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What does Harajuku mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples, Travel in Japan on April 7, 2016 at 3:01 pm

原宿
Harajuku
(first post town, more at “rest spot on the plain”)

harajuku stupid

Let this image sink in for a minute.

I get emails about the blog. Not a shitload, but I get them from time to time. However, it’s rare that I get blindsided by an email.

That said, I love getting blindsided by emails, so let’s check this out.

I recently moved to Japan and I’m living in Yoyogi. I spend a lot of time in Harajuku. Because I’m studying Japanese now I’m interested in the kanji for Shinjuku and Harajuku. You’re article on Shinjuku was amazeballs and it got me thinking. But I can only find information on Yoyogi and Shinjuku. I searched your website and can’t find anything about Harajuku. Do you have a plan to write about Harajuku? Love the blog. Looking forward to your next article!

I was outraged! I must’ve written about Harajuku 100 thousand times at least.

Well, OK, not 100 thousand times, but I know I’ve written about Harajuku at least 100 times. And I set out to prove this reader wrong, goddammit.

wrong.jpg

But She was 100% Correct

I searched my own site like crazy, convinced that I’d covered the subject before. After all, it’s such a simple one; I knew I had to have written about it! But after a good 15 minutes of scavenging my own work for a single article about Harajuku, I realized that I’ve mentioned Harajuku and the surrounding areas many times, but I’ve actually never written about the etymology of Harajuku itself.

Dear reader, I stand corrected, and this glaring omission is going to be remedied today – right freaking now. Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention[i].
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As for some related articles, you might want to check later:

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Japanese vs English google seach

Your image of Harajuku probably depends on your ethnicity, culture, and language. The image of the left was the first image that came up on a Google image search in Japanese. The image on the right is the first image that came up when I searched in English.

 

First Let’s Look at the Kanji


hara, gen

origin, source, beginning; field, plain

宿
shuku/juku, yado

inn, post town

At first glance the word 原宿 Harajuku looks like it means “first post town,” but its actual etymology is “post town on the plains.” You’ll see what I mean in a minute.

Like many place names in the Kantō area, we don’t get a lot of solid information about this place until the Kamakura Period[ii]. Prior to this period elite culture had flourished in Kyōto and western Japan under the imperial court. Kantō cities like Kamakura or (god forbid) Edo[iii], were nothing before the rise of samurai culture in the East under the 源氏 Genji Minamoto clan[iv]. With their rise in the East, came a rise in literacy in the East and much better record keeping.

harajuku station taisho period.jpg

Harajuku Station in the Taishō Period (1920’s), when it was brand spankin’ new.

What Little We Know

It’s said that the 鎌倉街道 Kamakura Kaidō Kamakura Highway going from 相模国 Sagami no Kuni Sagami Province[v] to 大州 Ōshū (roughly modern 岩手県 Iwate-ken Iwate Prefecture) had a post town in the area. But, if you’ve read my article about Shinjuku, don’t get any big ideas. This “town” wasn’t much more than a scattershot collection of farms just barely subsiding on their (luckily) fertile land. Until quite recently, this was the boondocks.

Specifically, it seems to have been a 宿駅 shukueki relay station[vi] for horses. The Kantō area was famous since time immemorial for horse rearing. The highlands near modern Harajuku seem to have been horse grazing areas in the 11th Century. The area was referred to as a 原 hara field/meadow, so 原宿 Harajuku literally meant “field inn.”

But I want to emphasize that it was basically just a horse relay station. This wasn’t a place to eat, sleep, take a bath, and get your dick wet. For the casual traveler in this area, you were lucky to find a little shelter from the elements and a clean dirt floor to sleep on. There wasn’t even a proper village here for most of its existence.

Minamoto_no_Yoshiie.jpg

Minamoto no Yoshiie was held up as the paragon of samurai values by Minamoto no Yoritomo, founder of the first shōgunate. The family’s reverence of his ideals and beliefs (true or not) came to permeate all of samurai culture. As a result, he’s one of those mysterious people who affected Japanese culture in a way that would have blown his mind if he could rise from the dead and read about himself on the internet today.

I mentioned the rise of the Minamoto clan in the east, and usually we talk about 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo the first Kamakura shōgun. But today we’ll talk about an earlier family member, 源義家 Minamoto no Yoshiie also known as Hachimantarō.[vii] During the 後三年合戦 Gosannen Kassen Gosannen War[viii] which was fought in the 1080’s, Yoshiie set up a camp in this area. Today this day in 神宮前2丁目 Jingūmae Ni-chōme 2nd block of Jingūmae there is a hill called 勢揃坂 Seizoroi-zaka which means “hill where troops are mustered.” The hill is also known as 源氏坂 Genji-zaka Genji Hill – Genji, of course meaning “the Minamoto clan” (but you already knew that).

genjizaka

The hill isn’t much to look at today, but if you do a Google image search in Japanese it’s mostly pictures of amazing looking food. I’m gonna follow up on this.

In the Edo Period, the high grounds were home to daimyō residences and high ranking samurai, while the sides of the hills went to low ranking samurai. The lowlands were fields for growing rice and other types of farming. Keep in mind, this area was on the outskirts of the shōgun’s capital. There really wasn’t much action out here at all.

Watermill_at_Onden.jpg

Farmers cleaning off rice in the area. Why is Mt. Fuji so prominent? Because there was NOTHING in this area in the Edo Period.

So What is Harajuku Today?

Today, Harajuku is kind of a cultural clusterfuck. 15-20 years ago, the bridge leading from 原宿駅 Harajuku Eki Harajuku Station to 代々木公園 Yoyogi Kōen Yoyogi Park (in front of  明治神宮 Meiji Jingū Meiji Shrine) was the spot that saw コスプレー kosuprē cosplay evolve from a hobby to a kind of freaky anime-based exhibitionism[ix]. Photographers, tourists, and foreign gamers/anime fans began descending upon the area to experience Japanese cosplay firsthand or even try to participate in the emerging cosplay culture. As cosplay became more mainstream and otaku culture changed, the Japanese レイヤーreiyā ‘layers (slang for cosplayers) disappeared from Harajuku and “the bridge” came to be populated by foreigners copying a 15 year old, outdated practice. The police cracked down on the crowds of foreign cosplayers, but sometimes you can still see a few foreigners hanging out posing for pictures.

Harajuku is also known as a kind of hair salon mecca. In addition to famous hair salons there are also many small boutique shops. The area was traditionally famous for its street fashion, but Gwen Stefani made the area stupid and to the best of my knowledge these days it’s mostly tourists (both international and from the Japanese countryside).

harajuku station today.jpg

Harajuku Station today. Hasn’t changed at much.

Architecturally speaking, Harajuku Station is interesting because the building dates back to 1901 and it looks like a typical station of the time. Unfortunately, at the time it was build this area was pretty undeveloped and the station can barely handle the amount of traffic it gets. It’s just wall to wall people on the weekends and national holidays. Another interesting aspect of the station is a separate pair of train tracks and platform for the 御召し列車 o-meshi ressha emperor’s private train[x]. The imperial family uses the tracks to visit Meiji Shrine at 御正月 o-shōgatsu the New Year holiday because it leads to a super-secret backdoor.

Harajuku-Kyutei-Platform (1).jpg

OK, it’s not so super-secret… But people like you and me can’t use it.

meiji jingū - damn son

Meiji Shrine is a large shrine, but its architecture is very restrained in contrast to the grand shrines/temples of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. That said the amount of land allotted to the shrine speaks volumes of how rural this area once was and how much money the Imperial Household Agency has.

Which brings me to Meiji Shrine. It’s a big shrine dedicated to the 明治天皇 Meiji Tennō Meiji Emperor of whom long term readers will know I’m not a particularly big fan. That said, the shrine is quite beautiful and definitely worth a visit. If you go on 文化の日 Bunka no Hi Culture Day, you can see an event called 流鏑馬 yabusame which is where people dress up like samurai and do mounted archery. It’s pretty fucking cool and I highly recommend it to everyone. Culture Day is on November 3rd which, incidentally, was originally the Meiji Emperor’s birfday.

yabusame doesn't mean broken shark

Yabusame doesn’t mean “broken shark” that would be 破鮫 and that’s just silly. No language needs a word for that.

Also in the area, though technically not in Harajuku, is 東郷神社 Tōgō Jinja Tōgō Shrine. The shrine is dedicated to 東郷 平八郎 Tōgō Heihachirō who was supposedly Japan’s most decorated naval officer. I don’t know a lot about the dude, but apparently his shrine was partially built as an “eff you” by the Imperial Navy to the Imperial Army. The army had erected a shrine to their hero, the general 乃木希典 Nogi Maresuke in Akasaka, so not to be outdone, the navy set up this shrine. It’s actually a really beautiful spot and it’s popular for weddings because of its photogenic traditional garden. I’ve never served in the military, but I know there are rivalries among the branches, I guess this one got us a scenic city retreat. Not bad.

togo shrine

A wedding at Tōgō Shrine

Alright. So in conclusion, I hope you’ve all enjoyed my take on Harajuku. A lot of people have a lot of opinions – both positive and negative, both reality and fantasy – but the history of the area and its etymology are pretty much straight forward.

As always, thanks for reading to the end and thanks for your support.

Next on the agenda, I’m finally getting around to my Yamanote Line series.If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check my Ōedo Line series. It’s gonna be hardcore, so I hope you’ll join me for what will literally be a wild ride!

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[i] I’d much rather update my blog than slice open my own belly, which is what samurai bloggers used to do when they were wrong.
[ii] We could roughly say the 12th century, but it’s easiest to think of this as the first shift of power away from Kyōto in the west to the Kantō region. Samurai strongmen ruled in the name of the western nobles in the east. The shift in power was a logical leap from stupid court politics to real martial control over fiefs.
[iii] What does Edo mean? What? You thought I didn’t have an article about Edo? lol
[iv] 源氏 Genji is essentially a nickname for 源氏 Minamoto-shi. The kanji is the same, it’s just more common to read it as Genji. It’s the same with the 平家 Hei-ke which is shorthand for 平家 Taira-ke. Again the kanji are the same and the meaning is the same: the Taira clan (well, technically “family,” but same thing).
[v] This area was located in central and western 神奈川県 Kanagawa Ken Kanagawa Prefecture. For the purposes of this article, it’s a reference to Kamakura – the capital of the Kamakura Shōguns.
[vi] If that word 駅 eki sounds familiar, it is. The modern word for train station is 駅 eki. The kanji was originally 驛 eki and the radical 馬 uma horse. Before trains it referred to relay station for changing horses, just as the modern term “post office” originated from places where messengers “posted” their horses.
[vii] Also known as 八幡太郎 Hachimantarō. 八幡 Hachiman is the god of war and ~太郎tarō is a suffix of a boy’s name. Hachiman was the tutelary 神 kami deity of the Minamoto clan. If you’ve ever been to Kamakura, you’ve probably visited the shrine 鶴岡八幡宮 Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū which was built by the first shōgun, Yoritomo. As a result of the Yoshiie and Yoritomo’s  devotion to this deity, it became the de factō tutelary spirit of all samurai.
[viii] This war is waaaaay beyond the scope of this article, but here’s the Wiki about it.
[ix] Now it’s a fulltime job for some people, at least that’s what my Twitter feed leads me to believe.
[x] Yes, the emperor has his own train.

  1. I think I knew about the Imperial train, but never thought to look for anything about it that I could see or photograph. Cool stuff. One more thing to add to my list.

    • You can clearly see it from the platform. I used to pass through Harajuku going from Shinjuku to Shinagawa every day and was always curious about it until I googled it and was like naruhodo!

  2. I happened to stumble upon the Yabusame during Bunka-no-hi one year. Had no idea it was happening… was an awesome surprise for me. Meiji Jingu and yoyogi are such a nice break from the concrete of Tokyo. Though nobody mentions that those woods are packed to the tits with SPIDERS! The most evil yellow and black spiders you’ve ever seen, just waiting to jack all those unsuspecting cosplayers!

  3. […] last place name we visited in 2016 was Harajuku, one of Tōkyō’s many fashion districts. I was actually surprised I hadn’t covered it yet, but […]

  4. […] What does Harajuku mean? […]

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