The inspiration people seek: The word that comes to everybody’s mouths without hesitation when talking about Omote-sando is “fashion.” While this also goes for the nearby (technically intertwined) neighborhoods of Harajuku and Ura-harajuku, the tastes of the people walking through Omote-sando and the people you find walking the streets when you turn the corner and leave the area differ quite distinctly. This holds true even when comparing people of the same age group; there are subtle differences in the way they look, the clothes they wear and even the way they talk. Those who come to Omote-sando’s many brand-name shops seek not only their glamour but also the authenticity that their history has given them.
Many districts of Tokyo have histories that “showcase” the times but Omote-sando’s is special among them. For example, if you examine how the Jingu-mae intersection that connects and marks the borderline between Harajuku and Omote-sando has changed over the years, you can see the history and evolution of Japanese fashion and pop culture. Even if you go through the various landmarks of Omote-sando and its surroundings, you’ll find that in the past and today, the area changes hand in hand with the country’s latest fashion and pop culture trends.
For over 50 years, this is an area that has always drawn attention and been one of the first places the latest ideas and items appear. People visit Omote-sando to immerse themselves in the always-new feel and unique delight its atmosphere emanates. This is one thing that doesn’t change—whether you work in a katakana profession (usually creative/artistic occupations with a Western taste that typically use Japanese katakana characters to describe them, e.g. commercial photographer or designer) or somebody who’s just come to enjoy a day off.
In short: A sando is an approach or road leading to a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple. Omote-sando (literally “front approach”) leads to the Meiji Shrine, and it runs from Aoyama-dori (Route 246) to the Jingubashi intersection, where it joins with the Minami-sando (“south approach”). Omote-sando is also the name of the area surrounding the approach that begins at the vicinity near the two large stone lanterns that serve as the road’s “gates.” Like Ginza, Omote-sando is mainly known for the numerous luxury-brand showrooms and flagship stores that line the approach. However, as it neighbors the fashion districts of Harajuku and Aoyama, the level of variety of the brand-name shops in Omote-sando surpasses Ginza’s in terms of the range of categories, origins, age and sizes of shops you will find here. Read more The avenue that goes down the straight, roughly 1 km stretch has 2-lanes in each direction (3-lanes if you include the extra space for parking) divided by a median, and it is lined with wide sidewalks and zelkova trees. You can clearly sense European and North American influences in the resulting atmosphere. However, the stone lanterns located at the street’s Meiji-dori and R246 intersections, and the stone walls that remain along some of the sidewalks remind visitors that this is indeed, the sando to Meiji Shrine. Omote-sando presents us with a clear-cut example of Japan’s trademark integration of East and West.
Some background: Meiji Shrine was constructed in 1920 (Taisho 9) to honor the lives of the Meiji Emperor and Empress Shoken. Omote-sando was completed a year before, connecting the Minami-sando to the Oyama-kaido (the precursor to today’s R246). Before then, there was no route between the two. In the Edo Period, the land was for the mansions of daimyo (vassals of the shogun), but entering the Meiji Period, the area filled with residences for the common people and open-field lots.
The completion of the sando didn’t bring immediate prosperity to the district. Other than times when crowds of people would come to visit the shrine like hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year), Omote-sando was a quiet place, and simply the sando that its name indicates. The catalyst that caused it to become the way it is today—packed with shops and customers all year round—lies in the construction of the Washington Heights housing development nearby after World War II. As the number of shops catering to the Allied Occupational Forces grew, more and more Japanese people began to find interest in the goods they had never seen before arriving from abroad. It’s said that this is when Omote-sando began to take shape as a cutting-edge showcase of new ideas and items created and sold by katakana professionals.
By the way, in February 1975, members of the planning team for the Yamaha Passol—a revolutionary model that would change the Japanese motorcycle scene—set up an office in a single room at the Harajuku Central Apartment, a building which no longer exists today, but was often said to be a symbol of this reborn Omote-sando.