When The Hair’s ready, someone pumps up the rock ’n’ roll and the clones begin to move to the music, flicking their legs and snaking their hips while their hair stays frozen in time.
Ten metres away, a rival stereo plays and a stern-looking woman in sunglasses and a ’50s prom dress leads a shambolic dance crew to Let’s Twist Again. Caught in the middle of a dance-off we turn from group to group, not quite sure where to focus, but certain we’ve found the best free entertainment in Tokyo.
These are the last takenoko-zoku (meaning bamboo shoot kids, because they just sprang up in the ’80s) of Harajuku. In the mid-’90s authorities decided to drive them away from their stomping ground of Jingu bridge, but the takenoko-zoku simply relocated, and every Sunday they continue to gather, just round the corner.
In their place, a much stranger crowd appeared — the cosplay-zoku, meaning costume play gang. Now, on the bridge from Harajuku station you’ll find goth lolitas, maids, nurses, cross-players (men dressed as women), anime characters and, when we were there, someone dressed as a turtle.
It’s polite to ask, but most cosplayers will happily pose for photos — for many it’s the whole point. “Do you know anyone who does this?” I ask my guide Yuca Suzuki, in between overloading my camera’s memory card. “No”, she replies, shaking her head vigorously. “This isn’t normal.” Despite Gwen Stefani making the look mainstream with her Harajuku Girls, cosplay is still very much counter-culture.
The alternative vibe starts at Harajuku’s most memorable street Takeshita-dori. A world away from the sleek shopping malls and designer stores of Omote-sando, it’s lined with independent shops selling everything from macaroon pendants to goth gear. Sandwiched between pink ice cream parlours and crêpe stalls you’ll find risqué underwear boutiques and trainer shops blasting out hip-hop. And among the crowds of tourists and Tokyo teens, saunters the odd geisha girl or fetish fiend.
At the end of the street it’s a short walk to Harajuku station and the cosplay bridge, then it’s on to Yoyogi Park for the rockabillies and from there things continue on a surreal bent.
“It’s like Britain’s Got Talent, in a park,” says one of our group, as we pass indie bands, dance troupes, bongo drummers and a man making elaborate sculptures out of balloons. “Harazooku,” quips another.
It seems only right that in Tokyo, where the madness of modern living is tempered by the traditions of old, that 10 minutes away from this alfresco entertainment lies the largest Shinto shrine in the city, Meiji Jingu, dedicated to the emperor, who reigned from 1868 until 1912. The closer you get, the more the counter culture craziness fades, absorbed by the towering cypress trees, which line the path. By the time you reach the entrance, a huge, wooden torii (gate), the atmosphere is serene.
The shrine was built in 1920 (and rebuilt in 1958 after World War II). Shinto shrines (for Japan’s native religion) are usually less elaborate than Buddhist temples and Meiji is no exception — its simplicity adding to the feeling of retreat.
The main courtyard is flanked by buildings of muted colours, injected with a flash of vivid orange when a Shrine Maiden hurries past. In one corner a small structure is covered in ema — wooden plaques on which people write their wishes. They’re hung for all to see — multilingual prayers for health, wealth, happiness and good exam results.
With its mix of old and new, quirky and serious, natural and man-made Harajuku is a pocket-sized Tokyo. All you’re missing is the advanced technology, but then a hairdryer in the park is pretty impressive.
» Amy Adams travelled to Japan with Virgin Holidays Real World Adventures (0844-557 9275; www.virginholidays.com/realworld). A Land Of The Rising Sun tour is £1899 including return flights, a 14-day Intrepid tour and accommodation.
In the neighbourhood
Tokyo is too huge to explore as a whole. Instead, break the city down into neighbourhoods. Here are a few to add to your itinerary.
Window shopping in Ginza
That Ginza is Tokyo’s equivalent of Madison Avenue or Knightsbridge will tell you everything you need to know about the calibre of shop, and shopper here. Even if you can’t afford the likes of Chanel and Louis Vuitton, it’s worth joining in the Ginbura (meaning Ginza strolling) along the extra-wide pavements that line the most expensive real estate in Japan. Drop into the eight-story Sony Building for a chance to check out the latest gadgets and gizmos.Just round the corner is the Kabuki-za theatre, where you can see this traditional Japanese performing art in action.
Early to Tsukiji Market
Down the road from Ginza is the world’s largest fish market, open from 3am and more than worth an early start. Get there at 8am at least for the tuna auctions when workers crowd into a chilled warehouse to prod and poke the huge corpses before bidding frantically for the catch of the day. Being wholesale you can’t buy anything, but tourists are permitted to nosey around the bubbling tanks and colourfully gory stalls provided they keep out of the way. This is easier said than done when you’re dodging electric carts and huge crates of seafood so keep your wits about you. Drop into any sushi restaurant nearby for a breakfast of the freshest raw fish you’ll ever eat.
Love in Shibuya
“They look like they’ve had a good time,” quipped our guide when we saw a couple emerge from a love hotel. Despite the jokes, hotels you can book for a couple of hours aren’t frowned upon in Tokyo — in fact they’re seen as a practical solution to living in a city so crowded it’s hard to find privacy.
Love hotels are spread across the city but in Shibuya, on so-called Love Hotel Hill, there’s something to suit everyone. The area is also a nightlife hub, with some of the city’s hotspots like Club Asia. Shibuya doesn’t sleep during the day either thanks to streets lined with trend-setting clothes shops and record stores. If you want to see the kind of crowds outlets like Shibuya 109 attract, head to Hachiko, the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, made busier by huge, flickering video screens and billboards.
The highlight of Asakusa is Senso-ji (also called Asakusa Kannon Temple), a grand Buddhist temple built in 645 to house a statue of Kannon that, the story goes, kept leaping from the nearby Sumida River into two brothers’ fishing nets. Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) with its giant red lantern is the main gate to the temple, which leads you via souvenir stalls. Load up on sake glasses and Japanese fans on the way back so you can have your hands free for the hand-washing, incense-wafting and fortune-telling in the temple . If your fortune happens to be “really bad” tie the pessimistic piece of paper to a string rack in the hope that it will change. Then, worries assuaged stand back and admire the towering pagoda, glittering Main Hall and nearby Shinto shrine Asakusa Jinja.
Trips from Tokyo
Don’t head to the Fuji Hakone National Park with your hopes set on a view of the snow-capped cone of Mt Fuji. This secretive mountain is often hidden in clouds. The good news is, there are plenty of other things to do here. Our route took us via a funicular and cable car to Owakudani, an area of pongy hot springs where you can buy freshly boiled eggs turned black with the sulphur. Back in the cable car to Togendai we boarded a pirate ship for a journey across Lake Ashinoko that was less about buried treasure than treasuring the views of the passing shinto torii (gates to shrines) and hazy mountains.
And there’s more good news at Hakone — not all the thermal waters are piping hot. Some are just the right temperature for onsen (hot spring baths) where, once you’ve got over the fact you’re essentially having a bath, naked with strangers, you can soak away your worries gazing up at the night sky.
Nikko is a big hit on the tourism trail thanks to being a World Heritage Site of temples and shrines. If you don’t have time to see them all, start with Toshogu, a mausoleum for the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu. The Shinto shrine welcomes visitors with a huge stone torii and five-storey pagoda before leading them to the Main Hall and Hall of Worship via intricately carved, colourful gates and buildings. Just up the road from the shrine is the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa, a sparsely elegant, former holiday home for the emperor. South is the photogenic sacred bridge, and if you continue on into town you’ll find a main street of quirky shops, antique stalls, a dragon-painting workshop and great little noodle restaurant called Hippari Dako.
Before we left we walked to the Gamman-Ga-Fuchi Abyss where a row of stone statues called jizo line the riverbank, built to protect travellers and children. Perhaps it was the early morning mist or solitude after the crowds, but these broken, occasionally decapitated statues, with their knitted red hats and neckerchiefs, left more of an impression than both the shrines and emperor’s villa put together.
Make sure you
1 Buy a pair of chopsticks to use rather than wasting valuable bamboo resources.
2 Join the locals in karaoke. Rolling up your trousers, sumo-style optional (this actually happened).
3 Eat at an okonomiyaki restaurant where you cook your own food on a hotplate.
4 Hit the sake and live with the consequences.
5 Hire a bike and learn that cycling round Tokyo is a lot less scary than it looks.
6 Take a boat trip down Sumida River to get a different perspective on Tokyo.