I glance upwards and see a damsel in distress, stuck on a garish platform. Below her, a huge ape is going bananas, probably because he hasn’t got any bananas. Suddenly, a huge ball of hot light whirls towards me and appears as if it will knock me into oblivion. But, my imagination is running away with itself. How? I am actually in the Shibuya ward (one of 23) of Tokyo, surrounded by such a zany kaleidoscope of neon-splattered architecture that I envisioned I was in a real-life arcade game waiting to get flattened by Donkey Kong.

It’s a relief to say that Tokyo and the rest of Japan is getting back on its feet now, after the recent Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and consequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (March 2011). In fact, the country’s capital, which evolved from a small fishing village called Edo over 400 years ago, is no stranger to adversity. It was severely bombed in the Second World War, sadly resulting in the deaths of over 75,000 people. Yet, the globe’s most populous urban area (35 million) has always had a remarkable capacity to regenerate itself. My first task, though, is to maybe figure out this place’s society; in many ways, it feels very traditional, with Shinto temples, kimonos, drones of diligent office workers and legends of Samurai warriors. Nonetheless, beneath the straight-laced façade, there’s a curveball of love hotels, sleazy karaoke dens and risqué fashion, plus museums and restaurants kookier than the thought processes of Michael Jackson’s last plastic surgeon.

It’s hard to walk about in any locality if you don’t look the part. Thus, as my wardrobe is a woeful imitation of Lady Gaga and Dame Edna Everage’s cast-offs at the best of times, it is lucky I am in a fashion hotspot. Indeed, Tokyo is one of the planet’s top five trend-setting citadels (with London, Milan, New York and Paris), so the usual suspects of designers are to be found in and around Omotesando. Still, if like me, Dior, Emporio Armani and Ralph Lauren are a bit out of your price bracket, do you know what you can do? Head to Harajuka and buy some apparel, so you can blend in with the groups of unconventional hipsters who spill-out onto the street intersections.

There are various tribes. The Gothic Lolitas are influenced by Rococo and the Victorian period, so have black-eyeliner marked faces and dresses so dark and antiquated you would think they were on their way to a funeral in a Charles Dickens’ novel. Then there’s the androgynous visual kei, who are just as fond of make-up, but this time combined with 80s and 90s rock star-esque outfits and hair so spiky-sharp it looks like it could take out an eyeball.
And not forgetting the Cosplay crowd, who have an image which mirrors a fictional or iconic character from anime, a band, comic book, manga or video game.

February 6th, 2012