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Once a Trendsetter, Harajuku Is Suffering a Fading Sense of Identity

Hirano Kumiko [Profile]


Last Days for Landmark Station Building

Harajuku today bustles with domestic and international visitors, the crowds as lively as if they were at a festival. Like Asakusa or Shibuya, the trendsetting district is one of Tokyo’s top tourist spots, with people flocking to take in its youth culture and cutting-edge fashion. Standing out amid the modish surroundings is Harajuku Station. A popular backdrop for Instagram shutterbugs, the landmark lends a nostalgic charm to the area’s vibrant atmosphere.

Completed in 1924, the JR Harajuku Station is the oldest wooden train station in the metropolis. The two-story structure sports a gable roof lined with bluish-gray copper sheets and a central tower rising upward like a belfry, while the half-timbered walls set dark wooden beams against a white background. Flanked by the greenery of Meiji Shrine, it has the appearance of a venerable German or British building.

Harajuku Station is a familiar sight on social media. (Courtesy Nakamura Yukino)

Unfortunately, plans are underway to knock down the station and replace it with a modern structure. Despite cries for preservation, the deadline is getting nearer without any solid ideas as to how the station might be relocated or who would pay for such a project.

When train services began in 1906, Harajuku was a small, peaceful outpost. In 1909 it became a stop on the Yamanote Line, and in 1920 the formal opening of the Meiji Shrine made the station a stopping-off point for worshipers to the nearby sanctuary. This prompted the construction of today’s Western-style, wooden station building. The elegant structure was designed by Hasegawa Kaoru, an architect at the Ministry of Railways. The ministry was apparently infused with the sense of freedom and idealism of the Taishō era (1912–26) when entrusting the task to the young Hasegawa.

Nearly a century in operation, Harajuku Station now sees some 70,000 passengers each day. Only around 30% are regulars on commuter passes, demonstrating the powerful allure of the neighborhood.

To relieve congestion, Japan Railway expanded the station building, which straddles the tracks and main platform, and connected a special platform used for New Year visitors to Meiji Shrine to Takeshita Exit on the east side of the station. It also installed new ticket gates on the Meiji Shrine side of the station, increased the number of toilets, and installed new elevators. Reconstruction work is scheduled to be complete before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The revamped station building will presumably be easier to use and less crowded, but judging from early designs it will have a decidedly different atmosphere than its predecessor. Considering the history and popularity of Harajuku Station, why was there no move to adopt a plan that, as with Tokyo Station, blended the old and new?

  • [2018.11.28]

Nonfiction writer. Started writing after working in the publishing industry. Asian tea lover. Her 2000 work Tantan yūjō (Light Exquisite Feeling) won the Shōgakukan Nonfiction Grand Prize. As well as writing about various Asian countries, she is particularly interested in the period when Taiwan was under Japanese control. Works include Teresa Ten ga mita yume: kajin kasei densetsu (Teresa Teng’s Dream: A Chinese Singing Legend), Chūgokucha: fūga no uragawa (Chinese Tea: Behind the Elegance), Tōsan no sakura: chiriyuku Taiwan no naka no Nihon (Father’s Cherry Blossoms: Japanese Culture Fading in Taiwan), and Mizu no kiseki o yonda otoko (The Man Who Caused a Water Miracle).

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