Wild Zero (Yoyogi Park, Harajuku)

(metanote for those following via livejournal: lots of cuts? one big cut? no cuts at all? I normally only cut for really big images, on the theory that long text scrolls are what the page-down button is made for, but I know I’m being pretty verbose here, and I’m happy to cater to people’s needs. Anyway, trying the ‘lots of cuts’ approach this time.)

Sunday morning found us rolling out of bed at the inhumanly late hour of 8am. Perhaps not quite fully on local time, but at least our nightlife expedition led to us being asleep during hours that could be more or less described as “night.” Since we were changing hotels, we packed up as quickly as we could, and lugged our bags onto the metro and over to Shibuya station. From there, it took us a mere 20 minutes of staring at the street atlas and asking several people for directions until we found our new hotel, which was merely a 40-story tower looming over Shibuya with its name emblazoned on the top.

At the hotel, there was a moment of true, heart-stopping terror: after an agonizingly long time of watching the desk clerk try to find our reservation, a lightbulb suddenly went on over his head, he looked carefully at our receipt, and reprovingly informed us that our reservation had been for last night. There was pretty much nothing to do but put on our best stupid gaijin faces and blame Orbitz furiously, which I suspect would all have availed us nothing, except that mid-July was apparently low season there, and the hotel had a room they could give us at close to the same rate. Thus was mercy amply dispensed. (As far as I can figure out, what actually happened was that I’d made the reservation back when we thought that the 5th would be our last night in Tokyo, and when we decided to take an extra night there, I never remembered to move the reservation. Um, oops.)

Our room wasn’t going to be ready until 2pm, and it was still only around 10, so we did a bit of quick on-the-spot repacking (undoubtedly annoying the hell out of every other person in the lobby, of whom there were mercifully few), gave our larger bags to the bellhop, and headed back out into the heat towards the day’s objectives: Yoyogi park, home of cosplayers and rock bands, and Harajuku, Tokyo’s notorious youth fashion district.

By this time, the fact that I’d only had a light dinner the night before and that it was now after 10am and I’d had no breakfast was beginning to take its toll. I managed to walk into the Metro without even noticing the teeming insanity of Shibuya crossing right next to me, and what was supposed to be a leisurely stroll from Omotesando station to the park was done with gritted teeth, clutching my bag of pastries that we’d grabbed at Shibuya station, and sweating buckets.

Did I mention the heat? Tokyo is famously uncomfortable in the summer, but for the first few days it hadn’t been that bad: warm and humid to be sure, but only in the low-to-mid 80s or so. No worse than Zurich had been, and nothing on (say) an August day in Manhattan. On Sunday though, Tokyo let us know that it had just been toying with us and put the spurs in: it was easily 90 in the shade, and so humid that the line between walking and swimming was uncomfortably blurred. I have to say: I haven’t missed this kind of weather at all, and will be perfectly happy to go back to chilly, foggy San Francisco when the moment comes.

Somehow we managed to make it into the park without me completely deliquescing, and we grabbed a shaded park bench so I could wolf down my food. This improved my outlook on life about a thousandfold, and I actually took notice of the fact that I was in a lovely urban park and there were things happening around me. Just down the sidewalk, Yoyogi’s famous rock and roll bands were setting up their generators and their drumsets. One band was even playing a first set, but they were being drowned out by the noise of what appeared to be a stand-up Taiko drum troupe twenty feet away from them.

One thing we hadn’t really seen any of were cosplayers, and from looking at the Time Out and Lonely Planet books, it was a little unclear if we were in the right place for them. As we were contemplating our next move, a Japanese kid with a north american (Canadian, it turned out) accent came up to us to hit us up for a donation for what he claimed was earthquake relief in China. We were a little dubious (Tokyo is not heavy on tourist-scamming, but the whole pitch sounded really sketchy), but I gave him some of my loose coinage, and Miranda sussed that he was about the right age and asked him where the cosplayers would be found. The answer, apparently, was not really much of anywhere: there were a few of them left by the pedestrian bridge, but “really it’s been pretty dead all year.” Apparently Tokyo’s ever-churning youth culture has mostly moved on.

Oh well, cosplay or no, it was time to start exploring Yoyogi. Figuring we’d come back to the bands once they were a little more geared up, we first wandered through what appeared to be a combination flea market and Earth Day fare, where we found that even Tokyo has hippies:

Next, the park’s centerpiece: the memorial shrine to the Emperor Meiji. The shine is vast, kind of a park within the park: it’s a five minute walk up a carefully tended gravel pathway (three car-lanes wide) until you arrive at the entry torii, which is easily 30 feet tall, made out of Japanese cypress trees:

On the way up the path, there was a sign pointing to “restrooms, cafe, gift shop and wedding arrangers”, and if that last one sticks out a little, well…

Weddings at the Meiji shrine turned out to be very popular. We saw no less than three (possibly four; it got a little hard to keep track after a while) wedding processions going on, of which the bride above was part of the first. She was standing on a pillow, being laboriously sewn into the outer sections of her kimono, while a small horde of tourists (not to mention the official wedding photographers) snapped away. Eventually, her husband joined her.

It was at this point that a minor catastrophe struck: my camera battery expired. I’d forgotten to charge it the night before, and apparently 600 shots without a recharge is its limit. Oops. I dug in my pocket for my little handheld camera, but that one was out of juice as well. Sensing my incipient panic, Miranda was kind enough to loan me hers.

After watching another several weddings walk by, we headed back out to the park proper to sample some street food: chicken yakitori skewers in my case, and fried octopus balls for Miranda:

Next to where we were sitting and eating, a Britney/Janet/Abdul-esque dance troupe was practicing their moves:

Then it was time to wander Yoyogi park in a daze. Yoyogi is a pretty quintessentially Tokyo experience: it’s complete sensory overload. Down a sidewalk path, what appears to be every rock band in the city has set up all of their amps and drum kits, and is putting on shows right next to each other. They manage to stagger the songs such that the bands don’t completely drown each other out, but it’s still pretty cacophonous. I wandered down the length of the rock’n’roll sidewalk, and some of the bands were actually pretty good. The only one who’s name I managed to get was the slightly improbable Venomstrip: a trip to venoms? A strip of venom? Hard to say, but they gave it their all:

Closer to the park’s entrance was the rockabilly area, and there was some serious dedication to fashion going on there. The temperature felt like it was cracking 100f at this point, and the air could charitably be described as “soupy,” but that didn’t stop these guys from flying the colors — and in this case, the colors were “black,” “black” and “more black.” Even from a few meters away, sweat was visibly running off them, but that didn’t stop them from pulling on the leathers and putting eggwhites in their pompadours:

…and as if what they were wearing wasn’t heatstroke-inducing enough, a group of them set up a boombox playing Chuck Berry and proceeded to do, yes, the Twist again:

Heading out toward the park towards Harajuku, we passed what apparently is the bitter dregs of Tokyo’s cosplay scene. Interestingly , a good 25-33% of the kids in costume were caucasian. Dunno if they were tourists, exchange students or residents, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this ratio officially marked the cosplay phenomenon as over:

From there, we walked to Harajuku, which is where the descent into total madness began. Harajuku street is like… wow, what is it like? Take St. Marks Place in Manhattan, combine it with Rodeo Drive in L.A., add in a dash of the Upper Haight in San Francisco and South Street in Philadelphia. Mix them all together, compress them down into a ball of degenerate matter, load them into a railgun and fire them straight into a wall built of Hello Kitty. The resulting mile-long crater would strongly resemble Harajuku, only it would probably be quieter and have fewer people in it.

Harajuku is where Tokyo’s 10,000kph youth culture goes to see, be seen, and buy new outfits. And holy god, the outfits. Picking two random examples out of thousands of completely insane stores, we have “Wonder Rocket”, the Alice in Wonderland themed clothing store, the mere sight of which would have made Lewis Carroll die of priapism:

And then about a block or so later, we found… this:

Never quite figured out the name, but it was like a head-on collision between Patricia Field, Vivienne Westwood and a paint factory:

The streets were a surging sea of Tokyo’s 16-to-25 set, with fully costumed greeters outside every store shouting “Irryashimae!” as loudly as possible, perhaps the most impressive of which were these two, who had to be nearly melting in the heat:

After about six blocks of Harajuku, we’d had more than enough, so we took a quick detour over to the Togo Shine, where Miranda had read that there was a flea market going on every weekend. The market was still mostly setting up when we got there, but the shrine is, yes, to that Togo, so it afforded this astonishing shot:

Also at the shrine was… another wedding:

By this point, it was nearing 3pm, and we were tired and dehydrated. Time to head back to our hotel, claim our room, and explore Shibuya. Which will be the next chapter.

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