Weird Japan – An Offbeat Guide to Japan
Japan has a wacky reputation. Deserved? We think so. Keep reading and discover everything that makes up weird Japan.
A visit to Japan is never short of surprises. The country’s unique blend of ancient traditionalism and the ultra-modern makes it a place like no other, a place where boredom isn’t even an option. Every now and then a particular aspect of Japan’s weirdness catches the zeitgeist, with things like cutesy Maid Cafes and black burgers peeking the West’s attention. This, however, doesn’t even scratch the surface.
Brace yourself, in what follows we’re going take you on a journey through the mind-bending world of weird Japan.
Weird Japanese Customs
You’ve probably already heard about it or seen a viral video, and yes, train stuffing is a thing. Come rush hour in Tokyo, the whole adult population of the largest city on earth attempts to cram into train carriages, but sometimes, they need a little help. Attendants at the busier train stations are tasked with literally pushing bodies onto the trains, attempting to squeeze as many stony-faced commuters in as possible before the doors slam shut. If this doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, avoid rush hours.
Japan is well-known for its kawaii culture, a culture that often expresses itself in the strangest of places. From Hello Kitty traffic cones to cutesy animated police officers, nothing is off limits. Consequently, everything from huge conglomerates to whole regions have their own specially designed mascots. Travelling around Japan, keep your eyes peeled for mascots and you’ll soon realise they’re everywhere.
The best of these mascots compete at the Yuru-Kyara Grand Prix to be crowned the ultimate Japanese mascot. Read all about it, here.
Sleeping on the Job/Train
Anywhere else, sleeping on the job will result in a firm scolding, in Japan, this is not quite the case. Inemuri, translating as “sleeping while present”, is the word given to the mini-sleeps many Japanese workers attempt to sneak in throughout their day. Whether they’re at the office or on the train, a quick inemuri gives them a hit of much-needed revitalization. Given that Japanese workers commonly work unbelievable hours and get very little sleep, this isn’t so surprising. So the next time a salaryman dozes off on your shoulder, don’t be so quick to knock them off.
KFC for Christmas
For most of us, Christmas dinner is turkey and all the trimmings. In Japan, it’s a big box of KFC. Why? Well, whilst Christmas isn’t an official holiday in Japan, the country simply can’t resist that festive cheer. A very well engineered KFC Christmas TV ad tapped into this fact to great effect back in the 1980s, creating a situation where Christmas and fried chicken became synonymous. Come late December, lines form around the block from some of the bigger branches and that distinctive aroma of 11 secret herbs and spices fills the cold air.
Spending Christmas in Japan? Check out the following guides:
Weird Japanese Festivals
Said to have derived from a seventeenth-century tradition of prostitutes praying for protection against sexually transmitted disease, Kawasaki’s annual Kanamara Matsuri is today a festival of all things phallic. As giant penises parade by and onlookers suck penis shaped lollies, you’ll certainly begin to question Japan’s reputation as a quietly conservative nation. Not only is the festival a lot of fun, it also aims to raise awareness of and raise funds for HIV prevention.
Taking place on the southern island of Miaykojima in Okinawa prefecture, the Paantu Festival must be Japan’s most terrifying. Locals dress up as Paantu: mud and foliage covered supernatural beings with long faces; they then stalk the island with the intention of covering everyone and everything in mud. Why? To ward off evil spirits of course. If you’re adverse to a bit of dirt and don’t want your dreams haunted, stay well away.
Hokkai Heso Matsuri (Bellybutton Festival)
Began only in 1969 as a way of unifying the disparate population of Furano in Hokkaido, the Hokkai Heso Matsuri, or as it is better known, the Bellybutton Festival, is one of Japan’s most entertaining festivals. The event centres around a specially designed ‘bellybutton dance’ in which participants decorate their bellybuttons and stomachs by turning them into all manner of faces, parade around and generally have fun. Last year, over 5,000 people took part in this unique spectacle.
If ceremonial violence is your thing, check out Takeuchi Matsuri, succinctly nicknamed in English the ‘Stick Beating Festival’. On February 15th each year, hundreds of people (mostly men) gather to battle it out over the fate of the rice harvest. Fuelled by copious amounts of sake, two teams – North and South – arm themselves with long bamboo sticks and attempt to inflict as much damage on their opponents over the course of three, three-minute rounds as possible. If you were worried this may become a tad tedious by the third round, fear not, fire is thrown into the mix for the final stand-off. Legend has it that if the North are the victors there will be a bountiful harvest, but if the South comes out on top, the price of rice will rise.
Naki Sumo is another strange one; an annual even which teams up sumo wrestlers and babies with one simple aim: to make them cry (the babies that is). Wailing babies are said to ward off evil spirits and the baby who is able to cry for the longest is destined to live a long and healthy life, apparently. Rest assured, all babies have consenting parents and everyone seems to recognise the sheer ridiculousness of the event, though I’m not sure the babies got the memo.
Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Festival)
If you’ve ever wanted to watch hundreds of nearly naked men battle it out for a sacred wooden stick – you’re in luck. For Okayama’s Hadaka Matsuri, a priest throws a pair of sacred sticks from an elevated window into a crowd of loincloth-clad hopefuls, who, if they manage to bag a stick and thrust it upward into a rice-filled box, are bestowed with a year of happiness. No easy task, but a lot of fun to watch from the sidelines.
Weird Japanese Games
Anyone who’s spent a day in Japan knows all too well the distinctive roar of a pachinko parlour as the doors open out onto the street. Enter, and you’ll not only be hit by the noise, but also by the thick haze of cigarette smoke, blinding lights and, most of all, the players, entranced by their game. Gambling is illegal in Japan, but pachinko, a slot-machine-like game of luck, is tolerated. Pachinko parlours are huge and so alien to most of us that they are simply fascinating. Just don’t hang around too long, you might get hooked yourself.
Weird Game Shows
We have our fair share of odd reality shows in the West, but nothing like in Japan. Television producers in Japan have worked out that people love to be shocked and/or disgusted and have adapted their scheduling accordingly. From a relatively innocent show where contestants must do their best not to laugh in the face of increasingly elaborate pranks, to a show titled Strip the Girl in which contestants battle to knock down boxes covering a women’s naked body – Japan has it all (and so does YouTube).
Weird Japanese Trends
Yaeba (Teeth Cosmetic Surgery)
Yaeba, cosmetic surgery for your teeth, has become a hot trend in recent years. Inspired by idols like AKB48, women are paying to give their teeth a crooked, child-like appearance in line with what is considered kawaii. While the rest of the world is paying for braces to straighten out their teeth, Japan, true to form, is doing the opposite.
Visit Harajuku, the epicentre of Japan’s kawaii culture, and you’ll soon come across a Lolita girl. Their knee length dresses, bows, long socks and heeled shoes are a dead giveaway. Their brand of Victoriana is designed as a rejection of contemporary, highly sexualised beauty standards, an admirable mission and one that certainly makes them stand out.
Gyaru girls are not as common as they used to be, but if you wander around the streets of Shibuya, Shinjuku or Harajuku, you might just spot a couple. Like Lolita girls, the Gyaru subculture emerged in resistance to standardised beauty standards, a rejection of the compulsion for all Japanese women to be pale skinned and ‘pure’ looking. Hence, Gyaru girls embrace fake eyelashes, wild hair and bright nails. Again, they certainly stand out.
Weird Japanese Products
Like singing but don’t like being heard? Japan has just the thing: silent karaoke. A mic fitted with a noise-cancelling mouthpiece allows you to sing as loudly as you want, anywhere, anytime. The perfect gadget for the shy or those with quickly irritated neighbours.
Everyone needs some human comfort from time to time, but some people, especially the busy Japanese worker, simply don’t have the time to look for companionship. Enter the Lap Pillow. Designed, unsurprisingly, to resemble someone’s lap, the pillow acts as a comfortable place to lay one’s head after a long day at the office. A lot more innocent than certain other, similar, products.
Hello Kitty Toilet Sound Blocker
Japan’s advanced toilet tech is legendary (thank you the Simpsons). Now, a new product aimed at those in search of discretion whilst using the bathroom. With a push of a button, the Hello Kitty Toilet Sound Blocker masks any potentially embarrassing sounds with a gentle purr. Genius.
Weird Japanese Food
Dancing Squid (Katsu Ika Odori Don)
Despite the name, dancing squid or katsu aka door don, is not actually alive when it’s served. Yet, when the squid is drizzled with soy sauce, its muscles begin to contract and miraculously begins to dance. Perhaps not for the fussy eaters out there.
For more weird Japanese food, check out our article: Weird Japanese Food and Where to Eat it.
Japanese Vending Machines
If there’s one thing Japan loves, it’s vending machines. Find them everywhere from quiet residential streets and bustling train stations to mountainsides, selling everything from standard fizzy drinks to underwear and fresh vegetables. If your Japanese isn’t up to scratch, why not skip human interaction altogether and stick to good old vending machines instead?
For a closer look at these quirky machines, check out our article: Japanese Vending Machines – Your Guide.
Weird Japanese Restaurants
If you find yourself in Shinjuku’s infamous Kabukicho area, you’ll no doubt be lured by the neon lights of the Robot Restaurant. The restaurant has garnered an impressive reputation as one of the most bizarre places to eat in the city, and for good reason. Whether it’s the epic robot battles or the scantily clad dancing women, this place has it all.
For more information, check out our guide: Robot Restaurant Tokyo – Shinjuku’s Best Attraction.
Another Tokyo theme-restaurant that has proven a big hit with tourists in search of weird Japan. Alcatraz ER locks diners in individual prison cells serviced by ghoulish staff in nurses uniforms and serves them dishes designed to shock and disgust. Highlights include Wasabi Russian Roulette Takoyaki and Hitori Asobi (a cocktail served with vibrators).
Like Ninjas? Like food? The Ninja Restaurant may be for you. Set up to look like a shadowy pre-modern Japanese city, the restaurant has surprises around every corner. The food, an array of Japanese and Western-style dishes, is served by flying Ninja who take every opportunity to entertain their guests.
For more weird and wonderful theme restaurants in Tokyo, check out Theme Restaurants in Tokyo – Alternative Eating Guide.
The apex of Japanese kawaii culture must be the Maid Cafe. The idea is a simple one. A cafe staffed by cute girls in exaggerated maid outfits, there to wait on their guests hand and foot. The food is designed to be just as cute as the girls but the almost constant chorus of songs and dances is enough to distract even the hungriest of diners.
For more information, check out our guide: Tokyo Maid Cafe – The Ultimate Kawaii Experience.
Essentially Maid Cafes but for women, Butler Cafes are a fairly recent trend but one that has caught on like wildfire. As you enter, you transform into a wealthy lady returning to your grand residence for a spot of afternoon tea, which your own personal butler will take care of, of course. Usually, the Butler Cafe experience is a lot more classy (or pseudo-classy) than a Maid Cafe, where the kawaii factor can be a little overwhelming. Polite as can be and ever-complimentary, if you’re after a little ego boost, a Butler Cafe could be just the ticket.
Amongst the many butler cafes, we recommend Swallowtail Butler Cafe.
An idea that has picked up traction around the world – the animal cafe. Cats, dogs, goats, snakes, owls, whatever, there’s a cafe out there for you. Although the food and drink almost always takes a back seat to the animals (quite rightly), these places are well worth a visit for a spot of creature comfort.
For the best owl cafes in Tokyo, check out our article: Tokyo Owl Cafes – The City’s 10 Best.
For more animal cafes in Tokyo, check out Cat and Animal Cafes in Tokyo.
Weird Japanese Candy and Snacks
Moko Moko Mokoretto (Toilet Candy)
Moko Moko Mokoretto Toilet Candy, we think, is the most fun you can have with a toilet. In the box, find a selection of brightly coloured plastic toilets and some stickers to decorate them with. Once personalised, add a sachet of candy powder into the bowl, then some water, and watch as your very own candy concoction bubbles to life. Straddling the line between cute and gross with ease, don’t miss Moko Moko Mokoretto if you’re a fan of toilets and candy.
Kracie Popin’ Cookin’
Ever been half way through a meal and thought: “this is good, but it’d be better if it was made entirely of candy”? If so, you’re in luck. Kracie Popin’ Cookin’ sets are DIY candy cooking experiences in a box. Mix water with the sachets provided and a whole world of gummy cuisine comes alive before your eyes. Gummy sushi (pictured above), hamburgers, ramen, gyoza, doughnuts and more – all waiting to be brought to life.
Bakeable Kit Kat Cheesecake Flavour
It’s no secret that KitKats in Japan are big business; connoisseurs of the chocolatey snack coming from far and wide to get their hands on the unique varieties the nation prides itself on. However, no one was ready when Kitkat threw this one on us: KitKats designed for baking. Wow. The most recent of these wonders comes in cheesecake flavour and it must be said, is delicious. A few minutes under the grill and the chocolate fingers take on a golden glow, a slightly crispy and light texture and a taste that will blow your mind. Usually only on sale for a short amount of time, act quickly or live a life of regret.
For more bizarre flavors, check out KitKat in Japan – Top 23 Unique Flavors.
Kombu Ame (Kelp Candy)
What could be more appealing than candy made from kelp? Well, sarcasm aside, Kombu Ame is actually pretty good and highly sought after amongst the adventurous candy community. With a mild, not-too-sweet taste and a high concentration of healthy iodine in each bite, it makes for a nice alternative to saccharine candy toilets and the like.
Kitsune Udon & Takoyaki Drops
A whole meal in a capsule was a staple feature of every 70s sci-fi flick – but now, in Japan, fiction has become reality. These ‘drops’ come in udon and takoyaki flavour, promising all the delights of these dishes in a single, easily digestible bite. Not convinced? Try them out for yourself.
Weird Things to Do in Japan
Billing itself as the only museum in the world dedicated to parasitology, you’re guaranteed a unique experience at this place. Spend a leisurely afternoon browsing the glass jars of parasites, the longest tapeworm in the world (8.8 meters!) and all the other weirdly wonderful displays the museum is home to. You can even grab a souvenir or two for your parasite loving loved ones before you go!
Aokigahara (Suicide Forest)
Sadly, suicide rates in Japan are the highest in the world. Aokigihara, or Suicide Forest as is know, is a popular place for people contemplating suicide to head. The curious morbidity of the place, combined with its undeniable natural beauty and proximity to Mt. Fuji, has made it one of Japan’s most off-beat tourist draws. If this sounds like your kind of thing, visit, but do be sure to take precautions against getting lost, take heed of signs and be respectful at all times.
An almost unheard of phenomenon in any other part of the world, amazingly, Japan has three locations where formerly human settlements have been overrun by animals. Okunoshima Island is where you’ll find rabbits running wild and free, Aoshima has been overtaken by cats and most famous of all is historic Nara, a city where fearless deer rule. If you’re more into animals than humans, any one of these locations is well worth a visit.
The Statue of Liberty in Odaiba
Toss up between a trip to New York and Tokyo? Choose Tokyo and you can have the best of both. Overlooking the bay on Odaiba stands tall a scale model of the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of Japanese-French relations. Whilst it isn’t quite as impressive as the real thing, it’s incongruousness is pretty damn charming.
Artist Shusaku Arakawa and his poet wife Madeline Gins had a vision: to create a park that combined both an artistic experience with an exploration of space. In 1995, Yoro Park, or The Site of Reversible Destiny was born. With its steep, inverted border and surprises around every corner, it is a park like no other.
Weird Things to Do in Tokyo
Staying in Tokyo? Check out our article 23 Weird Things to Do in Tokyo and get off the usual tourist trail.