Urahara: The Best Of Harajuku’s Hidden Backstreets

Tokyo Neighborhood Strolls

By Jessica Esa
March 4, 2019
Lifestyle, Out & About

From art galleries to vintage shopping and artisanal coffee shops, Harajuku is an area to truly get lost in.

Nestled within Shibuya Ward, the first time most of us set foot in Harajuku was because we’d heard a word of quirky fashion and multi-colored desserts, perhaps had listened to Gwen Stefani too much in the noughties or had gone in search of idol-based shopping. Takeshita-dori certainly has its appeal but most of us also know that the true culture of Harajuku is best found off the main track and in the back streets known as Ura-Harajuku or Urahara for short. From artisanal cafes to vegan ramen and peaceful shrines, Harajuku is a district that just keeps giving. Blending seamlessly with Omotesando and Shibuya with the artsy Cat Alley on the way, if there’s ever an area to put on your flats and start walking, it’s Harajuku.

People walk in front of JR Yamanote Line’s Harajuku Station.

History and Background

When you look at Harajuku today, it’s hard to believe that the area was largely destroyed during the Great Tokyo Air Raid in 1945. Once reconstructed, during the postwar era, the area quickly became famous for its youth and fashion culture beginning when allied forces occupied Japan. Young people became curious about the obvious cultural differences and the Western goods that had entered the country and were quick to adopt some of the fashion alternatives that were made available.

Harajuku Station during the 1970s. Stock photo

Fashion designers and artists began to settle in the area and identified as the Harajuku Tribe. The access to Western fashion and shops only amplified during the Tokyo 1964 Olympics and since then, Harajuku became cemented as the fashion capital of Tokyo in many minds. Over the years, the area has started to lose its fashionable status since the pedestrianized streets became accessible to vehicles, changing the vibe of the area. While some of the more popular streets have become heavily commercialized, you can still find the independent artists and boutique culture of Harajuku hidden in the backstreets.

What to do 

There’s a real range of things to get up to in the backstreets of Harajuku, from art galleries to shrines, and even fortune telling. Tokyo’s clash of cultures has rarely been better represented.

Tokyo’s clash of cultures has rarely been better represented.

Ota Memorial Museum of Art: One of Tokyo’s most famous art museums focusing primarily on ukiyo-e (woodblock painting). The museum is spread over two floors and has regularly changing exhibitions ranging from Tsukioka Yoshitoshi to Hokusai as well as fixed exhibitions totaling around 12,000 separate pieces of art. A perfect way to escape the busy streets and be immersed in and inspired by Japanese art culture for a couple of hours.

Hatonomori Hachiman Shrine (pictured above): If you’ve seen Meiji Shrine one too many times, then consider this as an alternative Shinto shrine to explore, with a few interesting cultural aspects that make it very worth the easy walk. Just north of Harajuku and South of Yoyogi, this peaceful shrine area is dedicated to the game of shogi. If you’ve been meaning to climb Mount Fuji you can try the mini version first, also within the shrine area is fuji-zuka, a mound dedicated to Fuji, completed in 1789 and a method of worshipping the moment for those who couldn’t climb it. Given the hato name dedicated to the wood pigeons that used to fly over the shrine, you can find lots of cute pigeon-shaped fortunes and gifts to buy which are unique to this shrine.

Design Festa Gallery: If you’re looking to explore Japanese local art and crafts, then this is the ideal place to see current trends and purchase unique pieces you won’t find anywhere else. Hidden on a small side street in Harajuku, original pieces are displayed over two buildings with no real limits of medium or style. It’s different and equally inspiring every time you walk in.


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Fortunetelling by Harajuku no Haha: Why wouldn’t you want to get your fortune told from a lovely grandmother in a kitschy soft surrounding? “Harajuku no Haha,” or Mother of Harajuku, has been around for over 20 years and has helped people with everything from sorting out their boyfriend troubles to choosing a future career. You’ll find her in the Suzuko Sugano studio and she offers everything from in-depth readings (in Japanese –  don’t worry, she’s used to having people translated) to a 5-minute session where she will pull cards for you. 

Where to eat and drink

Harajuku is notorious for trendy places to grab a quick snack, coffee or quite often, quirky and colorful sweets. But the area has much more to offer than that.

The Lace Center and British Indian Café: This quaint building that looks like it belongs in Europe is a real mix of cultures tucked away in Harajuku. While you might expect nothing but tea and scones to be on offer here (they have those too, of course!), in fact, they also serve one of the best Indian menus in the area including curries, indulgent desserts, and delicious chai. Heading upstairs to Lace Center Harajuku, you can enjoy the cultural medley further and shop delicate lace products from both Japan and England or enjoy lace based lessons and workshops. A charming destination that is sure to transport you elsewhere for a moment.


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David Otto Juice: This well hidden healthy oasis is a real gem for vegans and juice lovers alike: Think turmeric shots and a menu with over 30 juice options. The staff are super friendly and will help you create your own juice option if there’s nothing on the menu floating your boat or you want to make a customized detox juice plan for the week. Perhaps more enticing for some is the unique homemade ice-cream parlor inside with vegan options, all made with healthy ingredients and healthier toppings than you knew were possible. They also offer yoga classes and various other health and mindfulness-based classes, just pick up a timetable in store.


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Mojo Coffee: An artisanal coffee shop that doubles as a great working space with long tables and an open plan design. They’re incredibly eco-friendly and promote a clean lifestyle in everything they do. From drip coffee to flat whites, they’ve got you covered and the staff are particularly friendly and attentive.

The Pie Hole: A home comfort food hub if you’re from the UK or simply an excellent pie restaurant if you’re not. The Pie Hole looks like the most artisan of coffee shops until you realize it’s an exclusively pastry based menu (although they do offer excellent coffee). You’ll find extensive options for freshly baked sweet and savory pies, and a reasonably priced all-you can-eat-pie menu option (including drinks) make this is an enticing place to stop after boutique shopping.


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Ralph’s Coffee: A classy recent addition to the growing coffee scene in Harajuku, Ralph Lauren’s addition to the ever-growing list of designer coffee shops is a quirky throwback to the 1950s with a diner-style green and brown theme and retro music. The coffee is specially crafted for the brand and sourced from La Colombe. It’s also one of the few places in Japan that you can get nitro coffee, a nitrogen-infused option that’s been taking the world by storm. Highly instagrammable and with proper cups instead of takeaway ones (always a bonus), this is a charming stop after boutique shopping.

© Photo by Stephanie Haddad

Kyushu Jangara: If there are any vegan ramen lovers (or Tonkotsu lovers in general) looking for a delicious bowl of ramen, then look no further. Their specialist is Hakata-style ramen and the vegan option is honestly as good as tasty as the original if not more delicious. It’s a cozy little place so you may have to wait but it always moves quickly.

Think of Things: Whether you want an excellent coffee, a perfect space to work on, or a cute coffee/stationary or hobby based handmade gift then Think of Things will have you covered. They aim to “straddle the boundary between work and life” which mostly just means making a really nice pace that you can use for relaxing or working in. They use Obscura beans and also offer sandwiches and croquettes. One really useful thing about this shop is the honesty box filter coffee just inside the door if you’re in a rush. Pour yourself a coffee, throw ¥500 into the box and away you go. A cheap option for that quick break.


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Café Morinoterasu: A hidden gem just a minutes’ walk from Harajuku station is Café Morinoterasu, a nature-inspired café that is literally enveloped in trees. The glass building melds the nature from the outside with a bright wooden interior, they’ve even made the décor from the old trees from the Meiji Shrine area. They offer an extensive menu of pastries, coffees, matcha, and the signature tofu milk gelato. A perfect place to unwind and embrace some tranquillity for a while.

Where to shop

The wide Harajuku area is still the shopping mecca of the capital, so you’ll never run out of options here.

Musubi: A favorite shop for finding the gift-wrapping treasure furoshiki, there are so many designs of cloth that you’ll struggle to come out with just one. Each design comes in three sizes and they even offer weekend workshops to learn out how to wrap a furoshiki properly, the price is then discounted off any clothes you use to buy.


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Panama Boy: Harajuku is no stranger to vintage stores, and it’d be impossible to visit all of the vintage and thrift shops in the area in a day. Panama Boy is a really fun two-storey shop that’s often forgotten but it’s filled with particularly unique finds, customized clothing, and more accessories than most of the other stores. If you’re looking for some retro sunglasses, to leather boots, or a pair of cut-off denim shorts (of which there are many) this is your store.

Kinji: Fashion shopping in Tokyo can get expensive and when you’re on a budget, Kinji is the place to go. For the bargain-hunter, this a treasure-trove of well-organized clothing. From your staple woolly jumpers and jeans to your well-fitting waistcoats and tweed skirts, you’ll find a collection of pretty much everything at Kinji.

© Photo by Kinji

Chicago: You’ll find two Chicago stores lurking in the Harajuku backstreets. What makes this a special choice is the combination of traditional American clothes like sweaters, flannel shirts, and jeans with Japanese classics like kimono and yukata. They’ve got an amazing collection of retro accessories and scarves, too, so if you’re looking to really get lost in the vintage fun, this is the best choice.

Mug Pop: A one-of-a-kind shop where mugs are an art form, this cozy shop houses over 400 mugs which are all made by local artists around Japan. Your mug even comes with its own backstory. Some of the mugs are breathtaking and it’s genuinely difficult to buy only one. They’ll even serve you coffee in your mug of choice for only a ¥100, it’s honestly worth popping in just for that.


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Cat Street: No shopping trip around hidden Harajuku would be complete without taking a trip down the wonderfully hipster Cat Street. An area where boutique shops meld with cafes and local crafts with ease. Some of the finest leather shops in the city are based here as well as record stores, second-hand bookshops, and even more vintage clothes.

Getting to Harajuku

You can reach Harajuku Station on the JR Yamanote line or you can choose the nearby Meijijingumae Station by taking the Chiyoda or Fukutoshin lines. An alternative would be to head to Omotesando Station on the Chiyoda Line and work your way back to Harajuku Station if you want a more relaxed stroll as you explore.

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