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Tokyo City Trip - Harajuku

Takeshita Street at Harajuku
Takeshita Street at Harajuku

TOKYO DAY 3: Harajuku Station, Omotesando and Shibuya


Entering the grounds of the Meiji Shrine, you'll hardly believe you're in the center of the world's largest metropolitan area (34 million people within commuting distance).

It is said that nearly a century ago 100,000 people planted one tree each for the Shinto shrine, which honors Emperor Meiji, who ruled for 60 years, until 1912. In addition to consolidating the nation's capitals, he is also credited with bringing Japan into the modern age.

Meiji Shrine
Meiji Shrine

Fittingly, the shrine sits at the edge of Tokyo's trendy center, near Harajuku Station — fans of music superstar Gwen Stefani might recognize the area as a mecca of pop-culture fashion. While the cosplay (costume play) sessions on the bridge are largely a thing of the past, young fashionistas can be found shopping the pedestrian alley of Takeshita-dori. Here, dozens of shops cater to the world's most fashion-forward beings: Japanese teenagers, whose style is about two years ahead of most in the U.S.

Another shopping row can be found on the generous tree-lined boulevard Omotesando, which has been called the Champs-Élysées of Tokyo. While that title may be a bit overblown, Omotesando and the adjoining Jingumae and Aoyama districts are home to some of Japan's most fashionable shops. Stroll through the many-storied Laforet Building near Omotesando's main intersection for one-stop window shopping or divert onto one of the many side streets for dozens of intimate shops, hair salons and art galleries.

The Shibuya district
The Shibuya district

Even if you don't shop, it's worth a walk down Omotesando to check out the works of some of the world's great architects, housing the works of some of the world's great fashion designers: the Dior building (by the Pritzker Prize-winning team Sanaa), Tod's (by Toyo Ito), Comme des Garçons (Future System) and Prada (Swiss team Herzog & de Meuron).

In the center of the boulevard, the Omotesando Hills complex, by Pritzker-prize winner Tadao Ando, looks like a block-long strip of glass from the street but opens into an oblong spiral atrium indoors. Take a walk around the spiral perimeter and stare down at the granite floor to watch how it turns into a giant optical illusion.

Omotesando ends at the Nezu Museum, astonishing in its simplicity and a worthy emblem of Tokyo today. Architect Kengo Kuma's understated, thoroughly 21st-century interior lets the priceless collection of Japanese, Korean and Chinese antiquities speak its piece. Like every great Japanese building, this one also has a garden. Formerly a samurai property, it is well worth another 40 plus minutes of walking up and down hills, and rambling past streams, ponds and mossy mounds. The garden's tea house is a prime location for a break.

Cap off your three days with a visit to the Shibuya district — quite possibly the Tokyo you had in mind before you arrived. The plaza outside of Shibuya station is encircled by high-rise neon signs and gigantic TVs, noise, young people, party people and business people, jumping in and out of cafés, restaurants and nightspots.

Being that this is just one tiny corner of the city, it is amusing to imagine what the other twelve million people might be doing.

For more information, visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government tourism website at or the Japan National Tourism Organization at or


Meiji Shrine

Before the arrival of Buddhism in the Japanese archipelago in the sixth century, Japan worshipped an animist religion that is now known as Shinto. The basic tenet of Shinto is that everything in nature has a soul; by communing with nature one can become spiritually pure. At Shinto shrines you'll often see rope tied around auspicious rocks and trees adorned with white origami lightning bolts, signifying a sacred space within. Humans can be revered, too. Another hallmark of a Shinto shrine is the torii, the gate with two lintels at the top.

Buddhism, meanwhile, originated in India and made its way to Japan via China and Korea, so Buddhist temple architecture often reflects influences of those countries. Every Buddhist temple contains an image of the Buddha or a Buddhist saint and usually incense burners — incense is said to purify the soul — bearing images of lotus flowers or dragons. The central goal of Buddhism is to achieve enlightenment, most famously through Zen meditation.

Most Japanese do not adhere to either religion exclusively. Rather, people will travel to Shinto shrines for rituals such as the blessing of a baby or a wedding ceremony, while funerals take place at Buddhist temples.



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* Images courtesy of the Japan National Tourism Organization and TCVB

(Updated: 02/15/13 CT)

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