Walking through youth fashion central these days, it’s hard to believe that during the feudal period ninja were quartered here and even had their own shrine (onden jinja, 5-26-6 jingumae), while the local farmers cleaned rice and milled flour at the local watermill on the shibuya river. Today jr trains run under the harajuku bridge instead of water, but the real action happens on the bridge itself, with tribes of lolitas (both cute and gothic), french maids and other assorted cosplayers vying for attention. If quirky, loud, cute fashion is your thing, then forget other tokyo districts and quickly head here. The area east of meiji-dori in particular (jingumae 3- and 4-chome; the very same area the ninja had turned into a maze of narrow winding streets in order to make life hard to possible invaders) is now internationally known as uraharajuku (harajuku backstreets) and is full of small independent fashion shops.
On the other hand, more orthodox otaku treasure hunters may be a little disappointed as several shops and cafes have either moved to Akiba (e.g. Blister, Hello! Project) or Ikebukuro (Evangelion) while others have closed for good (Edelstein). But if toys and figures are what you are after, Harajuku is still worth a visit as the district has established itself as a serious toy collector’s Mecca.
From Harajuku Station (JR Yamanote Line) cross the street keeping the Gap store to your left and enter the backstreet with the Gindaco shop on the corner. We soon arrive at Johnny’s Shop Harajuku. While female idol heavyweights AKB48 and Hello! Project fight for prominence in Akihabara, boy idol kingpin Johnny Kitagawa has opened his official store in this quiet backstreet location. Here you will find countless photos and all the SMAP, Arashi and Tokio merchandise you have ever dreamed about. A few meters in the same direction and we discover one of those Tokyo oddities, a strange building in a Western neo-classical style. Welcome to Volks Tenshi no Mado, Tokyo’s biggest Super Dollfie (SD) store. This is a sort of temple devoted to Volks’ famous dolls and their owners. On the first floor there is an SD display corner while a dress and wig shop is on the second and the basement floor is a rental space where doll fans can organize parties, ceremonies and photo shoots. Follow the path on either side of the Volks showroom and go left when you reach Omotesando, the district main avenue. Cross the big intersection and see the multi-mirrored entrance to Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku. If you have landed at Haneda Airport but have missed its Tokyo’s Tokyo gift shop, another one is inside here on the fifth floor. This store sells books and anime-inspired toys, clothes and accessories. You may walk out with a bag full of Doraemon mugs, Sailor Moon magic wands, Cardcaptor Sakura stickers, or even Studio Ghibli figures.
Now you have to decide what to do next: If you cross to the other side and go left you’ll reach one of the district’s most popular toy shops. When Kiddy Land opened, more than 60 years ago, it was the first big toy shop in Tokyo. While not particularly big by today’s standards, its five floors are packed with toys, stationery, clothes and any kind of character goods. The first floor showcases what’s currently trendy in Japan (e.g. over-the-top yuru-kyara Funasshi) while the second floor is a riot of kawaii character goods. Things gets even more interesting on the third floor with toys, figures and dolls for boys, girls and even adults, while on the top floor you’ll find the Hello Kitty shop. In the Japanese site you can see a complete floor guide.
Keep walking in the same direction past the Barbie store and go right when you reach the end of the street, then take the second left. The white building enveloped in black steel pipes that you see after about 100 meters is the Design Festa Gallery. Like Design Festa itself, this is not an otaku-only venue, but among its 21 show rooms and 50 individual display sections, you will surely find some amazing art including manga- or anime-inspired works. Plus it’s free.
The street now bends to the left. When you reach the end, the building you see in front of you is Secret Base’s new address. This is a paradise for indie sofubi lovers, and even sells posters, original T-shirts and other gadgets. And if this is not enough, there is another Secret Base not far from here (B1F 3-22-8 Jingumae). When you are finished getting drunk on PVC figures, go back on the street and turn right. When you reach the main street (Meiji-dori), you have arrived at the Moshi Moshi Box. Strategically located at the junction between Takeshita-dori and Meiji-dori, this colorful place mainly works as a tourist information office (you can even use their PCs and charge your smart phone for free; exchange your money; and ship things home via FedEx) but they have a neat souvenir shop too, in case you want to pick up some kawaii Harajuku goods.
Now cross the street. We are almost at the end of our walk, but in order to reach our last destination you will have to get through Takeshita Street (the entrance is on the left of the traffic light) and, if it’s a weekend, brave the hordes of tourists and local youth. When you finally reach the exit, turn right and find the Tamagotchi Department Store. When Bandai released the handheld digital pet in 1996, it became an instant success. Though the Tamagotchi craze of the 1990s is long gone, it’s still a very popular pastime, and its new app has already garnered millions of downloads. This TamaDepa resembles the one featured in the anime series. Here you can buy tons of goods (dolls, toys, accessories, etc.) and even its character-shaped donuts. This is the main store, while a smaller branch is located in Tokyo Character Street inside Tokyo Station.