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Shibuya

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SHIBUYA - Tokyo's Hip Corner
Concert billboard
Text & photographs by
JON BURBANK

WHAT IS HIP changes, but in Tokyo where to find hip doesn’t. Shibuya, one of the main sub-centres in that great pulsating web of work, play, culture and domicile that is Tokyo, is the place to discover what is hip and hot with young Tokyo-ites.

Shibuya's buskers
TOP: Teens queuing outside Tower Records for a glimpse of V-6, the latest Japanese boy band.

ABOVE: New meets Old: A traditional busker band on Shibuya’s Center Gai.

The crowds here are so young that it seems the mythical Fountain of Youth must be hidden somewhere in Shibuya’s maze of trendy boutiques, “nouvelle cuisine” restaurants, throbbing nightclubs and noisy video arcades. Walking through Shibuya, middle age seems a twisted figment of the imagination. Even 30 seems so far out on the horizon that it sounds like a bad joke.

It wasn’t always like this. Compared to the glittering sakariba (bustling places) of Shinjuku, Ginza and Ueno, Shibuya used to be a mundane characterless suburb, the wrong side of the national railway lines and hemmed in by hills.

All that changed during the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. The main Olympic village was housed in Shibuya, and suddenly its streets filled with young foreigners who brought with them fashion, food, culture and music that the Japanese had never experienced: a jolt of energy that Tokyo’s youth rushed to grab, and continue to be mesmerised by today.

Precisely because it had no established character, Shibuya became a place that the young could call their own, and even today nothing is ever around Shibuya long enough to get that settled feeling that is the opposite of youthful spontaneity and invention.

After the Olympics young Tokyo-ites continued to flock to Shibuya to see what was new and hip in New York, London, and Paris. Japan’s postwar economic boom also gave them not only the will, but also the purchasing power to create their own styles. Today designers from all over the world roam Shibuya’s streets to discover what’s going to be hip.

Schoolkids

As the work-day ends, Tokyo’s 20-somethings switch from work to play, and gather outside the Shibuya underground station. Dull suits and wrinkle-free polyester uniforms give way toÉwell, whatever is hip at that particular point in the never-ending march of fashion.

Next to the station is Tokyo’s most famous meeting spot, a monument commemorating a dog, Hachiko. The tale behind it is as follows: each evening Hachiko’s master would return from work to find his faithful pet waiting outside the train station. Rain or shine, the dog was there, awaiting his master’s return. For an entire decade following his master’s death, Hachiko continued to wait each evening at the station, fulfilling his duty and responsibility, until his own death. A statue to Hachiko was subsequently erected, and there is now even a festival honoring him.

Hachiko
ABOVE LEFT: Shibuya locals – the youth of Japan checks out the latest world fashion.
ABOVE: The monument to faithful Hachiko, a popular meeting place in Shibuya.

Hachiko embodied duty, dependability and devotion to responsibility, all the qualities that the young people who meet beneath his statue are making one last attempt to avoid before they start down the bland path of routine that most in Japan view adulthood to be.

Starbucks Coffee has just hit Japan and naturally there is a huge outlet across from the station, packed with the latest fashions, including some that appear pretty bizarre to the newcomer. Take the girls, who teeter by in shoes with soles up to 30cm thick. Combined with micro-mini-skirts, a tanning-salon tan so dark it practically glows, fluorescent lipstick and eye-shadow, topped by hair dyed strawberry-blond, and you have a look that is, well, distinctive.

Young men also go for the deep-tanned, blond-haired look, accented by a gold neck-chain. Others sport spiked hair that would make a London punk proud, and designer T-shirts (a tip for the in-crowd: Van seems to have overtaken Nike) over nylon sports pants.

Here, even department stores, usually bastions of matronly establishment taste, cater to the young. One chain, Marui, even renamed its Shibuya store “Marui Young”. The ledge outside its display window is always crowded with 20-somethings, cell-phones and cigarettes held casually but coolly at the ready.

Just up the street is another Shibuya landmark, Tower Records. Long lines of fans, mostly young women, regularly pack the sidewalk waiting for the appearance of the latest “J-pop” (Japanese Pop Music) singer or group who have made it big.

But to really see Shibuya at its raucous youthful best, take a walk down Center Gai (Alley). This narrow street basically goes nowhere, but touches upon every current trend in music, fashion, food and culture. You won’t be alone; the pavements are always crowded with the cool and the wannabe’s. Karaoke bars, fast-food chains, boutiques and nightclubs assail you with neon light as well as a cacophony of music and sales patter.

So come to Shibuya, where you’re never more than a step from a reminder of how great it is to be young, and never more than a half-step from a sales poster for what to buy to be young. Don’t worry about not coming immediately, because in Shibuya although the look may change, the attitude never will: life is good, life is young.

Tokyo is an eight-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian Airlines flies to Tokyo every day of the week.  Call Malaysian Airlines at
(60) 3 746 3000 for bookings.