Japan: Land of rising fun

By Sharon Stephenson

From serene shrines to bustling shopping districts, Tokyo has many 'Lost in Translation' moments. Photo / Getty Images
From serene shrines to bustling shopping districts, Tokyo has many 'Lost in Translation' moments. Photo / Getty Images

It's fair to say that Yumi isn't a wash-and-go-kind of girl. The tiny 16-year-old is dressed in a frilly Alice in Wonderland dress, red- and black-striped fishnet stockings, gold stilettos and layers of eye-wateringly bright vests and scarves.

Completing the sartorial nightmare are dangling blue braces, caked-on white make-up and a dyed orange beehive that's been sprayed with enough hairspray to obliterate the ozone layer.

My guide asks her how long it took to get ready - three hours - and why she does it - "very fun".

It could only be Harajuku, the epicentre of Tokyo's youth fashion scene, where small, slightly deranged teenagers with an endless capacity for weirdness come to play dress-up.

Some things in Japan will always be impenetrable to Westerners - the language, geisha, toilets that wash and dry your sensitive bits, and a subway map that looks more like a wiring diagram.

However, a trip to Harajuku will completely confound your expectations. Spaced at intervals along the Jingu Bridge are girls dressed as blue-haired punks, cutesy baby dolls, Goths and those who've taken their design cue from popular Manga cartoons' characters. Some have littered their bodies with tattoos (fake) and piercings (real), while others, like Yumi, seem to have put on every item of clothing they own.

Associated with the visual-kei music scene, this lightly buttered madness is a chance for Tokyo's marginalised youth to discard their rule-bound lives and become the centre of attention. They have certainly become a tourist attraction as geijin (foreigners) line up to gawp and photograph them, yet the Harajuku girls don't expect money in return for being snapped - they're simply there, as Yumi says, to have fun.

But if that doesn't stir your cup of miso soup, then wander next door to the Meiji Jingu Shrine.

Opened in 1920, Tokyo's most venerable shrine is dedicated to the spirits of emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shokena, who were instrumental in opening Japan to the outside world more than 120 years ago. With its muted colours and minimalist lines, the shrine is a good example of Shinto architecture, although it's the huge torii, or shrine gates, that are possibly even more impressive, being constructed 1700 years ago.

We purify our hands before entering the shrine and offer a five yen [about seven cents] coin at the wishing well where an elaborate ritual of clapping and bowing in front of the Emperor's tomb follows. It's fun to look at the wooden prayer tablets that visitors have hung from trees. One, from Singapore, pleads "for Papa to lose 80kg so we can all be happy".

We wander through the shrine's man-made forest before being plunged back into the teeming mass of humanity on the streets of Tokyo in search of food. Stumbling into a sushi-train type eatery on Aoyama Dori, we're greeted with loud cries of "Irrashaimase" (welcome), which the staff shout in unison to everyone as they step over the threshold.

All the usual raw fish is represented here and it looks remarkably like my neighbourhood sushi joint. But that's where the parallels end: I eat tuna sashimi so fresh it could almost introduce itself, and enjoy an unending feast of delicacies - although I do have to call it a day after the fourth bowl of tempura.

I have the first of many Lost in Translation moments when I encounter the powdered green tea that customers add hot water to at their table: I try, but fail, to convince my taste buds that it's not pond scum.

Then we venture into nearby trendy Otemasando, where we indulge in another key aspect of Japanese life - shopping. Or, in our case, window shopping. The wealth of Tokyo means shops like Chanel, Prada and Issey Miyake dominate this 1km-long, tree-lined boulevard. Tokyo is, after all, a city where it's estimated 90 per cent of women in their 20s own Louis Vuitton products. So, despite what we consider horrendous prices, we see tiny pieces of fabric flying out of doors at an alarming rate. The irony is even if we could afford it, we probably wouldn't be able to suck in our stomachs enough to fit the clothing.

But even if you're not a shopper, it's worth strolling down the spine of this posh district to visit the jaw-droppingly striking Prada store designed by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, who brought us London's Tate Modern and the Beijing Olympics Bird's Nest stadium. Constructed from a honeycomb of bulbous glass panels, each said to have cost at least $100,000, the shop looks like the love-child of a sparkling crystal and a futuristic spaceship. The clothes aren't half bad either ...

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Tokyo about five times a week. Long-term airfares in Pacific Economy are available from $2000 a person return plus airport and government costs.

* For more information and deals on flights, accommodation and travel insurance, visit airnewzealand.co.nz; call 0800 737 000 or visit an Air New Zealand Holidays Store.

Sharon Stephenson travelled with the assistance of Air New Zealand.

- Herald on Sunday

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