Japanese nickname: Urahara
The inspiration people seek: Like the omote (literally “front”) Harajuku, Ura-harajuku (“back Harajuku”) is all about fashion. However, the majority of people outside the generation in their teens and early twenties—that become more passionate about the love of fashion they’ve discovered once they start earning their own income—don’t know about the omote and ura distinctions of Harajuku or where the lines dividing them lie. The reasons are quite clear: it’s the preference for the “unconventional” and “defiance” almost always associated with youth culture. “I don’t really understand it, but it looks pretty fun,” is the generally held and perfectly acceptable image of the area.
Whether you’re a participant or not in this “game” between the two Harajukus, the basic rules behind a “win” and a “loss” are decipherable. Where the “back” (Ura-harajuku) is beating the “front” (Harajuku and Omote-sando) is in its pace—how fast fashion trends appear and how fast they disappear. As such, by the time fashion trends in Ura-harajuku become commonly known, the trend has already moved beyond that. The retailers and patrons of Ura-harajuku are the “players” in this game, and by always putting trends behind them quickly, they are always fully enjoying the here and now.
The ingenuous nature of these players (the side creating the products and the side buying them) was the long-held defining feature of both Harajuku and Ura-harajuku, but as they have both become more tourist-oriented over time, this is also becoming a thing of the past. If you want to experience the “Harajuku” that typically comes to mind, you might be better off visiting the small and timeless shops lining Urahara’s streets rather than the large stores set up by globally financed brands in Harajuku proper.
In short: If you leave Harajuku Station, go down Takeshita-dori and cross Meiji-dori, you come to a street that’s commonly referred to as “Harajuku-dori,” and a pedestrian street located above the culvert for Shibuya River that runs across Omote-sando. This is area of Tokyo is called “Ura-harajuku”—ura meaning “back” in Japanese to differentiate it from nearby Harajuku—and is full of small apparel and accessory shops. Like Harajuku, “Ura-harajuku” is not used in any of the area’s addresses. The Shibuya River that ran through here was redirected into an underground conduit and a pedestrian street constructed above it. Its official name is the Kyu Shibuya-gawa Promenade, but is known more colloquially as “Cat Street.”
What defines the divide between Harajuku and Ura-harajuku is the type of fashion that’s found in each. Back when Ura-harajuku first began drawing attention, it was for the street hip-hop style clothes and accessories its stores offered, but since turning into more of a sightseeing spot, there are less obvious differences between the two.
Like Takeshita-dori, the streets were built and the area developed above the now-underground Shibuya River, so the neighborhoods and roads wind with varying widths. One of the area’s features is the way it contrasts with nearby Omote-sando in not just its atmosphere but also the scale and variance of the shops and streets.
Some background: In the Edo Period when Harajuku and Onden were both villages, the landscape was one of rice fields and streams. The land was bestowed by shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa on his vassals from Iga and several of their estates dotted the area. It was also one of many places known for its view of Mt. Fuji as evidenced by the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the time. The Shibuya River (technically the Onden River) that starts at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden was kept clean until the latter half of the Meiji Period and it’s said that hotaru (fireflies) and ayu (Japanese sweetfish) could be often be seen on and in the river. The upstream section of the river that went through Harajuku and Onden was turned into an underground conduit in 1964 as part of the overhaul of Tokyo’s infrastructure for the Olympics.
The pedestrian street was built above the Shibuya River culvert in 1967. It later earned the nickname of Cat Street. There are several theories for the origin of this nickname, like “the street is as narrow as a cat’s forehead,” “there are cats everywhere on the street” and “because it’s where the band ‘the Black Cats’ was born.”
Based on the omote (front) Harajuku culture exemplified by Takeshita-dori, the brand shops that began selling clothing designed with street-culture flair or took old clothes and added touches of new trends began appearing here in the early 1990s. It’s widely accepted that the boom for “Ura-harajuku” brands in 1997—a time when heavily customized motorcycles and big scooters were everywhere in Harajuku and Ura-harajuku—is what spread its distinction among the general populace as the ura (back) of Harajuku. In the early 2000s, the boom faded and the inevitable passing of fads and subsequent ascension to cult-status ensued. Fashion sub-cultures for men like Onii-kei (to look more masculine, older and refined) and Salon-kei (slightly feminine style for a look like a male hair stylist) have been appearing and disappearing throughout Ura-harajuku’s history.