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Japan Through The Eyes Of A Shoeshanista

by Justine Cullinan (@shoeshanista)

Having spent ten days in Japan I have a renewed appreciation for the way another nation and culture of people manage and enjoy life. Being able to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, which are on opposite sides of the country, on the Shinkansen (bullet train) in less than three hours is a remarkable achievement. As a nation that was bombed relentlessly during World War II, it is also remarkable how many original Japanese buildings have either been preserved or fully restored.

But what I most appreciated about my time in Japan was the fashion experience. There is nothing like a complete change of scenery and a dose of culture shock to reinvigorate your fashion sensibilities. Here are five of my favourite Japanese fashion appreciation moments.

1. Anything can be art

The Japanese have an inspiring ability to make anything beautiful. Cherry blossoms are carved into manhole covers on the streets of Kyoto. Plastic construction bollards along the busy streets of Tokyo are made in the likeness of one of the biggest Japanese anime exports, Hello Kitty. Bus and train station lockers at Shinjuku station, where over 3 million passengers commute daily, are painted with colourful Lotus flowers and the lucky symbols of the Crane and the Pine tree.

The attention to detail, and the willingness to take cultural pride in every kind of industry no matter how seemingly low-standing and mundane, truly humbled me.


2. Make up is made up

I met a Japanese makeup artist on Takeshita street in Harajuku. She had a sea of blue and pink sequins applied to her cheeks and under her eyes and was wearing a pastel gauze apron with make-up brushes and instruments spilling out of all the pockets. That outfit and her makeup look were completely unique. I felt under-dressed in a short pleated and plaid skirt and a Japanese blossom-inspired Adidas puffer jacket. I think the only reason this inspired make-up artist noticed me is because I am head and shoulders taller than pretty much all Japanese women.


Young women in Tokyo have gone well beyond using make-up to cover blemishes or to create a smoky eye for a night out. They are intergalactic with their use of appliqué stickers and dazzling sequins and psychedelic in their use of colour and donning of vivid contact lenses. In urbanised Japan, make-up is over the rainbow and far away a palette of inspiration in and of itself.

3. No stone is left unturned, no sock unfurled

I often criticise my immediate fashionista circle and local red carpet walkers for thinking the job is done once you’ve found the dress. The dress is only one part of a complete look and it’s a complete look, carefully considered and collated from top to toe that creates a true fashion fabulous moment. The Japanese take that idea to another level.

The attention that the Japanese pay to each element of their look is award-worthy. To demonstrate what I mean by this, let me showcase the attention to hosiery. I have never seen such an array of stockings, tights, socks and leggings in my life. The colours, fabrics, lengths and decorations are mind-blowing. Whole stores are committed just to hosiery in Kyoto, Tokyo, Takayama and Kanazawa. The Japanese still embrace Alicia Silverstone’s look in Clueless, pairing anklets and over-the-knee socks with skirts and shorts. It’s not something many of us leggier South Africans could safely pull off but it sure brightens up winter when an array of jeans seem to be your only option out of office.


4. Hair is the crowning glory

In traditional ancient Japan a woman utilised three different hair accessories. There was a pair of sticks, a comb with a wide spine for decoration and the Kanzashi, a hair clip that can contain anything from a few lacquered flowers to elaborate hanging strings of blossoms and tassels.

There are also vast collections of Japanese hair oil bottles in museum collections in various Japanese cities, showing the custom of caring for hair and making it shine dating back centuries.

This attachment to hair grooming and appreciation is still in play in modern day Japan. I witnessed incredible uses of colour including ombre and pastel dip-dying and the ability to make a French chignon using nothing but a single comb to keep it perfectly in place. I could have spent a whole day just being taught how to put up my hair in interesting new Japanese ways.

Accessories for hair have modernised from the traditional but the variety of clips and ornaments that you can buy makes it impossible to choose from displays. And for my retail friends out there, the Japanese know how to merchandise, so everything looks supremely inviting, even weird preserved seafood that you can’t quite make out from its packaging looks worth buying just by the way it’s been displayed.

5. Community is fashionable

At the end of the trip I found myself at Disneyland Tokyo where I spent the day going on rides like Space Mountain and eating too much Frozen-themed (as in Anna and Elsa from the most recent Disney blockbuster) food.

Here at Disneyland I experienced a fascinating expression of fashion that, from what I understand, has become a Disneyland Tokyo tradition, that of dressing as a community or a Taylor Swift Squad. When a group of friends or a dating pair go to Disneyland they dress alike. I noticed groups of girls in cheerleader outfits, school-girl outfits, or simply dressed alike from clothing to accessories and hairstyles, flocking around rides and peace-signing for photos at regular intervals.


True fashionistas have the kind of approach made famous by the economist Adam Smith who said, “In competition, individual action serves the common good”. We all want to look different so that we stand out. But the Japanese have created a hybrid. They stand out by looking alike and by identifying themselves with a self-made community, that of their friends, their partner, their squad.

These are some of my awesome Japanese fashion finds:

A Vintage rouched gauze shirt – found on Cat Street in Harajuku.

Rita Ora Japanese inspired Adidas sneakers featuring the lucky Crane and Plum blossoms – purchased at the monolithic Shibuja 109 building. And a Reversible jacket by Nice Claup – purchased in Kanazawa.

Justine is a radio ninja working her days as 5FM’s Boss Lady in charge. By night she hits the books to complete her MBA and is (basically) a professional online shopper. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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