Tokyo is a fantastically cool kaleidoscope of style, counterculture, and contrasting expressions of femininity.
The home of the Harajuku girls is known around the world for youth subculture, outlandish fashion, and an over the top feminine identity. At first glance, overt cuteness prevails over everything, but take a closer look and discover a city where women have a long history of using fashion to express their unique personalities. Whether they are rocking intricate kimonos, ruffled petticoats, or leather bondage masks, one thing is for certain: Tokyo girls rule.
All Things Kawaii
You will hear the word kawaii often in Japan– the word loosely translates to cute, and can refer to the culture of cuteness that has dominated Japanese fashion and culture for decades. Think Hello Kitty, brightly colored bracelets, and huge hair bows, then click your heels together three times and you will land in Harajuku. Browse the souvenir shops and cat cafes of Takeshita-dori street at your own pace or take a Harajuku Kawaii Tour to learn more about the history of Harajuku fashion. Your guide will be dressed like a Victorian-era porcelain doll, and with a twirl of her frilly pink petticoat, she will tell you all about her iconic Lolita style.
Cosplay on Chuo-dori Street
Akihabara is known as Electric City, and it is the epicenter of Japanese manga and anime. Next to kawaii, manga is Japan’s most recognizable modern fashion trend, and has become synonymous with Japanese culture itself. Wander central Chuo-dori street on a Sunday when the endless souvenir and electronic shops are closed, but cosplayers dressed as their favorite manga characters roam the streets. Feeling inspired, try on a pink wig or Sailor Moon dress at Cospa or ACOS, which both stock an inexhaustible variety of anime costumes.
Shop for a Vintage Kimono
The Ginza district is known for its upscale shopping and high-end retailers housed in elaborate, eccentric buildings. The Ginza Antique Mall is a tiny reprieve sandwiched in between giants, and it contains all kinds of treasures from sake cups to gorgeous handmade wood panels. There is an entire section devoted to vintage kimonos, perfect for window shopping or bringing home a piece of Japanese fashion history. The kimonos and the women who wear them exemplify bihaku, or traditional Japanese beauty.
INSIDER TIPIf the vintage kimonos are out of your budget, head to the back of the store where there are two racks of haori, or kimono jackets, that start at around $20 USD.
Comings and Goings at Shibuya 109
Stroll department stores in the Shibuya district to see the iconic schoolgirl or gyaru style that captured the imagination of fashion designers all over the world during the Harajuku heyday. This trend was inspired by teenage schoolgirls who began shortening and accessorizing their school uniform skirts and wearing them out on the weekends. Today, the Shibuya 109 department store is a gathering place for trendy, well-dressed youth that tends towards the upscale and mainstream. Keep an eye on what the girls who shop at Shibuya 109 are wearing, because it might end up on a runway at fashion week.
Meet Your J-Pop Idol
AKB48 Theatre, named after one of Tokyo’s most iconic girl groups, brings the J-Pop superfans right to their idols. The group AKB48 is comprised of over 100 teen and college-aged girls who define the pop idol worship that is prevalent in Japanese culture. Members of the group sport kawaii and gyaru trends, tending towards schoolgirl skirts, girly accessories, and dewy faces. To see a show you must enter a lottery system, but anyone can visit the theatre and poke around the extensive and, at times, bizarre AKB48 gift shop, where the idols’ faces are printed on everything from key chains to computer mouses.
Girls Rock in Shimokita
These days the cool kids are ditching Harajuku and hanging out in the Shimokitazawa district, or Shimokita as the locals call it. Up and coming trends are aplenty amongst Shimokita’s array of vintage shops, record stores, coffee joints, and live houses. The live houses, or music venues, have put Shimokita on the map as Tokyo’s hub of rock and punk music and lifestyle. Here, girls rebel against the uber-girly kawaii and J-pop idol culture by dressing in dark, muted colors and fronting powerful rock, punk, indie, and folk bands. Catch a show at one of our favorite venues: Shelter, Garage, or Garden.
INSIDER TIPMost live houses have a cover charge of at least $30USD. If you’re looking to spend less, try Era, where shows are generally cheaper.
Watch Kyudo Archers in Action
Kyudo, or traditional Japanese archery, has been practiced in Japan since 250 BC. For centuries both kyudo and the traditional hakama dress that practitioners wear were reserved for men. In the early 1900s, the hakama, which looks like a floor length skirt, was deemed acceptable women’s wear for outdoor school activities. It quickly became a symbol of equal rights between genders and sparked a revolution of practical, androgynous fashion. Today, female archers proudly wear the hakama and practice archery at the Koto-ku Kyodo Renmei, where you can watch them practice for free. Visit the dojo in the evening and take in the strength and beauty of this ancient art form meant to train the mind, body, and spirit.
Unicorn Milkshakes With the Monster Girls
The Kawaii Monster Café is a highly Instagrammable eatery where you can fulfill your lifelong dream of eating colorful macarons while riding a banana carousel. The Monster Girls roam the café dressed in the decora style, named for an excessive amount of decorations or accessories. Iconic Harajuku fashion designer Sebastion Masuda teamed up with pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu to design the café, which looks like the inside of a candy-hungry monster’s belly. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Gigi Hadid, and Jaden Smith have all made Instagram cameos here, however, we prefer this café after hours. The evening KMC Showcase takes place in the same creepy/cute venue, but features darker, hypnotic fashion showcases with names like “Rubber Fashion” and “Midsummer’s Night Dream.”
Twist and Shout Like Greasers
On a sunny day in the city, Yoyogi Park is the place to be. Head to the sprawling urban forest on a Sunday to experience one of Japan’s most surprising subcultures: rockabilly. In the center of the park you’ll find girls dressed in 1950s poodle skirts or sporting beehive hairdos, Levi’s and undertanks, showing off their Grease lighting moves. The Rockabilly Club puts on weekly performances, and their dedication to this particular era of fashion has captured the imagination of photographers and travelers from all over the world.
INSIDER TIPDo like the locals do–-bring a blanket and umbrella and sit out on the grass at Yoyogi park to simply enjoy the day. The people watching here is incredible: it is possible to see virtually every fashion subculture and upcoming trend pass right by your picnic blanket.
Old Japan in Temples and Geishas
The Asakusa district, known for its iconic Sensoji Buddhist temple, is an epicenter of Edo-period Japanese culture, albeit a touristy one. Wander Nakamise-dori street and you’ll bump into girls dressed in traditional, brightly colored kimonos taking selfies in front of the beautiful red Kaminari gate. Weave your way through stalls full of paper fans and cat figurines to the Asakusa Culture Center, which celebrates Tokyo’s rich history through occasional free geisha performances. Geishas dressed in traditional kimonos demonstrate dance, song, and shamisen, a traditional three-stringed instrument.
Join the Ganguro Girl Gang
Themed cafés are aplenty in Japan (hedgehog café, bunny café, robot café, oh my), but the Ganguro Café offers a unique look into Tokyo’s counterculture history. In the 1990s, girls began to rebel against traditional standards of Japanese beauty by tanning their skin, dying their hair, and embracing Western fashion. Eventually, this trend grew into the ganguro subculture, which reached its peak in the mid-2000s but is rarely seen in the streets today. At the café, the heavily accessorized Ganguro gals serve drinks, pose for photos, and answer questions about their unique attire. For the full experience, they will even do your hair and makeup ganguro style–-if you’re adventurous enough.
Ghosts of Fashion’s Past
The yamanba style literally means “mountain witch” and draws inspiration from Japanese folklore by embodying the archetype of the “hag,” whose tangled hair and disheveled kimono banished her to the fringes of society. At the height of their popularity, the yamanba girls were often photographed wearing black and white face paint and garish outfits that evoked traditional Japanese depictions of demons, ghosts, and witches. Today it is rare to see one in the streets, but stroll the diverse and vibrant Shinjuku district and you might be lucky enough to run into one of Tokyo’s fashion ghosts. The yamanba girls embrace their own culture’s disapproval, which, love or hate their fashion choices, is pretty rad.
Party with the Queens
As outrageous and colorful as Tokyo can be, the drag scene here is surprisingly small, although definitely on the up and up. Shinjuku’s Ni-Chome neighborhood is Tokyo’s lively gay quarter and home to the Campy! Bar, the center of the growing drag queen scene. Around 8 pm, queens strut their stuff on Campy!’s stage, and the entirety of Tokyo’s fashion history is played out in real time. Interestingly enough, although gay and transgender people remain under-represented in Japanese media, cross-dressing or “josou” is a somewhat mainstream TV trope.
Naughty or Nice in the Kinkiest City in the World
Tokyo is a city of contradictions, and sex is no exception. Although an overwhelming number of Japanese young people are celibate, the city is famous for naughty “love hotels” and a huge underground BDSM scene. Black Rose is on the lighter side of 50 shades, where riding crops and candle wax set the backdrop of an otherwise normal, swanky bar. Compared to similar clubs in the Western world, there is a level of respect that is maintained here, and the bar’s cool rather than creepy vibes are welcoming to both women and men.
See and Be Seen at Vent
Once you’ve eaten, drunk, walked, danced, and lounged your way through Japan’s counterculture, discover how each iconic trend inspires today’s trendsetters by mingling at Club Vent, a hipster enclave that brings in indie DJs from all over the world. Tokyo’s best-dressed youth are all here, bobbing their heads to groovy music in a city where dancing has been technically illegal until very recently. The tunes are smooth and the patrons show off all that is wonderful and inspiring about Tokyo fashion and freedom of expression.
INSIDER TIPThe bar is cash only, so bring cash and extra coins to operate the lockers upstairs, where you can store your purse and coat while you dance. Prepare to forever roll your eyes at the coat check line when you return home. You’re gonna miss Tokyo.