I can't help but stare. The young girls look like Kewpie dolls with enough plastic barrettes and bracelets to fill an accessory store. A man adjusts the...

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TOKYO — I can’t help but stare.

The young girls look like Kewpie dolls with enough plastic barrettes and bracelets to fill an accessory store. A man adjusts the hem of his schoolgirl costume, leaning back slightly to stop a wig from sliding down his forehead. Teens with spiky, platinum blond hair and faux tans huddle among themselves.

And they all stare back at me.

I am the oddball, misplaced in a world where ruffled tulle skirts, blue hair and hot-pink fishnet stockings are the norm. Couture mixed with clothes you can find in a Salvation Army store. Wannabe rockers scream their demo-tape tunes outside a nearby train station.

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I feel self-conscious in my jeans and T-shirt. I have stepped into a manga comic book, and I am the least cool character.

I’m in Harajuku, a district in Tokyo known for its street fashion, boutiques and freaks that congregate daily to express their disdain for the mundane. And nearby is something completely different — the historic, imposing Shinto shrine called Meiji Jingu.

In the past few years, Harajuku became popularized by rocker Gwen Stefani, who drew inspiration from the district’s denizens. And the Harajuku experience lives up to its a la mode image: overwhelming, bizarre and fascinating.


Japan National Tourist Organization: 213-623-1952 or www.jnto.go.jp/eng

“Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno”: Chronicle Books’ new publication, “Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno,” by Patrick Macias and Izumi Evers ($16.95), chronicles the Japanese teen fashion subculture, including Harajuku.

With my traveling companions, I head toward Omotesando Dori, a landscaped, cafe-lined boulevard in Harajuku often referred to as Japan’s Champs-Elysees. It’s lined with trendy boutiques and fancy restaurants. But I’m itching to go back to the train station where all of the wacky people are hanging out.

When we get there, we snap photos of the dozens of teens. They are separated into smaller groups, squatting on the ground and talking to each other quietly with their backs turned toward us.

Some look dressed for a “Star Wars” convention, with handmade metallic costumes and face paint. Several girls, playing into a “gothic Lolita” theme, are clad in schoolgirl outfits with dark makeup.

A few are camera shy and refuse to turn around to greet the onlookers. Others ignore us and take photos of each other, admiring their own costumes. But most are willing to pose for the non-Japanese tourists.

I approach one girl who fascinates me. She’s wearing reptilian contact lenses, facial piercing, spiky orange hair and a fur-collared jacket.

“You scare me,” I say. “Can I take a photo?”

“Hai, hai (Yes, yes),” she says almost inaudibly, posing for a few seconds. She bows and scurries away.

I want to stay longer and talk with the girls, but the language barrier prevents me from doing anything except bowing. And my friends are anxious to check out the Meiji Jingu Shrine, just a mile away from where the teens gather.

I wonder where the teens live, if they hide their costumes in their lockers and put them on after school. Are they simply expressing their individuality or rebelling against convention?

I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand this subculture or embrace blue stockings, yellow stilettos and leg warmers. But I vow to return and marvel at the teens’ creativity.

I’m sure they’ll be ready for another photo op.

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