Omotesando is technically a single street in Minato ward of Tokyo that leads up to Meiji-jingu shrine. However it is now a name used to refer to an upscale and fashionable shopping district covering a wider area developed around the street in question.
It’s a must-go destination for tourists visiting Tokyo because a walk along Omotesando Avenue is virtually a time machine that takes you from the past to present of Japanese culture. Your journey will start with immersion in a serene Japanese forest and shrine, entail high fashion and design, pop and subcultures, traditional and international cuisine, and still end up with a late afternoon left to do whatever you please.
Allow me to introduce a half-day itinerary that will ensure you a satisfying stroll up Omotesando, which is equivalent to a satisfying tasting spoon of modern-day Tokyo.
1. A Birdseye view of Omotesando
The trip starts from Harajuku Station (station code JY-19), a Japan Railways station that locates itself right outside Meiji Jingu Shrine. There you can enjoy time being in a classic Japanese shrine nestled in a classic Japanese forest.
Also very close by is Meiji Jingumae Subway Station (station code C-03 and F-15). There are plenty of signs in English that will direct you to the shrine, so no need to worry about getting lost.
After you’re done breathing in fresh air in the forest and taking pictures of traditional Japanese architecture, you’ll head out to the modern and commercial Omotesando Avenue. It’s a very gradual slope that first goes downhill and then uphill. You’ll know you’re halfway through when the slope starts going up.
You’ll find ample things to see, shop and eat along the way to the end of your half-day journey – Omotesando Station (station code G-02, Z-02 and C-04). Shibuya is within walking distance from the Omotesando Station, by the way.
2. Your day starts: the Shrine
I recommend arriving at Harajuku Station at around 8:00 or 9:00 AM. Exposing yourself in a rush of scents of fresh morning air, acorn and oak in the premises of Meiji Jingu Shrine is just a great way to start a day. Besides, finding a place to take a break from the crowd in busy Tokyo is a stretch, but you’re guaranteed success at Meiji Jingu in the early morning.
Although the main shrine opens at 9:00, the gates to the forest are open as early as 7:00, so if you’re looking for peace and relaxation, go early. Admission is free.
Once inside the gate, you’ll walk through a pebble-laid path, creating soothing ear candy with your feet, complimenting the calm natural ambiance. The forest was made artificially in 1920 by planting over 100,000 trees brought from all over the country.
It’s a nice, slow, 10 minute trek to the main shrine.
The main shrine was built in 1920 to enshrine the emperor of the time.
You’ll have come across piles of wine and sake barrels along the way here – they are offerings to the dead emperor who was known to like wine. We don’t know if he liked sake as well, but sake is just standard stuff to offer to gods in Shinto practices.
The shrine is jam packed with people in the first several days of January. In other times of the year, you see both tourists and locals who just like spending time in the atmosphere, and if you’re lucky, you may also see a very Japanese-style wedding going on in the vicinity of the main shrine.
There’s a back yard with a lawn and river behind the shrine which not many people go, and it’s indeed a nice place to picnic, but if picnicking is not on your agenda, you can head back towards Harajuku Station once you take enough photos of yourself with the main shrine.
3. Japanese Fashion and Coffee
Once you’re back outside the main gate (also called the South Gate), walk down the hill in front of you. You should see plenty of fast food restaurants on the left-hand side of the street. There are also nice cafes here but they generally open at 11:30 and it’s still around or before 10:00 by the time you are walking downhill.
Once you reach the Jingumae intersection, you’ll see that you’ve entered a fashion district for youths, Harajuku. If you make a left turn, you’ll see La Foret – a department store targeting teens and youths.
If fashion is your thing, go ahead in, or continue walking passed La Foret and you’ll find endless dozens of smaller stores to window-shop. But what I recommend for other folks at this time is a little coffee break.
Across the street from La Foret is Tokyu Plaza, yet another shopping complex. You’ll be tempted to enter the polygonally mirrored entrance (which is very Instagramable, by the way) and indeed have a good time shopping inside, but if a quiet caffeine break is what you need, don’t go in from there.
In the photo below, you see several trees planted on the top floor, and that’s where you want to have coffee. You’ll find a pair of small white elevators if you face Tokyu Plaza and walk to the left along it. Press the 6th floor.
You’ll be taken to the rooftop garden which is complemented by a Starbucks, where you can lay back and enjoy a refreshing last few moments of your morning. There’s free Wi-fi here, FYI.
4. Modern-day Japanese goods
As you resume your journey and start your gentle climb up Omotesando Avenue, you’ll come across two shops that, I would say, represent some parts of modern-day Japanese retail.
*source: Annual global retail sales of licensed entertainment and character merchandise from 2014 to 2016 (in billion dollars), Statista, accessed Mar. 6th, 2019.
Over on the left-hand side of the street is CA4LA (read “ka-shi-la”), a store specializing in selling both imported and Japan-made hats.
Fashion-concious Japanese youths tend to pursue “slight differentiation” from peers, and head-garments come in handy in doing so. Try out some new looks for your head here and get a taste of Japanese fashion.
Across the street from CA4LA is Kiddy Land, a 4 storied toy store where you can find the latest character goods of Ghibli, Nintendo, Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon and all the large and small-sized toy manufacturers imaginable. I challenge you to leave the store without being tempted to buy something.
Japan has made a fortune out of branding and licensing its original characters. Japanese character franchises such as Hello Kitty, Yo-kai Watch and Pokemon collectively account for a significant portion of the *120 billion dollars made worldwide in the character-based merchandise business.
Walk another few meters up Omotesando Avenue from Kiddy Land and you’ll see a statue of a naked woman and a pair of paths as shown in the photo below. The street is what’s called “Cat Street” and you’ll find dozens of small stores and cafes down the alley. That’s certainly a route that may interest you.
But what I would like to recommend is a shop where you can see some quality modern Japanese tableware designed by cutting-edge craftsmen from all over the country. The shop is the MoMA Design Store on the third floor of the black building in the far left of the photo above.
The store displays and sells various kinds of weird-looking practical stuff artists from around the world have designed. There’s one section that features Japanese porcelain and other utensils that are so beautiful you can’t imagine using. If you’re looking for a gift for a really special someone, here’s where to look.
Eating in Omotesando can be expensive, but having lunch here is a good idea if you want to try great food for a reasonable price.
Continuing your trek up the slope from MoMA, you’ll come across Heiroku Sushi, a kaizen-zushi restaurant (the one where sushi plates travel towards and passed you on a long belt) providing quality sushi at affordable prices.
There’s never an idle seat as it’s popular to both foreign tourists and locals, but generally customers only stay at kaitenzushi restaurants for about 15 to 30 minutes, so you should be admitted in after cuing for several minutes. They have an English menu, which you can take a look at here.
If you’ve already had enough sushi during your stay in Tokyo and enough is enough, another good option is to go into Omotesando Hills, an upscale mall right across the street. And that’s where you can enjoy not only food but a top-notch modern Japanese shopping experience.
6. Fulfill your visual and material desires
The mall is rather a vertical maze that makes you wonder why you can’t manage to get to a place you see in front of you. I believe this is one reason Omotesando Hills sets itself apart from all other shopping venues in the country.
There are a number of restaurants of various cuisines, fashionable retailers selling stuff from wine to furniture, and, an amazing free-to-use make-up room for ladies on the second basement floor. I bet you’ll be wanting to rest your feet by the time you’re here, and Omotesando Hills is just the place to do so.
Also, there is a part of Omotesando Hills that carries a different feel from its main building. Dojunkan is a remake of an apartment house built here in Omotesando in 1923, and it’s used to house tenants in its retro architecture.
The apartment houses were the first Japanese structures to be built out of concrete in an effort to protect people’s houses and therefore lives that were vulnerable to fire caused by earthquakes. They actually survived the fires from the bombings in 1945, thereby proving its effectiveness. Perhaps it was left as a part of Omotesando Hills as a symbol of modernity.
7. Reach the top of the slope
A few more steps uphill and you’ll reach the top. You should see a big lantern on each side of the street, which indicates the beginning of the long street leading to Meiji Jingu Shrine, and in this case means the end of this half-day itinerary.
There is a staircase leading down to Omotesando subway station besides each lantern so you can move to a different area by train and enjoy the evening elsewhere. I’ll also note that there is a police box here in case you need any help with directions or lose something.
There were several smaller nice shopping alleys along the way that I recommended not to take as I assumed you wouldn’t have a whole day or two to spend just in Omotesando. However they are great window-shopping adventures of their own, so if you have the time, try straying off from the main street.
All in all, Omotesando is a representative example of sophisticated Japanese modernity that you may want to expose yourself to during your next visit to Tokyo.
P.S. On a side-note, I’d like to point out that Omotesando Avenue is especially picturesque if it’s December you’re visiting the city.