I am not the friendliest person but I adore people and fashion.
One of my favorite activities in Tokyo is to find a perch with a view of the streets in a fashion focused part of town and watch people wander by. There is a spot in Lumine, a department store at the crossing of Tokyo’s fashion spot Omotesando.
On the second floor there is a little Taco place with windows overlooking the crossing of Meiji Dori (Dori = Street) and Omotesando Dori. Omotesando street is lined with some of the top designer brand shops from around the world and is famous for the network of side streets that weave away from it that host countless little fashion and indie designer boutiques. Meiji Dori heads south into the fashionable Shibuya area, just ten minutes walk away, and to the North to the world famous Harajuku and home of Japan’s street fashion scene.
Street fashion is alive at this crossing. The high end crowd and their street wear meets the inventive and sometimes radically unique Harajuku fashionistas at the crossing and it is common to see street fashion photographers poised to catch the latest looks as they pass.
I have had the good luck to be the one wearing one or two of those looks over the years.
But there is more to this crossing than being a live daily runway for inventive and trending fashion. This crossing is a melting pot of Tokyo’s interesting people, both local and passing through. It is common to see wonderfully interesting and diverse people passing through this cultural hub.
There are all classes here, sharing the same experience. From the wealthy madams with their designer bags and pampered dogs to the punkish tourists who have wandered in after walking Harajuku’s streets, this is a place where people mix.
At the end of the workday, salary folk emerge from their offices to take advantage of the cafes, restaurants and the last couple hours of shopping before the early 8pm closing of most places. It is common to see lines outside the small famous gyoza places, boutique hamburger or sweet shops. Before the pandemic, it was a place that was perpetually crowded and alive with activity. Even now, someone from a busy global city will find this area exceptional in how busy and filled with people it can become.
From my perch, Taco in hand and nothing to do for the next hour, I can experience that world without being an active part of it. I love watching the world below go by, spotting interesting fashion, people who catch my curiosity and the occasional group of lost tourists overcome by the stimulation overload that is Tokyo.
I rarely make these trips with anyone else. This is a solitary activity for me. A decompression after a long day working and staring at screens. It is my way to reconnect with the world outside of the corporate walls and spreadsheets. It is a theme park of fashion, energy and culture that I simply cannot resist being fascinated by.
I often see people I wish I could meet. But I am far too reserved to randomly approach strangers because I find their fashion appealing. I am simply not that outgoing, and the idea is rather terrifying for me. Yet I do often wish I had that kind of friendly appeal and courage and the disarming smile and friendly atmosphere that readily strikes up conversation and easily makes new friends.
This is not me.
Meeting people in Tokyo is either extremely easy or equally difficult. Like any busy city, everyone is on their way to or from somewhere and life is rarely off the clock and left to open ended time. We work long hours, commute long distances and have things to do. Life here can feel like a blur of work and tasks polka dotted by moments spent having fun and being simply blown away by the city.
Even after two decades, Tokyo can still surprise and delight. There are moments when I feel that it is magical and there are things I notice that I never noticed before, even in familiar places like this area.
But it can be lonely too.
I can count the number of times someone has randomly talked to me while out and about. It is so rare that the first reaction is to wonder if something is wrong.
The number of times that I have made a lasting friendship from such an encounter are even more rare and isolated. It simply isn’t the culture here.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I am not the friendliest person. I am now very much a Tokyo person. I have lost a lot of my American inclinations to strike up a conversation with the interestingly dressed person on a bus, in a shop or sitting nearby in a café. Even in Seattle before I moved to Japan, I would only rarely chat with someone unknown. But when I did, I often made new friends or discovered something new and interesting about the city.
I sincerely miss that random interaction that leads to new friends and interesting things. But I lack the courage to break protocol in Tokyo and to risk causing anyone distress by randomly approaching to enquire about their style. Instead, I am both a participant and spectator in the great people watching that is spending time in the fashion district.
I often wear gender challenging fashion when visiting this area. I love challenging the lines and expressing myself through fashion. Though I am sometimes uncomfortable with the attention it draws, I am often happy to see the frequent look of curiosity or interest. It is rare to encounter the dreaded hate filled stare and even less common to have someone say anything negative.
The polite nature of street culture in Japan cannot be thanked enough for providing relative safety for gender queer and gender non-conforming people. There is an unspoken social contract to keep an open mind for fashion that this area. This area’s street culture deftly imposes a shared understanding that anyone venturing here must comply. This is a place where fashion has few boundaries and where differences are not only present, but expected and encouraged.
We become participants in the street culture here. I hope I am perhaps inspiring someone to try gender free fashion or to take an interest in it when I walk out in my fashion choices here. I hope that may style may be something happy for someone to see and may strike enough interest to try for themselves, as so many people have done for me.
As an observer, I find comfort in the brave and creative people who take to the streets as they want to be seen. I love the life and energy in their fashion choices. I love the fun and excitement they bring to the streets. And I love, and am grateful to them, for the energy they spread that can so quickly and completely erase the stresses and worries of the day by simply appearing on street corner for a moment of fashion bliss.
Perhaps the friendliness of this fashion crossing is not found in the ability to meet and talk with others. Perhaps it is all simply in the visibility that we all provide for each other and for the place. Friendliness here may be simply the effort to participate with our fashion or by simply coming here to be a part of the entire fabric for a little while. The common thread of fashion links us together where Harajuku, Omotesando and Shibuya collide with such artful diversity and unapologetic originality. What we bring to keep this place and community alive with energy and creativity is what ultimately matters. So long as people come and share their fashion, this area stays vibrant and alive. Perhaps that is friendly enough.