City life: Harajuku & Togo Shrine

Harajuku fashion is always prominent in fashion magazines and videos about underground cultures. Plastic romantic, gothic lolita or glam rock, all styles have representative shops in Harajuku’s tiny alleys. The shops are mostly tiny, hidden away in basements at Takeshita street. As you move towards Urahara and Omotesando, the space opens up and stores get bigger, a fact which reflects on the price tag as well.

The local cuisine involves all the necessary pink ingredients, such as strawberry syrup and bubblegum dough. The main delicacies are triangular crêpes, filled to the rim with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. This white and blue building with greek-style columns, that looks like a bad copy of Santorini island, claims to be the oldest crêpe shop in the area. Unfortunately, a lot of shops that were staples of the main street are now permanently closed. It is all due to the absence of tourists who used to support the local economy, since Japan has kept its borders shut for the past two years.

However, when observing the crowd that lingers around, hiding next to emergency exits to enjoy a whiff of tobacco, the contrast to the salarymen of nearby business districts is striking. Harajuku regulars seem relaxed, their clothes bulky and airy, but don’t let the appearance fool you. The selection of patterns, colours, accessories, even the squatting pose is a deliberate and calculated choice. One goes to Harajuku to show off their personal style. It’s the land where idol groups are made – and the girls who failed at the endeavour try to lip-sync to cute-cringe songs. The next-best-thing is the position of a dancing barista.

In between the rainbow hues appears a solemn oasis. That is none other than Togo Shrine (東郷神社). The shrine is devoted to the deified admiral Heihachiro Togo of the Meiji era. Under his command, the Japanese navy was the first non-western force to land a victory of any kind to a western power, namely Russia at the battle of Tsushima in 1905. This was at the beginning of Japan’s rise as a colonialist imperial power (before the gory, hideous aftermath). His victory was celebrated by the British press, who described him as “admiral Nelson of the Orient”. Records show that he may have thought himself as Nelson’s reincarnation, despite his traditionalist Samurai upbringing.

Some time in the 1920s, another prominent general at the Russo-Japanese wars, Maresuke Nogi, decided to revitalize samurai tradition, by committing seppuku after the death of emperor Meiji. Despite emperor Meiji’s attempts towards the modernization of Japanese society, Nogi’s traditionalist seppuku was considered an act of utmost loyalty, and he was deified. Togo himself was against the idea of building a shrine to his name (similarly to general Nogi) but his successors ignored his request. The shrine was built in 1940, destroyed during the Tokyo bombings after WWII, was rebuilt and then almost destroyed again in 1989, when left-wing groups were protesting emperor Hirohito’s funeral. In the modern age, the shrine’s ema prayer boards feature a black and white Togo, as well as a tiger holding Togo’s naval flag. The flag, dubbed ‘Z’ flag, is a symbol of commitment to a decisive battle and was hoisted aboard the ship Mikasa prior to the battle of Tsushima. Therefore, people who wish for good results in competitions or sports visit the shrine for luck. However, the flag’s luck has its limits, as proved by Admiral Nagumo’s performance at the battle of Midway, despite hoisting Z flag on Akagi (which is waving to us now from the bottom of the sea).

Next to the shrine, you can find a traditional garden and a small museum, but both were off limits when I visited. Outside the shrine, there is a memorial to a submarine as well as one to a 14yo naval soldier, a reminder of the use of child soldiers at the end of the war, the majority of whom died in battle. Togo’s ship, Mikasa, is now a floating museum at the port of Yokosuka.

I hope you appreciate this alternative description of Harajuku, which featured less of the pink fluff and more of the war memories. Have you even visited the backside of Harajuku?

Learn more about historical events

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