Tokyo kawaii

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Exiting the ticket gates of Tokyo’s Harajuku station on a weekend afternoon is like walking into a fancy dress party – a cute one at that. In Japan, where cuteness is widely prevalent, you should expect nothing less.


As you fight your way through the station-front Harajuku crowds, a group of teenage girls are dressed in pink French maid outfits, giggling as they pose for photos with tourists. Next to them is a girl sporting the Little Bo Peep look, complete with a ribbon-adorned shepherd’s crook; then several others holding handwritten placards that say ‘Hug Me!’

Save for a few teens dressed as gothic nurses or their favourite anime characters, almost everything on display is cute – or kawaii as the Japanese would say. And there is nowhere better in Tokyo to immerse yourself in kawaii than Harajuku.

Across the road from the station, a slow-moving throng works its way down the narrow Takeshita-dori, where tiny shops, stretching for several hundred metres on both sides of the street, do a roaring trade in all manner of cute goods. Some have colourful straps for hanging off cell phones, and glittery silver, pink, and gold stickers for decorating finger nails. Then there are the stores that specialise in frilly dresses and accessories to match, not to mention a few which stock striking cosplay and goth fashions.

But just why is all that cuteness there in the first place? Well, kawaii as it is today is said to trace its roots to the 1970s, to a seemingly innocuous fad that saw high school girls decorating their school writing with cute patterns and designs, a style which then soon spread into mainstream use in such mediums as fashion magazines and on product packaging.

Kawaii then further developed through the 1980s into a way of both dressing and behaving, driven in large part by the surging popularity of young J-pop icons, such as singer Seiko Matsuda, who portrayed themselves as innocent and pretty; and the place where it started to hit the streets was Harajuku, the part of town where new teen fashions and trends have long originated.

Fast-forward to the present, and kawaii has managed to permeate almost every aspect of society, from not just the way girls dress and act, but also to the realms of entertainment, the way products are advertised and companies branded, and even at times the sacred. For mainstream examples of kawaii look no farther than the myriad consumer brands that are bedecked in ‘Hello Kitty’ graphics. Even the Tokyo police force – a bunch not especially renowned for being either friendly or cuddly – have a cute mascot who goes by the name of Pipo-Kun, a chirpy cross between a teddy bear and a rodent with an antenna sprouting out of the top of its head.

In fact, take a walk through any part of Tokyo and the chances are high that you’ll soon be face-to-face with cuteness in one of its many forms. Hit the underground and you’ll be bombarded by cute signage. Turn on the TV and it will be there too, most likely in the form of cartoon-style TV commercials.

But perhaps the most striking part of the kawaii phenomenon is how it sits so effortlessly next to both Tokyo’s most traditional and cosmopolitan sides. And that takes us back to Harajuku, where just metres away from the fancy dress extravaganza is the absolute peace and tranquillity of one of Tokyo’s most important and impressive shrines.

Entered through giant wooden torii gates and beyond a procession of towering trees, Meiji Shrine is a relative newbie as Japanese shrines go; its construction only started in 1915 as a site to enshrine the spirits of the Meiji emperor and his wife – and to commemorate their roles in the Meiji Restoration which brought about the modernising of Japan – after their deaths several years earlier.

Although during the Japanese New Year celebrations it heaves with visitors – many of whom dress for the occasion in traditional kimonos – for most of the year the shrine and the 175 acres of evergreen forest that surround it form one of the few places in Tokyo where you can escape the city’s otherwise unrelenting pace. It is also still a popular spot for well-heeled Shinto weddings, so don’t be surprised if you glimpse a sombre wedding procession passing through the shrine’s precincts.

Walking away from Meiji Shrine and on to the other side of Harajuku, Omotesando and the Aoyama district complete the contrast. This is the yin to Meiji’s yang – the ultra-modern face of Tokyo, where Meiji’s traditions and Harajuku’s cute quirkiness are cast aside in favour of chic and expensive bistros, European-influenced cafes, and a plethora of boutiques and brand-name goods – think Fendi, Louis Vuitton, Gucci et al – many of which are in the rather swanky Omotesando Hills shopping centre or dotted about the winding alleys shooting off Omotesando-dori.

Back at Harajuku station, as evening draws to an end and the rush for the day’s last few trains reaches its peak, a crowd that blends Harajuku kawaii, cosplay, brand-name-clad shoppers, and maybe even a kimono or two, makes it’s way via Meiji Shrine to the Yamanote line. In any other city it’s a sight that would probably have people rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Yet in a city as defined by its contrasts as Tokyo, it’s so natural that nobody even bats an eyelid at it – unless, of course, they are trying to look cute

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