When I first moved to Tokyo, I was living on 1,000 yen a day while renting half a room in the cheapest-of-cheap share houses. I didn’t care though—this is one of those special few cosmopolitan cities where you can experience the best of it for free, if you know where to look. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of 10 fun free things to do in Harajuku—pop culture hub and stomping ground of Tokyo’s most fashionable trendsetters.
1. Release your inner street-style photographer
Harajuku is the home of Japan’s most wildly fashionable (and sometimes just wild) brands, and many people dedicate their wardrobes to the unique and peculiar styles of the area’s subcultures. Roam through Yoyogi Park or wander across Harajuku Bridge and bring your best camera, because this is one of the few places in the world where your photo subjects will gladly pose without demanding spare change—you just need to ask nicely. Shashin totte mo ii desu ka? (Is it okay if I take a photo?) is a good phrase to memorize ahead of your day out.
You can expect to see girls in dresses that resemble something out of 18th-century France, boys in “visual kei” punk-rock glam, girls and boys cosplaying their favorite anime characters or dancing to 1950s American rock music and paying homage to the iconic rockabilly lifestyle. Sundays are when Harajuku’s magic really happens. Bring a full battery and an empty SD card, as well as an open mind.
2. Dress like a Harajuku girl (or boy)
What better way to immerse yourself in Japan’s subcultures than by joining in the fun? There’s only one rule when dressing for Harajuku: be creative and open-minded! Mix and match your favorite styles, go bold, and don’t hold back.
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Harajuku girls and boys have well-known styles like gothic Lolita, cute Lolita, punk-rock glam, French maid, schoolgirl, and cosplay, but that doesn’t mean you have to pick just one. Feel free to mix different styles and even cross cultures if you’re daring. Go all out, there’s so much you can do in terms of accessories, make-up, colors, layers, DIY customization, etc. Be ready to say “cheezu!”.
3. Get lost on Takeshita Dori
If you find yourself suffering from sensory overload, surrounded by toys, clothes and unidentifiable knick-knacks that make you want to gag from sheer cuteness, it’s a safe bet that you have wandered onto Takeshita Dori (“dori” meaning street in Japanese). This famous pedestrian-only street is known for its trendy boutiques, game centers and a super Daiso store, where you can buy anything you can dream of (as long as it’s worth 100 yen). Tuck in your arms and go with the flow—it will take you into the upmarket Omotesando area. And if you feel like spending some yen on food, be sure to grab a Harajuku crepe as you go—a local specialty.
4. Escape to a spiritual oasis
Being in a dense and over-stimulating city like Tokyo can wear you down, but you can rejuvenate by making a visit to Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingu). Enter Yoyogi Park through Aoyama 1-chome and stroll through the Avenue of Ginko Trees. This nature-lover’s walk is lovely anytime of the year, but especially so in the autumn, when the leaves change color and park visitors are surrounded by 360° of unbelievably vivid shades of red and gold. From there, you can drift northwards through the park until you’ve reached the shrine’s landmark entrance, the 40-foot tall Meiji Jingu Torii (gate).
What to do at a shrine in Japan:
Once you’re inside, you can cleanse your hands and mouth at the purifying water fountain as a mark of respect to the shrine’s Shinto customs. Then, if you like, you can throw a coin into the offerings box—the amount is totally up to you—deeply bow twice, make a wish, clap your hands twice, and bow once more. Remember to take your hat off first if you’re wearing one. Take your time at the shrine, but bear in mind that it’s a place of great respect for Japanese people.
5. Crash a wedding
Just kidding. Please do not actually crash a traditional Shinto wedding ceremony if you witness one while visiting Meiji Jingu Shrine. There are on average 15 weddings a day, so the chances of spotting one are high. The procession is quite a sight to see: a parade of two priests, two shrine maidens, the couple, and a long trail of friends and family. Tourist or local, you’ll be blown away by the color and beauty of it. Just make sure to stay out of the way and appreciate it from afar.
6. Jog/yoga/parkour at Yoyogi Park
Shrine aside, Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park is free to use as you wish, which is perfect if you want to exercise but can’t afford an expensive gym membership. Run along the paths, salute the sun or sakura, leap, bound—and relax with a picnic afterwards. Of course, the last option is acceptable on it’s own, too.
7. Play inside a manga book
You know that shopping mall with the kaleidoscope of mirrors as an entrance? Tokyu Plaza Omotesando, that’s the one. It’s a short walk down Meiji Dori from Yoyogi Park or Harajuku Station. When you get there, go up to the fifth floor and you’ll find yourself in a quirky indie gift shop designed like a giant manga book. While Tokyo’s Tokyo (that’s the name of the store) is famous for its collection of “sofubi” vinyl art toys, they also have a wonderful collection of books, toys, clothes, and other sought-after collectibles. It’s perfect for anyone looking for some art-porn.
8. Pop by NHK Studio Park
Only a 10-minute walk from Harajuku Station, NHK Studio Park is part of the headquarters of NHK—the public broadcaster. While it’s not the most thrilling of attractions, it is an interesting place to visit for an overview of Japan’s national broadcasting history, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at some of Japan’s most famous dramas, sports, entertainment, news, and anime shows. You can also try your hand at voice dubbing activities and, if you’re there at the right time, watch a live taping in the studio. There are hour-long tours conducted in Japanese and English—these are free for children, 150 yen for high school students and 200 yen for adults.
9. See the Tokyo skyline
Take in art and bonus city views at the contemporary (and free) Espace Louis Vuitton Gallery on top of the Louis Vuitton store in Omotesando. But be warned—if you buy anything in-store, your cheapo rank will be downgraded to an F-. As well as awesome views of the surrounding area, you can also catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji from the roof garden at Tokyo “Omohara” Plaza. This is our recommended spot for watching the sunset from Harajuku.
Night is when Tokyo really shines, but what kind of cheapo pays 1,000-3,000 yen to get into the typical tourist sightseeing platforms like Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower? Omotesando’s Two Rooms Bar and Grill lets their customers take in the northern Tokyo skyline free of cover charge. Instead of that entrance fee, treat yourself to a martini on their fifth floor outdoor terrace.
If you’re more of a sunshine person, head over to Wired Café 360 after a long day of shopping (or just window shopping) in Harajuku. This circular café features ceiling-high windows that provide a serene backdrop of the foliage on the terrace. Oh, and there’s free wifi!
10. Recycle your clothes (a cheapo hack)
It’s not just free, it might even add a few extra yen to your wallet. Tokyo has a secondhand store setup that outshines Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” any day. The shops that will buy your clothes are very picky though; you can’t just throw them your old gym sweater and expect some cash. Some not-so-cheapo-friendly Harajuku stores, like Komehyo and RagTag (both of which also have other branches throughout Tokyo) will only take designer brand apparel! Parting with your once-treasured clothes and accessories can be a bit emotional, which is why Pass the Baton (Omotesando, walking distance from Harajuku) honors that relationship by carefully interviewing each seller and adding a story and biography to each item. They even let the seller decide the price.
If you are really serious about getting hard cash for your clothes, think about applying to be a vendor at the Yoyogi Flea Market. Vendor applications cost around 40USD, and although schedules tend to be irregular, during peak seasons the “Free Market” can provide space for up to 800 vendors. Read more about Tokyo’s flea markets.
Two more free things to do in Harajuku during summer
Jingu Gaien Fireworks Festival (mid-August)
Summertime is yukata time in Japan, and what better place to show off your threads than the streets of Harajuku? Enjoy the traditional Japanese experience of relaxing in a yukata with friends and enjoying copious amounts of beer and street food while watching a stunning fireworks show.
Harajuku Omotesando Genki Matsuri Super Yosakoi (Late August)
Dancers from all over Japan (and other countries) show off their best moves in this annual parade. The colorful and energetic mix of traditional and modern Japanese dance attracts over 800,000 locals and tourists every year. Originally from Koichi City, the Yosakoi festival was created in 1954 by their local Chamber of Commerce, apparently to combat the psychologically negative effects of the economic recession. With over 90 teams and a total of around 5,000 dancers seemingly competing against each other to be the loudest and most spirited, you’ll definitely be shouting and clapping along with them.
Looking to explore other popular parts of Tokyo? Here are ten free things to do in Shinjuku, and another 10 free things to do in Shibuya. Don’t forget our epic list of 101 free and cheap things to do in Tokyo.
Access: Harajuku is easily accessible from JR Harajuku Station (on the JR Yamanote Line) or Meiji-jingumae Station on the Fukutoshin Line.
This post was last updated by Carey Finn in February 2017.
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