Cosmopolitan and Alternative Culture
In an area roughly forming a triangle, Harajuku, Omotesando, and Aoyama are associated by name and adjacency, yet they have uniquely different characteristics. Nonetheless, these areas are bundled in the heart of the city – their borders often blend together almost unseen to the untrained eye.
Along Aoyama Street towards Shibuya; the areas of Aoyama and Omotesando are synonymous with world-class design, elegant cuisine, and cosmopolitan café culture. The area around Omotesando street is the trend-setting high-fashion district of Tokyo. It is a shopping and fashion lover’s paradise, as every major fashion brand in the world is represented along what is often called the Champs Elysées of Tokyo. From Omotesando, Shibuya is about a 15-20 minute walk along Meiji Street and is also great for shopping.
Just up Omotesando street from upscale Omotesando and Aoyama (its’ border unclear) is Harajuku. Here, in its’ weaving backstreets, is cutting-edge Japan where more avant-garde artistic concepts mix with Tokyo’s alternative street style. By contrast, Harajuku somehow manages to accentuate, and balance, the area at the same time.
Behind Harajuku station, Yoyogi Park and the thickly wooded area around Meiji temple add a much-needed backdrop of serenity to the area. All in all, Harajuku, Omotesando, and Aoyama make a great weekend place to shop, dine or take in the sites, and also offer some of the city’s better residential neighborhoods and green spaces (Meiji Jingu Gaien Park, Aoyama Cemetery, and Yoyogi Park).
A Brief History
Omotesando is actually the name of the main street (which means “the front approach”) and was originally built in 1920. It served as the main access to Meiji Jingu Shrine from Aoyama Street and you can still find the stone lanterns on each side of the street marking the entrance. After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, in 1925, the famous Dojunkai Aoyama Apartments were built along the main street of Omotesando. It was the first multi-housing project of its kind in Japan.
The infamous area now known as Aoyama, (literally meaning “Blue Mountain”), owes its beginnings to Tadanori Aoyama, who worked closely with the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa. In the early Edo period, the area was given to Tadanori who planned and built aristocratic residences in the area. This sophisticated residential area grew as the Aoyama family gave up more of the areas for other important family residences. After the Meiji era however, most of these stately mansions were converted into normal residences and the remaining areas previously owned by the Aoyama family were transformed into the Aoyama cemetery.
Aoyama Dori, the main street leading from Aoyama to Shibuya similar to Oxford Street in London, was originally one of the most important roads leading to Kyoto called Atsugi Dori. Some years later, the tramway constructed in 1904, a subway line through Aoyama constructed in 1938, and some major road works undertaken for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 helped Aoyama become the fashionable, sophisticated place it is today.
The area first became fashionable during the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 because of its proximity to the Olympic gymnasium. The chance of meeting somebody famous in the streets and village nearby drew large crowds. Since those early days of modern Harajuku, it has kept its charm and seen only minimal urban redevelopment. It has preserved many of its old back streets where you can find every conceivable type of shop for clothing, and accessories, as well as a high number of beauty salons.
The Residential Neighborhoods
These residential neighborhoods are adjacent to Yoyogi Park and conveniently located on three major subway lines as well as the JR Yamanote line. The Omotesando Gaienmae, and Aoyama 1-Chome stations are only a few minutes from Roppongi, Akasaka, Otemachi (by the Ginza line), Hanzomon, or Chiyoda subway lines. Harajuku and Meijijingumae stations offer a very short commute to Akasaka, Otemachi and any of the major centers around the inner circle of central Tokyo via the Chiyoda subway line and the JR Yamanote line. This is a prime location with easy access to just about anywhere in central Tokyo.
Although these areas are predominantly commercial there are many residential pockets tucked away amongst the upscale boutiques, trendy salons, cafes, and restaurants. The perfect apartment or home in these desired neighborhoods may be difficult to find and you may have to settle for something older, more compact, and or pricey. It is not a place for everyone; families may have difficulty moving through the weekend congestion of shoppers. It is however popular with families whose children attend the nearby British School. Typically, the residential areas here offer 1-3 bedroom apartments and fewer spacious family units or single-family homes. Therefore this area is best for younger single people and couples who don’t mind giving up space and the latest building amenities to live in these trendy centrally located neighborhoods close to the action.
This area has one of the highest concentrations of parks and public outdoor spaces with Yoyogi Park, Jingu Gaien, Jingu Baseball Stadium, or the area along Ichonamiki Street. This makes it easy to get out and enjoy weekend activities, sports, and jogging. Kinokuniya and Peacock Supermarkets, which stock a good selection of international foods, are conveniently located in these neighborhoods on Aoyama street close to Omotesando station.
Meiji Shrine Meiji Jingu Shrine
The Meiji Jingu Shrine was built in 1920 to honor the life of Emperor Meiji, (1869- 1912), who as a ruler opened the nation, rekindled lost friendships, and fostered overseas relations laying the foundations for modern day Japan. The main shrine buildings were destroyed during the air raids of 1945 but later rebuilt in 1958. Today, Meiji-Jingu is the most frequented shrine in Japan. The gateway made of cypress is one of the largest in Japan and marks the entry to the temple grounds surrounded by plush greenery and Yoyogi Park. It is an excellent place to relax surrounded by 70 acres of forest featuring every kind of tree indigenous to Japan.
The station is a classic, early 20th century wooden structure set in the plush green of surrounding Meiji Shrine. On weekends, crossing the street from Takeshita exit of Harajuku Station you will suddenly find yourself immersed in the lively atmosphere and the unbelievable crowds of Takeshita Dori.
Takeshita Dori (Street)
Takeshita Street is a short street connecting Harajuku station to Meiji-Dori sporting the latest of Tokyo’s teen fashions. It is also a sensory overload of unique and colorful novelty goods drawing big crowds just about any day of the week.
Yoyogi Olympic Stadium
Yoyogi Olympic Stadium is one of Tokyo’s most impressive landmarks designed by the celebrated architect Kenzo Tange for the 1964 Olympics.
Aoyama Cemetery is actually a plush park, and one of Tokyo’s best places to enjoy walking in nature. It is known as the final resting place for many of Japan’s heroes and its paths are paved with stone and lined with over 200 cherry blossom trees.