-futuristic school girls.

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On the corner in front of the Wego department store, a girl with white-blonde hair shouts the day’s specials over and over in a squeaky voice to passersby, all of whom ignore her. Inside, ascending the escalator, Wego is like Justin Bieber’s closet. The boys who work there wear oversized baseball caps off-center like the Beebs, baggy pants or skinny jeans, and greet you in a friendly way but don’t seem to care whether you want anything.

Tomorrow the fabled girls will be gathered on the bridge in legion.Back outside, throngs of shoppers and tourists pack Takeshita Street, a boyish girl (or girlish boy) wearing shiny, metallic pants bobs in and out of every shop stall, a blue-haired girl with outrageous pigtails and rainbow-colored tights checks out the jewelry, and everywhere I go I hear “Hollaback Girl” running through my head on an endless loop:

I ain’t no hollaback girl.
I ain’t no hollaback girl.

Down the road in Shibuya, the crowds converge and disperse at the fabled street crossing outside the subway station. Large trucks circle the surrounding streets with giant billboards promoting J-pop boy bands and girl groups, blaring sugary pop music that is at once peppy and uplifting. On a street corner, smiling girls in blue polyester uniforms hand out free samples of Pocari Sweat, a kind of Japanese Gatorade that tastes like sweet-and-sour Orangina.

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As night falls in Shinjuku, the smell of yakatori on the grill fills the narrow alleys of Kabukichō from dozens of tiny, red-lantered dives and hawkers tout karaoke clubs, hostess bars, and seedy DVD parlors — the Harajuku girls gone wild — all bathed in an onslaught of neon lights. Shinjuku is not far from Harajuku, yet it is a world away. The fabled girls are nowhere to be found tonight, gone off to teenaged haunts or maybe up to Ikebukuro, but tomorrow on Sunday, they will be gathered on the bridge in legion.

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