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Anime (animation) superheroes with architectural hair, goth Lolitas frothy with lace, and kids in full-body animal outfits: this could only be Harajuku, the neighbourhood whose name has become synonymous with images of cosplay (costume play) kids dressed up in outrageous fashions.

Sundays on Jingū-bashi, the bridge outside Harajuku station, are the domain of cosplayers inhabiting their alter egos. Though each has her reasons - and the majority are girls - many are bullied or marginalised socially, and find an escape and a tribe in their motley collective masquerade. Day-to-day life in Japan can be oppressively rigid, and cosplay is a creative reaction against the pressures. And really, who wouldn't rather be a weekend warrior-princess with fabulous hair?

Predecessors of cosplay from the '80s still gather down the road at the entrance to Yoyogi Park. Mostly men in their 40s, decked out in the black leather, dark sunglasses and pompadours of American 1950s greasers, they blast Japanese rockabilly tunes from a boombox and dance coolly in pointy-toed shoes. Each man embodies his identity with the same artistic precision as the girls on Jingū-bashi.

Meanwhile, pointy-toed shoes of the designer variety parade down Omotesandō, the boulevard leading away from Harajuku station, lined with stores such as Gucci and Chanel. In the alleys off Omotesandō, vintage shops and boutiques sell the looks of the moment to the hipsters who roam these alleys, like rare butterflies in their individuality.

Tokyoites delight in expressing themselves with sartorial playfulness, not only in the realm of cosplay, but in the everyday. "I wear things to make myself feel good, but my style changes every day according to my mood," muses Hidemichi Sawa, dressed in a grey waistcoat and shirtsleeves as he strolls through fashionable Daikanyama with girlfriend Chika Hamamoto. "Today? I'm worried about something. But a walk in this neighbourhood is one of my favourite things to do." He takes Chika's hand and they saunter into the sunlit afternoon.

The article ‘Harajuku: Tokyo’s best people watching’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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