Japan's style story
One of the few countries in the world where traditional dress sits right at home with cutting-edge contemporary trends; Japan's relationship with fashion is unique. When it comes to street style, outrageous subcultures break every possible boundary and there are endless iterations, from Mori, or 'forest', girls who dress in comfortable and simple layered, earth-toned clothes accessorised with flower crowns and flat shoes or boots to the extreme Decora, or 'decoration', look, inspired by cartoon characters from the 1980s. For the Japanese, fashion and style is a means to express a unique personality and, for women, a chance to really accentuate their femininity, often in the most ground-breaking of ways.
Where to shop
It doesn't matter what you're looking for – you may not even know until you find it – there is something for everyone in Japan. Shopping in Tokyo will blow your mind, and even spending a solid week beating the streets and malls will barely scratch the surface. As a rough guide, for high-end shopping and luxury department stores head to Ginza, to cover all your bases go to Shinjuku, and for the latest trends, visit Shibuya and Harajuku. In Osaka, the retail precinct near Namba Station should be your first port of call when embarking on an exploration of the city's unique style.
On the world stage
During the 1970s and 80s, everything changed globally for Japanese fashion with several prominent designers cementing a name for themselves in Paris, namely Kenzo, Issey Miyake, Hanae Mori and Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market) and Yohji Yamamoto. Visit their flagship stores in central Tokyo to experience the designers' beautifully structured clothing on their home turf. A must-visit is Rei Kawakubo's Dover Street Market in Ginza which shares its seven floors of curated fashion with fabulous art installations, making it a cultural destination too.
Honour the past
Traditional kimono are synonymous with Japanese culture and exploring their various forms and history can offer a real insight into the real Japan. If you're keen on tracking down an authentic kimono there are dozens of options – we'd start at Recycle Kimono Fukufuku Kagurazaka, part of a Tokyo-wide chain of stores which sells everything from traditional kimono to modern interpretations made from denim – but first you'd better learn how to wear one as a women's kimono can have at least 12 separate pieces of fabric. The beautiful city of Kyoto is the perfect place to learn the art of the kimono, and many places offer kimono-wearing experiences where you can dress up and glide serenely around the city streets with your friends or partner. While the traditional kimono is the most well-known Japanese clothing, there are regional variations such as on the remote island of Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture. Here, they are known as 'ryusou' or 'ushinchi' kimono, and differ in that they are more open and made from thinner material, due to warmer temperatures. They also feature patterns specific to Okinawa Island, including 'bingata', which is known for its vibrant colours, depiction of nature and free-form patterns.
Trend-watch: Tokyo and Osaka
Japan's constantly evolving, fashion-so-far-forward capital is where many of its contemporary style and counterculture trends are incubated, specifically in the central and wildly expressive Tokyo neighbourhoods of Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ginza and, most famously, Harajuku. The term 'Harajuku Girls' is known the world over to describe the groups of young women who gather in the area on Sundays dressed in cosplay creations ranging from anime and manga-inspired designs to themed subcultures such as 'Lolita' (a style influenced by Victorian and Edwardian children's clothing from the Rococo period), which in turn have dozens of substyles of their own. Osaka, too, is a fashion mecca and a serious rival for Tokyo when it comes to trend-setting – the two cities battle it out in the fashion arena in a similar fashion to New York City and Los Angeles, Paris and Milan or Sydney and Melbourne. Tokyo tastemakers stick to a simple yet sophisticated style palette, while Osaka's fashion-forward set opt for more individualistic colours and bold prints.
Where cuteness is king
Kawaii, or the culture of cuteness, rules in Japan, especially when it comes to fashion and culture. From cat cafes and Hello Kitty to Harajuku Girls and themed food outlets serving pastel coloured 'unicorn' noodles and panda doughnuts, you cannot escape the cute – and why would you want to? It's fun, it's totally quirky and it's completely unique to Japan. So book your seat on the Hello Kitty bullet train, pack your 'kyaraben' (a lunch box with food designed to look like a cute picture), practice making dinky origami animals out of folded paper, don your Pikachu outfit and get on board.
Air New Zealand offers year round non-stop flights between Auckland and Tokyo and seasonally between Auckland and Osaka from November through to March, domestic New Zealand connections available from Air New Zealand serviced airports. Book now. For more information about travelling in Japan, visit jnto.org.au