The country of Japan is made up of many prefectures. Within those prefectures are different wards, cities, and communities. Though Tokyo is the capital of Japan, it’s not necessarily a city in itself – though its high rises, nightlife, and business sectors make it seem so. Truth is, Tokyo is a combination of different cities forming a largely encompassing district of Japan. That district just so happens to be labeled Japan’s capital because that’s where Japan’s emperor moved to in 1868 – and wherever the emperor lives, in relation to Japan, is traditionally deemed its capital. Because of it being dubbed a capital, much of Japan’s trading activities went (and still go) through Tokyo, developing this part of the country quicker compared to other divisions. Shibuya is one of those progressive divisions – or rather, city wards – and it has become one of the most popular city wards associated with the image of modern day Japan.
Shibuya, Back Then
This city ward got its name from a family that lived there back during the 11th century and built a castle there. The city took a drastic change once the Yamanote railways were established in the late 1800’s, and linked Shibuya to other places around southwestern Japan. Initially, many of those major stations were linked to Shibuya. Throughout the 1900’s, other railway lines would continue to open and stem to and from Shibuya, making it a busy travel zone.
There are several districts within the Shibuya ward. Some of these are namely Hatagaya, Yoyogi, Hikawa-Shimbashi, Sendagaya, and Ebisu-Ōmukai. Towards the end of the second world war, American soldiers took residence in homes created especially for them in Yoyogi Park. This residence was named “Washington Heights”. 18 years later, many of these houses and their occupants moved out, and the vacant space was reconstructed for use in the Olympics that would occur in 1964. Ebisu, once famous for brewing Yebisu beer in the 1800’s, is now known to be the location of Yebisu Garden (constructed in the 90’s) as well as a mecca for bars (or “izakaya”), ramen stops, and cafes in Shibuya. The construction of Yebisu Garden Place occurred in the 90’s. Yebisu Garden Place is a commercial center that holds several museums, a Michelin-starred restaurant, an arcade, and a shopping center. As for Harajuku, it only started becoming known for its unique trendiness in garment retail during the mid-70’s, when it used to be Shinjuku. This idea of being a source for high-fashion apparel would soon spread to the rest of the name of Shibuya. The 80’s is when the daring fashion choices of Shibuya’s trendy youth caught worldwide notice.
Aside from the apparel, Shibuya is also home to many information technology companies, most rampantly so during the 1990’s. It was cleverly nicknamed “Bit Valley”, a play on the literal translation of the name “Shibuya”, meaning “Bitter Valley”. Another notable part of history in Shibuya would be the recognition of partnerships among same-sex couples. In 2015, Shibuya became the first and only city ward in Japan (as well as the entire East Asia) to allow romantic couples of the same sex to be joined on lawful terms.
Shibuya Now - The Fashion Hub of Japan
Nowadays, Shibuya is popularly known for being home to many popular spots, shops, and stories. Besides the concept of Hachiko, Shibuya crossing, and Meiji Shrine being a huge hit among the tourists, Shibuya is most known internationally for its diverse commercial range of fashionable clothes. The Japanese youth around Shibuya are known to express themselves with their outfits and are prominently notorious for creating Japanese streetwear motifs. If you ever visit Shibuya, you will find what Japanese dub to be urban wear, not so urban at all – many of these themes take on bold statements and bright colors such as “Ganguro”, “Lolita”, and “Gyaru”. There are shopping malls all over Shibuya that cater to these faddy themes and attires, in addition to more conservative styles.
If you want to witness this, you can walk around the Center Gai to see the locals dressed up to enjoy a night out. For a quieter stroll with a quaint view, there’s “Supeinzaka”, or Spain Slope – a tribute to Spanish-style streets, that take you to Parco department store. Specific brands to look out for in Shibuya that offer great quality clothes are MUJI, (for basic but well-made garments), Studious (the branch in Shibuya specifically caters to men), and Toga, (great for the avant-garde fashionistas.)
What to Buy In Shibuya 109 Department Store
There are thousands of boutiques and shops to choose from in Shibuya, but “109” is the ultimate iconic department store in Shibuya. It’s owned and managed by a subsidiary of a group of companies who go by the name “Tokyu”, and is just one of Tokyu Malls Development’s many malls. You’ll easily spot this giant, partially spherical building coming from the Shibuya station, as it’s conveniently found alongside it – right by the famous Shibuya crossing. Built in 1979, this mall was created by its company to rival against Seibu’s department stores, which had opened much earlier.
Before you start on your shopping spree in the 109 Department store, first, make sure you’re either a girl or your clothing tastes inclined to the more feminine genre. Yes – almost all the clothes they sell in this mall are for women; dresses, skirts, pumps, you name it. Also, be open to trying out new, innovative trends and styles. Many of the stores here are run by passionate entrepreneurs who want to express themselves through the clothes they sell, so many of the pieces you’ll find here may be a little bit out of the ordinary. In case cute, feminine, and “kawaii” is exactly what you want, head over to the 5th floor for Liz Lisa. They sell clothes that fit well into the Lolita theme, but can also be used casually. For more casual, runway-worthy outfits, Cecil McBee (found on the second floor) has great choices that are on point with what’s vogue. If you want something with more class, EGOIST, on the fourth floor, is right down your alley. Less girly frills and bright hues, more sleek patterns and toned down colors. When it comes to footwear, Esperanza XYZ located at the initial basement level, filled with gorgeous boots and heels.
The Popular Tourist Spot that is Shibuya Crossing
Just outside of the 109 Department store is a scramble crossing known for the massive amounts of people that walk through it every day. A scramble crossing happens when all the cars are halted, and pedestrians from all the different crosswalks can pass. About 2,500 people cross the streets every time the lights turn green – that makes up about a million people, every day.
You may wonder why so many people happen to be crossing this street – perhaps because of the many businesses and shopping centers around the area, but mainly because of the proximity of the Shibuya station. Because of the huge crowds that walk by here every day, it’s a hot spot for ads, business establishments, and tourists. In fact, the Starbucks branch here supposedly makes the most money compared to any other Starbucks branch in the world. It’s a humbling spectacle to watch so many people cross the street at the same time and to be one of them crossing. Segments of many movies have been filmed in this famous location, such as The Wolverine, Fast and the Furious, and Lost in Translation.
Making Your Way Around Shibuya Station
Being one of the busiest stations in all of Japan (third place if you’re counting), Shibuya station can be confusing. Like any other metro, the subways here make use of color coordinated lines that connect at certain places. If you have enough money (or a Japan Rail Pass/JR Pass) with you, as well as a handout of the connecting lines, you’ll be fine. Because this is a major station and connects to so many other stations around Japan, you need to be clear about where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there (which stops to get out of and board different lines, for instance.) Lost? Just go out the Hachiko exit, and you’ll find yourself in the scramble crossing, right by the 109 Department store. You can find your way from there. Now if you’re wondering how to get to Shibuya from Narita airport, it isn’t all that hard. Simply board the Keisei Skyliner, and stop at Nippori. Once you’re there, take the Yamanote line until you reach Shibuya. Getting to Shibuya from Narita will cost less than 3000 yen, and take you as long as an hour.
Hachiko, The Most Faithful Dog In All of Shibuya
Hachiko exit? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That’s because it was recently featured in a movie called “Hachiko”, starring Richard Gere. The movie is based on a true story that really did happen in the Hachiko exit. The story goes that way back in 1924, a professor at the University of Tokyo named Hidesaburō Ueno would use the train to go to work, and his pet Akita would greet him at the station when he would come back home. One day, Hidesaburō died from a cerebral hemorrhage and did not return home, ending the habit of meeting his dog at the train station. This did not stop Hachi from sitting outside the train station at the exact time Hidesaburō was set to come home. Hidesaburō’s dog continued appearing at the station for nine years, inevitably catching the attention of regulars at the station. Though many of them initially thought of the dog as a pest, an article was later published by one of Hidesaburō’s students, Kobayashi, who investigated in the peculiar behavior of the dog. Realizing just how loyal the dog was, Kobayashi would come to write many articles about Hachiko (the first one in 1932), and readers would leave the dog treats and food while he would wait at the station. In 1934, a statue was made to honor Hachiko.
Where to Stay In Shibuya: Granbell Hotel
Ranked #7 out of the 27 hotels in the area, the Granbell Hotel is as well a choice for a hotel to stay in if you find yourself in Shibuya. Not only is their customer service excellent, but so are their amenities. Though some people may find the rooms to be a little smaller than your average hotel room, it scores well if you compare it with other Japanese hotels. The best part of it all is that you’re just a quick stroll from the Shibuya crossing and train station, as well as a galore of shops. Book about a month ahead during non-peak season, and you can find a room for around 15,500+ yen a night.
Another Staycation Option: Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyu
This is a close competitor against the Granbell Hotel, and for a good reason. Though it’s more expensive - about 31,000 yen a night without a discount – it’s also extremely convenient being literally right beside the subway exit. Who needs to take a short walk anywhere when you’re already in the center of everything by default? Rooms also have more space, and staff and concierge speak English. They do have strict rules when it comes to check-in time, and customers best abide by this. Plus, if you’re coming to this hotel from the airport, there’s a limousine coach that brings you straight here, so you can skip over having to take the train.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Shibuya?
Season-wise, the best time to visit Japan, in general, is during Spring (March, April, May) or Autumn (September, October, November), so you can catch the Cherry Blossoms or Koyo Front. Visiting during the off dates offers you better flight prices, and fewer crowds to contend with. Off dates are early December, January, and February. June through August can get expensive due to summer rates. Once you arrive and are in the Shibuya area, a great time to marvel at the magic of Shibuya crossing is at night, when all the lights are on, and when there are most people.
Shibuya has developed over the past century to be a bustling example of a true metropolis. The next time you’re looking for a place to visit (or shop for great clothes), don’t forget to put Shibuya at the top of your list.