Recognized around the world as a well-organized, conservative social structure that encourages efficiency over self-expression, simplicity over show, Japan is everything you may have imagined and a whole lot more. So for those of you who may think Japan is a boring country, read on to learn about the other Japan that exists in a thriving and highly energetic sub-culture.
The obvious place to start is fashion. While competing with runways in New York and Paris for high fashion, alternative fashion in Japan, with its whimsical, artsy, color-blind and truly free combinations, turns heads in any city. The heart and soul of alternative fashion is Harajuku, in particular the street called Takeshita Dori. On the outside of this wealthy shopping district within Tokyo are all the top brands and one of the most beautiful streets known as Omotesando. But just a block away and running parallel to Omotesando is one of the craziest streets in all of Japan. Though you probably would buy any of the fashion, you won’t be able to avoid taking pictures. Here, hundreds of young girls and boys dress up in anime-inspired costumes, off-the-wall outfits and sometimes even gather in small groups all wearing similar styles to parade up and down the street, window-shop or just to pass the time. It’s something like a living museum exhibition of alternative fashion though there is no admissions fee.
Another typically Japanese approach to fashion is the 109 department store in Shibuya, Tokyo. Top to bottom, you can find 10 floors of gyaru fashion that is said to change at a weekly pace to keep up with the economic might and fickle tastes of Japanese girls. Gyaru is the Japanese transliteration of “gal” and began with a brand of Jeans under the same name that used the advertising slogan, “I can’t live without men.” Gyaru is a street fashion that seems to be in tune with its original proposition. Racy, revealing, and provocative, gyaru fashion is sold by trend-setting divas who can achieve model-like stardom from their style and charisma.
And then there is Akihabara. The huge rise in popularity of Japanese manga and anime characters may limit the original shock of men and women dressed like dolls walking along the street, but realize that this is a country where any experience can be had, if you know where to look. The idea of a maid donning a short, frilly French outfit ready to answer your beck and call is too much for any stressed Japanese man to turn down. Referred to as Maid Cafes, bars and cafes with staff dressed as French maids serve and entertain guests. A bit of a role-playing fantasy, they remain popular to this day. The latest trend is a guided tour of Akihabara, in English and other languages, by a maid, dressed in the proper attire. Food, drinks and events are all included as they guide you through the unique shops selling anime figures and geeky goods.
While the music industry in Japan is driven by karaoke, there are trends that are unique to Japan. One such trend has been AKB48. This singing and dancing troupe is comprised of girl-next-door types that wear ultra short school-girl uniforms that are surely not what daddy had in mind. But surely the most incredible music phenomenon is the cyber celebrity known as Hatsune Miku, originally the character illustration and name of voice synthesizer software with which fans create all sorts of musical creations with her voice. Using cutting-edge 3D projection technology, Hatsune Miku also performs live concerts, singing and performing in front of her adoring fans and musical creators. The backstory says she is only 16 years old, but she has already traveled the world. Sold out shows in LA, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and even an appearance as prima donna in a futuristic opera performed in Paris, are testament to a growing international fan base. Even if you can’t catch a show while visiting Japan, you can find Hatsune Miku on CDs, various merchandise goods and also starring in video games throughout Japan.