The bright lights and intense streets shouldn't put you off Tokyo (Larry Johnson)
Article Words : Tony Wheeler | 01 October

Tony Wheeler on Tokyo

Incomprehesible, but irresistible - Tokyo's fashionistas make a colourful spectacle for any traveller

"Now there’s a different take on the cos-play-zoku,” I pointed out to my wife Maureen, “She’s managed to combine Bo-Peep with Goth.”

We were strolling down Omote-sando in Tokyo. In a city where being stylish is all-important, this is the street for style. The city’s prime avenue for watching the beautiful people ends at Jingu-bashi, the entrance to Yoyogi-koen park.

It was Sunday afternoon, when the cos-play-zoku – the ‘costume play gangs’ – come out to play.

Trendy tribes

Tokyo has always been the centre for Japan’s zoku, which translates as ‘tribes’ or ‘gangs’ (and which are expertly examined in Karl Taro Greenfeld’s Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan’s Next Generation).

They vary enormously, but include the boso-zoku, the ‘wild speed tribe’, who we’d call boy racers, and, until a few years ago, the takenoko-zoku, which means (more or less) the ‘bamboo sprout tribe’.

The latter set up ghetto blasters, wore brightly coloured fashions and danced. This, in turn, attracted the rock-n-roll-zoku and the band-zoku who turned the park into a gigantic free concert and major tourist attraction every Sunday. Until one day Tokyo’s forces of law and order decided they’d had enough and chased the whole lot out.

This created an open space for the cos-play-zoku to move into. They are mainly teenage school girls as well as a smaller number of boys who dress up in – let’s be honest – outlandish fashions, and come to the park entrance to pose.

Fusion of fashion

At the moment the key style is either Bo-Peep – nursery-rhyme-heroine chic on platform shoes – or Goth, like something Buffy the Vampire Slayer would like to wipe out.

The trend-setter I’d spotted had gone for a crossover style; like other Goths she was dressed in black with lurid makeup, but under one arm she clutched a teddy bear. Not a Bo-Peep teddy bear – this was a nightmare toy, black with blood dripping from its fangs and Edward Scissorhands claws.

Meanwhile a towering Tokyo Brunhild-cum-geisha girl stalked across the pedestrian crossing, holding back the oncoming traffic with a gigantic balsa-wood Excalibur. A hundred metres, away leather-clad members of the Tokyo Rockabilly Club gyrated to a thudding beat. It’s no wonder science-fiction author William Gibson, the guy who coined the word cyberspace, sets so many of his books in a near future which sounds remarkably like today’s Tokyo.

Bewildering, but beguiling: that's Tokyo

That evening I was flicking through a mook (half magazine/half book) while we sipped midnight cappuccinos in a coffee bar near Ueno Station.

“So what are they?” Maureen queried, as two young women in porno-fantasy school uniforms sidled past. “School girls dressed as prostitutes, or prostitutes dressed as school girls?”

Of course there’s a word for it – they were enjo kosai, which translates as ‘compensated dating’. In other words, teenage prostitutes.

Later, walking down a street only a stone’s throw from the grand Imperial Hotel, we passed traditional yakitori restaurants huddled in the arches under an elevated railway line, as bullet trains whistled past overhead and huge video screens flashed images into the night sky.

A homeless guy huddled in a cardboard shelter, the same as in any city except for the Japanese giveaway – you can’t wear your shoes indoors here, so he’d taken his off and parked them neatly outside his box. And just like in Blade Runner, it was even raining.