Like most women my age, I learned about Harajuku as a young lady from watching Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls sing backup for her. This is unfortunate because the Harajuku fashion subculture is so much bigger than one, admittedly tres cool, former lead singer of a ska band. Harajuku, the neighborhood in Tokyo, is even much bigger than Harajuku, the fashion subculture. Join me for a day of fruit sandwiches, extreme eating challenges, horrifying mannequins, and sacred bottles of wine. Also we might get pooped on. You’ve been warned.
Morning: Meiji Shrine
Address: 1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho
Hours: 5 AM-6 PM
The Meiji shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji who presided over the Meiji Restoration. (That is the most times I’ve ever used the word Meiji in one sentence.) This period of Japanese history featured a “restoration” of the power of the emperor as opposed to the shogun, as well as a supersonic period of economic and technological growth and expansion for the Japanese, and the abolition of the samurai.
After Emperor Meiji died, the Japanese Parliament dedicated the shrine to him and his wife, making them Shinto deities. The shrine itself was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt later. Like most Shinto shrines, the entrance is marked by a giant gate, or torii, that marks the entrance into the sacred space. You are supposed to bow when entering and when exiting, to be polite to the gate.
Even though it is just to the side of Tokyo’s major shopping district, the shrine lies in the middle of a beautiful evergreen forest. I was touched to learn that the thousands of trees that make up the forest were not indigenous to the area. The trees were donated by the Japanese people and planted by hand. This is just one of the many reasons monarchy is so fabulous. Do you think the American people would do something like that to honor some old President? Doubtful.
Travelerette Tip: Don’t miss the Azalea Garden hidden inside the Meiji Shrine. It’s an extra 500 Yen to enter, but since you paid nothing to enter the shrine itself, I think that price is more than reasonable. Also, there’s a sacred well at the end!
I have to admit that visiting this well made me feel like a terrible tourist because you have to stand on a (short) line to get up close to the well, a well which, as I am not a practitioner of Shinto, is not sacred to me. So all I saw was a pretty well, but if you practice Shinto, you would see a place of religious importance. I don’t know how I feel about religious sites being tourist attractions. If you have any deep thoughts on the subject, please leave them below. Just don’t write them in all caps.
If you do not want to visit the sacred well, stop at this not-sacred lake in the Azalea Garden. It’s a charming place to sit, read a book, and look for ducks so you can run at them really fast while screaming and scare them into flying away so you can take a really pretty picture of ducks in flight for your Instagram account.
Travelerette Treasure: My favorite feature of Meiji Jingu are the racks of consecrated alcohol. There are barrels of sake that have been donated to the shrine from sake brewers all over the country. Apparently the sake is used in festivals at the shrine as wine might be used in Western religious rituals.
Speaking of wine, our French friends have not been neglected. To symbolize the friendship between Japan and France, there are barrels of wine from the famous French wine-producing region of Bourgogne here, and the Burgundy has been blessed as well. I wonder if they use this wine in festivals too. It seems like a shame to let it go to waste.
Lunch: Kyobashi Sembikiya
Address: 〒150-8510 Tokyo, Shibuya, 2 Chome−21−1.
A fruit sandwich is a kind of tasty snack that exists mostly in Japan. It consists of two pieces of light sandwich bread with whipped cream and sliced fresh fruit in the middle. I got mine at a fruit café–yes, Japanese businesses can be so specialized that there are even restaurants that focus mainly on serving fruit–called Kyobashi Sembikiya that, according to Time Out Tokyo, has existed for over a hundred years.
The restaurant certainly does not look this old, mostly because it has beautiful large glass walls to better provide an excellent view of the ultra-modern Omote-Sando street, and it also has numerous chrome and glass cases filled with fruit pastries. Though there was nothing stereotypically feminine about the décor, the place seemed almost entirely frequented by women, much like tea shops in the United States.
I don’t really understand why tea shops and fruit cafes wouldn’t appeal to a dude. Gentleman readers, do you not enjoy yummy pastries and fine, warm brewed beverages? I’ve heard that Charles de Gaulle enjoyed a pain au chocolat and Winston Churchill partook of a nice cuppa when they weren’t busy taking down Hitler. Did this make them less manly? Maybe this is one of those hopelessly retro notions about gender that we need to take down, like the idea that women aren’t smart enough to be doctors or something. Think about it. Macho tea. I think it could be pretty awesome.
I ordered a lunch set that came with fruit tea, one fruit sandwich, one chicken sandwich, and one dessert. I don’t know that anyone needs a fruit sandwich AND a dessert for lunch, but I certainly wasn’t going to complain.
The chicken sandwich was tasty, but the fruit sandwich was the star of the show. You would think that white bread + cream + chopped fruit would be heavy and disgusting but it really wasn’t at all. The bread was light and fluffy, as was the cream, and the fruit was plump and juicy. I definitely think fruit sandwiches should catch on in the US, ASAP.
The dessert was a smokey yet light caramel-banana-praline-custard. I actually think “fruit restaurant” could be a really good Top Chef challenge. “Cheftestants, create a restaurant menu in which each dish uses at least one FRUIT”. Actually, maybe they have already done that. I’m not up-to-date on Top Chef.
Early Afternoon: Omote Sando
Omote-sando is Tokyo’s high-fashion street, and a number of the buildings there are destinations in and of themselves because of their unusual appearances. There are so many fun high-end brand palaces to explore, but I’ll get you start with…
the approximately top five coolest buildings on omote-sando
1) La Perla
3) Louis Vuitton
4) Stella McCartney
5) My favorite was the Prada building, natch, which looks like a beehive. It’s hard to describe but the whole exterior is covered in this very cool honeycombed bubble glass pictured above. I’m not a huge fan of modern architecture, but this was one of the best modern buildings I have ever seen.
But we are not just here for the fashion! We’re also here for the BIRDS!
At the end of Omote-sando, on a little side street, is the charming Bird Cafe, aka Kotori Cafe. If you need more specific help, it is located at 6-3-7 Minami-Aoyama. Pet cafes are huge in Japan right now and you can spend time in a dining establishment featuring anything from normal pets like cats and dogs to freaky-deaky pets like owls and snakes. (PS. No one let the snakes in the bird cafe.) I chose Kotori Cafe because it fit in conveniently with everything else I wanted to do.
There are three easy steps to take if you want to dine with birds.
Step One: Order a drink. I had a lovely iced latte that came with a side of bird cookie.
Fear not, Internet Stranger! The cookie is merely shaped like a bird. It tastes like a sugar cookie.
Step Two: Book some bird time. Even though this is a bird cafe, it would not be pleasant or sanitary for either humans or birds for the birds to be flying around all the time. So the birds are kept in a separate room and you pay 500 Yen to spend 5 minutes in the Bird Room.
Step Three: Chill with the birds. For the sake of the birds’s well-being, you can only spend time with one bird at a time. I chose the lovely yellow cockatiel above as well as the teeny tiny jade sparrow.
I preferred the jade sparrow because he was cuter, but also because the cocktatiel got a little sassy and pooped on my arm. Fortunately he didn’t poop on my clothes, and the attendant wiped it off right away, but still.
Look at his smug face. You can practically hear him say, “SORRY, NOT SORRY!”
Late Afternoon: Yoyogi Park
Yoyogi Park is lovely any time of year, but you simply cannot miss it if you are in Tokyo for cherry blossom season. It is full of Tokyoites with their best buds and their best picnic blankets getting ready to celebrate the power of flower.
But even if there aren’t cherry blossoms in season, Yoyogi is a beautiful place to stroll and watch the sunset.
I hope you don’t need me to give you more specific instructions on what to do in Yoyogi Park than that, Internet Stranger. Get off the grid a bit and put the itinerary away. LIVE!
Travelerette Tip: Because this is Tokyo, one of the cleanest cities in the world, there is a very nice free public restroom near the entrance of the park. No need to wander the world searching for one!
Evening: Takeshita Dori
I say things like this so much that it starts to sound like a cliché, but it truly boggles one’s mind that right next to a sacred shrine to an emperor, in the middle of a forest that exists only because of the devotion of the Japanese people to the ancient imperial institution, is a street devoted to that most ephemeral of things: fashion trends for teenage girls.
This street, Takeshita-dori, is right next to Omote-sando and though they are both shopping streets dedicated mostly to stores for women, that’s about all they have in common. Omote-sando is the high fashion street, equivalent to Fifth Avenue in New York or Rodeo Drive in LA. Takeshita-dori is more like if you put Delia’s and Hot Topic in a blender and then flung the remains over several city blocks. I mean, the photo above of the entrance to Takeshita-dori kind of says it all. I don’t think Louis Vuitton is going to have a giant Raggedy Ann doll made of balloons outside of their stores very soon.
Unlike Yoyogi Park, Takeshita dori is a bit overwhelming and you might need my help to narrow down some of the options. So here are:
the approximately top five best things to do on takeshita street
1) Go Shopping! As a not-short person, I found that some of the women’s clothing in Japan seemed to be made in US Petite sizes, so I couldn’t wear any of the skirts because they didn’t cover enough of my leg to be decent. But that shouldn’t stop you from shopping for makeup! I really liked Etude House, which is a Korean makeup brand I had never seen before. Their makeup was reasonably priced and their eyeliners are creamy and long-lasting. I wish I had bought about ten.
2) Take pictures! Takeshita dori is full of random weirdness to photograph. It could be anything from this adorable mascot…
to Girls! Girls! Girls!
to this horrifying mannequin that I can only assume was created by murdering Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland and then combining them in a cruel effort to terrify children.
But I’m sure you can find odder photos than this! Feel free to email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
3) Eat Conveyor Belt Sushi! Conveyor Belt Sushi is not the most high-quality sushi in Japan, but it is the most fun to eat. I recommend Sushi Nova Harajuku on 1-6-12 Jingumae. It can be a little hard to spot because it’s on the second floor of a building.
Once you are there, you are seated at a little computer and you get to order as much sushi as your little old heart desires. The computer speaks perfect English, so there’s no possible language barrier. Just input your order into the computer, wait a couple of minutes, and your exact order will be sent out to you on the conveyor belt. It’s like wizardry!
When you’re done, just bring your plastic ticket back to the counter and pay! Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. I ordered six kinds of sushi: tamago (egg), flying fish roe, tuna, octopus, toro roll, and the infamous…
Travelerette Treasure: I use the term treasure loosely because I don’t want anyone to think I really recommend ordering this dish, unless you are very brave, but certainly the most memorable thing I ordered at the Conveyor Belt Sushi Parlor was a natto roll.
Natto, quite possibly the most Japanese food on the earth, is fermented soybeans. It smells like a dead foot and has the consistency of hair covered in slime. I say it is the most Japanese food on earth not because most Japanese food is this off-putting, but rather because most Japanese people assume that only a Japanese person would enjoy eating natto.
I refuse to accept defeat when it comes to food, so I ordered my natto roll and I ate the whole thing. I needed to stop up my nose when I ate it, but actually I like the sharp, salty taste. Soy sauce definitely helped. I don’t know that natto would be the first thing I ordered, but I wouldn’t be averse to trying it again.
4) Eat a crepe for dessert! After all that natto, you’re going to need something sweet. Get a Japanese style crepe back on Takeshita dori. Crepes are so popular in this neighborhood that there are three big Crepe Stands on Takeshita, but I chose Marion Crepes because it looked like the most popular. Because I am a sheeple (sheeperson?) I got their most popular flavor, chocolate custard.
This was a delicious combination of paper-thin crepe, vanilla ice cream, rich vanilla custard, and syrupy chocolate sauce. Let us say that I feel a lot more confident recommending one of these babies to my gentle readers than I do the natto.
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Harajuku!
What would you do with a day in Harajuku? Has an animal ever pooped on you before? (Actually a sheep also pooped on me once when I was a kid, but that wasn’t during a trip.) And would you ever consider eating natto, even on a dare? Please leave your thoughts below!
I am here to provide perfect travel itineraries with 24 hours, 3 fun facts, and 1,000,000 laughs! I hope that I can motivate you to get out there, see the world, learn something, and have a sense of humor about it all.