Being a jeans-and-sweatshirt kind of guy, I do not go to Harajuku often. I have fashion writers for that sort of thing. Much younger fashion writers, who know the brands and can talk to Harajuku girls about the hottest new trends. I am glad I have those writers. There is no way I can approach a girl half my age and ask about what she’s wearing without the police becoming involved.
But there’s another side to Harajuku and Shibuya that doesn’t involve me embarrassing myself in a dressing room. I like history and I like a good story. Harajuku has a lot of stories, and Showcase tours can tell you all of them.
“Here?” We are standing on a bridge overlooking the grounds of Yoyogi National Gymnasium, designed by architect Tange Kenzo for the 1964 Summer Olympics. I look to the right and see the entrance to Yoyogi Park. If I crane my neck a little, I can see the entrance to Meiji Shrine.
“Right here,” she confirms. She relates the story of how the Gymnasium was built. We are on Showcase’s Harajuku – Omotesando Architecture Tour, but we aren’t just talking about building design techniques. A city’s history can be found in its construction choices. Why is this building here? What was here before? Go ahead and ask. The answers will tell you about a Tokyo on the rebound, a city that rebuilt itself to host the Olympic Games less than two decades after the end of a devastating war.
A short walk away from the Yoyogi National Gymnasium I learned about the Co-Op Olympia apartments, built in 1965. They were the first “100 million yen” apartments, and were the first in Tokyo to have a concierge service.
As befitting a place of its renown and stature, Harajuku and Shibuya are host to a number of unusual buildings. There is the famous Gyre building, designed by Dutch architects MVRDV, who envisioned a building a stack of spun tiles. Omotesando Branches, designed by Sou Fujimoto, incorporates trees into its design. The Louis Vuitton building’s shape is meant to evoke an impression of stacked suitcases, to give the viewer a feel of travel. And the Sunny Hills building? You just have to see it for yourself–
The tour covers more than the large and famous buildings. Tokyo has a style all its own, and architecture has had to adapt to changing times and available space. Yuka pointed out a tiny, wedge-shaped building on an intersection near the Iceberg, Audi’s former showroom. That awkward building is an example of “pet architecture,” a term given to the quirky buildings that are built to fit in leftover urban spaces. Later on Cat Street, Yuka told us about the Onden River underneath. “Look at the buildings,” She said. The former family homes were all situated facing away from Cat Street itself, because there was no reason for Japanese people to build their houses facing the dirty, narrow river.
And Showcase Tours aren’t limited to the new. taking a side street, we curved around the back of several buildings and walked right next to a graveyard, mere meters from people buying new suits. We passed by to emerge at Zenkoji Temple, a beautiful example of ancient architecture hidden behind the bustling streets.
There is also an example of how the other half lives–not far from the temple is a low-income housing area, slated for demolition. Rows upon rows of squat, stained apartment buildings choked with weeds and sprayed over with graffiti, but one only has to turn around to see billboards for expensive watches over buildings that likely seem worlds away.
The Showcase tour functions not just as an Architecture Tour, but also ably serves shopping tour. “We sometimes have trouble keeping the groups together,” Yuka admits. “People see all of these fabulous places and drift away to go shopping!” It’s not hard to see why, once you pass by the Prada Building and its specially-imported windows, or the side-street boutiques of Cat Street. Take notes! Shopping opportunities abound, and not just on the main streets. All brands start somewhere, and you might just be able to pick up a little something from a label before they get world-famous.
I toured all of these spots and many more, thanks to Showcase Tours. Our three-hour excursion ended with sore feet and a camera full of photos. Harajuku and Omotesando isn’t just for the fashionistas–there are stories here, and not just about the architecture. There is a history, and hidden places that you might otherwise miss if you were just passing by in pursuit of the latest trend. So go ahead–you can always go shopping later. Showcase Tours are great for history buffs and architecture fans alike!
Showcase Tours Information
Phone (local): 050-5308-1745, 9am – 6pm