One of my favorite places in Tokyo is “Ura-Harajuku,” or “the back of Harajuku.” Harajuku is the famed fashion district, composed of a small number of streets crammed with a large number of shops – and even larger numbers of people – selling cool, cheap fashion. Harajuku’s all well and good, I like it okay, and if I can go on a weekday when the crowds won’t sweep me off against my will, I’ll swing through. But I’m a much bigger fan of Ura-Harajuku, the winding back streets that hold all sorts of treasures without half the people.
Dragging my friend Eric along, our first stop was the converted apartment building that now serves as a three-story short-term-rental art space. I can never remember it’s name, but if you stumble on it you can’t miss the big yellow brick of a thing. Since neither of us remember exactly where it was (“Over… that way… ish.”) our meandering walk took us past the little cafe you see above.
It’s a treehouse.
Eric: I thought this was a unicorn!
Eric: You know, something people say they saw but that doesn’t actually exist.
But no, it’s true, there is a cafe with a tree going through it. We didn’t go in, but next time!
In late February, the gallery space was at about 2/3 capacity, and the only people around seemed to be the handful who’d rented out the space. Even then a few gallery/shop spaces were totally empty, and I had to just leave my money behind when I wanted to buy a postcard.
After poking through the gallery – where Eric was pounced by some photographers to fill out a survey, and I was not (“It’s because you’re Asian, they think you speak Japanese.” “That’s racist!”) – we spent the next hour or two just meandering through the back streets. Ura-Harajuku is a weird little part of town, compared to the rest of Tokyo. Most of the buildings are pretty squat and short, and the architecture isn’t what you typically see in Japan. There were a lot of more Western-style buildings, as well as some just sort of quirky looking ones. Presumably the sky high property values mean that anyone building in Harajuku is willing to drop money on building precisely what they want, and what they want tends to be outside the norm.
As you can see in the top center photo, there’s also a mysterious place in Ura-Harajuku called “The Spiritualism Sanctuary.” There were all sorts of signs outside the locked, camera-monitored gates admonishing people not to take photos or stroll on in. So of course I snapped a photo, and immediately a voice came over the intercomm shouting “No photos please!” I jumped, Eric laughed, and we scurried off before men in white coats came out to tell us all about their cult, if only we’d come this way and sip this funny smelling drink… But seriously, what is this place? Even the internet doesn’t know, which in this day and age is just damn strange.
But aside from that little hiccup, Ura-Harajuku is a sanctuary of quirky (and/or fabulously large and luxurious) housing, cute cafes, and artsy little clothing, stationary, and life goods shops. There’s a lot of thought and care put into the presentation of all the spaces, and though our poor student selves wouldn’t necessarily venture into Ura-Harajuku for shopping any more than we would its luxury brand neighbor Omotesando, it is always a treat to just look. I find something new every time I go.