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12/14/2014

WHERE THE MODERN MEETS THE TRADITIONAL: HARAJUKU, TOKYO

One of the things I like most about the highly urbanized city of Tokyo is how I can still find old shrines and temples with little effort. From what I’ve seen in my few months here, Japan is a country that has managed to retain many of its historically and culturally significant artifacts, in spite of having undergone a staggeringly rapid stage of modernization.. This is a very exciting thing to know, especially for someone with an academic interest in the more traditional aspects of Japan yet can’t survive without constant access to the latest amenities and technologies. That being said, I feel my most recent trip to a little spot in Tokyo called “Harajuku” really drives home this point.

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For those who haven’t heard of Harajuku, a brief Google search of the name should reveal enough for one to imagine concrete streets bathed in sunlight gleaming off glass buildings – and such an image wouldn’t be inaccurate. Harajuku is, after all, internationally famous for being one of Tokyo’s most vibrant Japanese pop culture hubs; it’s a pretty shiny, high-tech place. My personal favorite place to shop in Harajuku is at this little 390-yen store on Takeshita Street – a little alley lined with clothing shops and crepe stands, and one of Harajuku’s most famous gems. Surrounding it are various other shopping malls, restaurants, and smaller stores, all swimming in a sea of Starbucks Coffees. And each time I go, the streets are crowded with well-dressed young students and workers, many of whom are tapping away at their smartphone screens (though I do sometimes spot the occasional flip phone).

It was sometime in late November that I suddenly decided I wanted a new hat. Japan grows chilly fast in the fall, and as a hardworking college student, I needed something to protect my thinking apparatus. I also just really wanted a new hat. Wallet-in-hand, I rode the train down to Harajuku station, rushed out the ticket gates (though not before weaving through a torrent of people), and in my excitement, made a wrong turn. Considering the fact that I had been to Harajuku many times prior to that moment, I must have been seriously excited for that hat to make a wrong turn.

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A few minutes later, I suddenly found myself walking down a gravel road, shaded by many tall trees very prettily bathed in sunlight; the cars, crowds, and concrete were nowhere in sight. I had accidentally stumbled into the Meiji Jingu Shrine (in spite of it being a spectacularly famous tourist spot, I had no idea what the place was called at the time). Perhaps it had something to do with how the weather was puzzlingly beautiful that day, but I was having difficulty connecting a scene so one-with-nature to the image I had of bustling Harajuku. The massive torii gates, the traditional architecture, and the various Japanese men and women clad in Shinto garments all existed just a right turn away from the fancy hat stores and Starbucks’. I was suddenly really glad that I had made a wrong turn (and that I had my camera handy).

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I’m sure the photos I’ve attached to this blog post do better justice to the pretty sights I saw that day than words, but again, the most interesting thing about all this is how closely together the “modern” and the “traditional” can be found here in Japan. I’ve grown much more attached to Harajuku in particular, as not only is it the place where I can buy fancy clothes and white chocolate mochas, but also draw fortunes and partake in Shinto prayer. My only regret is that I forgot about the hat I wanted.

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