When you think of Japan, there are quite a few things which likely come to mind right away. From karate and karaoke to sake and sushi, there are innumerable items that we associate with Japan and its culture. Perhaps Japan makes you think about cars like those produced by Honda, Nissan and Toyota. Maybe it’s the anime or Japanimation which some of us watched as kids or continue to watch now. Gamers know the country thanks to Nintendo, Sega and Sony. For the history buff, there are the samurai, the shogun and the Emperor. Whatever the imagery, Japan means different things to different people.
Of course there are aspects to Japan, its culture and society which we find bizarre and unconventional. Hello Kitty still confuses more than one western observer as you try and make sense of why there is such an attachment to the fictional character. In fairness, that same thing could be said for any Japanese viewers trying to make sense of Honey Boo Boo. So we’ll call that one a draw. On a more serious note, however, Japan often fascinates the outside observer because it is one of the more western Asian countries, yet maintains strong cultural differences to anything you’d find in the US.
The following list looks at 15 of the more bizarre, strange and unconventional aspects of Japan and Japanese society. From unique geographic locations to food, fashion and festivals, many of these things would be completely out of place if they existed in North America or Europe. That said, a few of the following items create a buzz because they combine traditional Japanese culture with western marketing and consumerism to produce some truly interesting creations.
15 A Poop Museum
That’s right, this is a museum which features exhibits about toilets, waste and all things related. If you are lucky enough to travel to this Tokyo museum be prepared to look at the bathroom and #2 in a whole new way. If you like rides, this place is for you. Put on your poop hat (We mean it, they give you a hat that looks like feces) and ride down a slide into a giant toilet. From there you can look at all kinds of toilets and look at different types of poop. Don’t worry, there is also a display of animal feces so you can get a well-rounded education.
Not feeling it? Don’t worry, this museum also lets you make your own feces out of clay so you can show all your friends. If you don’t have any then we are sure you could show your creation to the mascot which is, you guessed it, a piece of poop. The whole exhibit ends off with a chorus of singing toilets. It’s like a bizarre Disney theme ride, only crappier.
14 KFC at Christmas
When most of us think about Christmas we associate the time with a plump guy with white facial hair and a red and white outfit. It turns out the Japanese do as well – just with a bit of a twist. Instead of Santa, the Colonel has come to represent the festive period with Japanese flocking to get their share of some deep-fried chicken in late December. The theory is that, while Japan isn’t a Christian country, foreigners started the trend of seeking out KFC when they went searching for turkey (or anything close to it) during the holiday period. The company picked up on this and launched a big marketing campaign in the 1970s which associated KFC with Christmas festivities. KFC at Christmas is apparently so popular that potential customers are urged to place their order well in advance so that the Colonel can meet the demand.
13 Toilet Slippers
The Japanese are known to place a high emphasis on cleanliness and personal hygiene. For this reason spaces are classified as clean and unclean. It is why you take off your shoes when entering from the ‘unclean’ outside to the ‘clean’ interior of a house. While the germaphobes among you ponder a potential move to Japan you’ll be interested to know that even the walk to the bathroom is made more hygienic with the use of toilet slippers. These are exactly what they sound like. For use in the bathroom and around that unsanitary toilet in Japan, you have your own set of slippers to keep your bare feet from touching the floor. Toilet slippers are worn only in the bathroom and you take them off and put them on at the entrance to the bathroom. Just make sure you don’t use the Hello Kitty slippers - they are mine.
12 A Suicide Forest
If there was ever a forest which belongs in a horror movie or a children’s story about little children being abducted by witches who live in gingerbread houses it’s this one. Aokigahara is a forest found at the base of Mount Fuji. In Japanese mythology, the location is associated with demons and angry spirits. The atmosphere isn’t helped by the fact that the trees are so dense that it cuts out the wind and extraneous noise, making this location extremely quiet. It’s the perfect place to come and enjoy the peace or, like many people do, commit suicide. Today, the 35 square kilometer area is known as the suicide forest thanks to dozens of people who kill themselves there every year. Authorities have posted signs asking people to not kill themselves in the forest and annual organized searches for bodies have been conducted for more than 40 years.
11 Train Stuffing
Subways and commuter trains are a great (and sometimes the only) way to get around the city quickly. Sure you have to put up with the occasional loud or smelly passengers or even a poorly placed piece of used gum, but in most cases it beats sitting in traffic for hours as everyone tries to get to and from work. In Japan, commuter trains are a vital way of life, especially in the larger metropolitan areas like Tokyo.
Of course, in cities of millions, rush hour can mean cramped conditions with a lot of people pushing to get onto the train when the doors open. The Japanese helped partially solve this problem by employing oshiya, or train pushers, who add their muscle when commuters get jammed up around the doors to ensure everyone gets crammed in. Oshiya are not employed everywhere and get rarer as every year passes. Nonetheless, you can still find them at older and smaller stations, especially during rush hour.
10 Unconventionally Flavored Treats
Compared to North American culture, the culture of Japan definitely has some big differences. In the area of food, the Japanese probably have some of the most bizarre (or coolest depending on your tastes) creations. Take ice cream for example. When you want a flavor that is less conventional you likely turn to something from Ben and Jerry. After all, at one time coffee, cookie dough and Rocky Road were rather unconventional ice cream flavors.
Head on down to the local 7-11 in Japan and you can buy ice cream treats with flavors like stew, horse, curry, eel, oyster, chicken, beer, cactus and crab. If you’re not sold on that then maybe you’ll stick with just a regular chocolate bar like a Kit Kat. In Japan you can get the regular Kit Kat or you can opt for one of the other flavors which include baked potato, wasabi, soybean, peach, green tea, pumpkin, apple, mango, lemon – and dozens of others.
9 Special Pillows for Men and Women
North Americans and Europeans often associate Japan with bizarre inventions. This particular product does nothing to dispel this stereotype. For lonely men who either don’t have a special someone or are away from their loved one for extended periods, the Japanese have created the Hizamakura lap pillow. This ‘pillow’ looks like the lower half of a woman wearing a mini-skirt. Have no fear ladies, there’s a pillow for you. The Japanese have invented a body pillow that has an ‘arm’ built in. Known as the boyfriend or cuddle pillow, it’s caught on over the years. Now you just have to wrap your arms around the body pillow and the pillow will wrap its ‘arm’ around you – it’s win-win for everyone.
8 Vending Machines for Nearly Everything
Many people know how legendary Japanese vending machines are. After all, you can get almost anything from a vending machine in Japan. In North America we are used to the usual – candy bars, chips, drinks, soup and sandwiches. Those of us who are old enough even remember cigarette vending machines. The Japanese take this to a new level with everything from lettuce, draft beer, sake and rice to hot foods like squid, fish and chicken. In a pinch you can also find fish bait, flowers, batteries, pornography and meat sauce – all from a vending machine. Caught out in the rain? Not a problem because you can just use an umbrella vending machine. Haven’t had time to do the laundry? Don’t worry about it because you can just head down to the vending machine and buy some new clean underwear.
7 Bagel Head
Body modification is not anything new and it’s not limited to Japan. Piercing, extending, enlarging, tattooing – there are all kinds of body modifications people do around the world. One of the strangest associated with Japan is called Bagel head. This modification involves injecting a person’s forehead with a saline solution, creating a bulge which is shaped like a bagel or doughnut. The process was actually pioneered in Canada but has taken off in Japan since 2007 when it was introduced to the underground culture and ‘Bagel head’ parties were held. It may look bizarre but the actual modification is not permanent because the body usually absorbs the saline by the next morning.
6 The Capsule Hotel
In most cases, space is at a premium in Japan. The island nation has a population of over 126 million with much of it concentrated in the ever growing cities. Locations like Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka have high population densities which sometimes means that space must be used in the most efficient manner. Originating in Osaka in 1979, the capsule hotel is the epitome of efficient space use and definitely not a place for anyone with claustrophobia. Here guests will be directed to their room which measures two meters long by one meter high and one meter wide. Inside you’ll generally find a mattress, television, air conditioning and wifi. The ‘rooms’ are stacked two high and in addition to fitting the most people into a tiny area, are popular for people who don’t have a lot of money or need a quick place to stay over with no need for all the amenities of a regular hotel room.
5 Mr. Kanso
Eating canned food with plastic cutlery isn’t what most of us would classify as ‘fine dining.’ Usually we resort to the canned food when the significant other is away and we are left to fend for ourselves – often too lazy to head to the grocery store. In Japan, Mr. Kanso is a restaurant which specializes in offering the canned food experience in a restaurant atmosphere. Sound like a terrible business venture doomed to failure? Mr. Kanso has been open since 2002 and there are currently 17 locations. Customers do not have menus and there are no cooks to prepare the food. Instead, what you see is what you get in this oversized pantry with canned foods from all over the world. Perhaps one day you’ll be in a position to try a can of potato salad and a canned omelette, opened and prepared by staff and likely dressed with mayonnaise. Yum.
If Jersey Shore and Anime got together and had children then they would likely look like the product of what the Japanese call Ganguro. Ganguro translates into ‘black or charbroiled face’ and is a trend which sees Japanese girls get tanned to near bacon levels after which they put on massive amounts of make-up. It is said to be a rebellion against traditional Japanese concepts of beauty while there may also be links with kabuki culture. In addition to getting as dark as possible, girls usually put on black eyeliner and very light eyeshadow and lipstick. The hair is usually dyed or bleached as well. To top off the whole presentation the clothing and shoes are usually colorful or flashy as well.
3 Creepy Hunamoid Robots
Have you ever watched the Terminator series and wondered “Could robots ever get to this point?” The answer can be found in Japan and all signs are pointing to a terrifying ‘yes.’ Ok, so we aren’t up to the T-1000 series capability yet, but a quick look at the humanoid robots being developed in Japan are interesting and a bit disturbing. Most people think of Honda’s Asimo when they picture advanced Japanese robots. Other than arms and legs and the ability to walk he’s not very threatening or weird.
Then there’s CB2. This robot looks like an infant and acts like one. More disturbing is that as it moves its head around, its eyes also look around as it learns tasks and movements. It can sense and react to touch. Then there’s Pepper, the robot which is set to be available on the consumer market very soon. Pepper can analyse your facial expression and tone to figure out your mood. The developers have stated that Pepper’s job is to make you happy. Sounds similar to what the robots in I-Robot were meant to do before they overthrew the people. I hope Will Smith is paying attention.
2 The Liberation Wrapper
Restaurant chain Freshness Burger noticed that one of their biggest hamburgers was rarely being purchased by female customers. After looking into the matter they discovered that women were embarrassed to eat the burger because it went against ochobo – the desirable trait of having a small and modest mouth. In short, having a large and open mouth (something needed to take on the big burger) was deemed as unattractive and embarrassing.
To let Japanese women take large, mouth-sized bites of the popular hamburger, the company developed the Liberation Wrapper. This wrapper covers the face allowing the customer to chow down on the burger while the person opposite only sees the wrapper imprinted with image of a woman’s lower face. We’re not sure it really needs the image of the woman’s face but because it’s there the Liberation Wrapper qualifies as one of the weird things you’ll only find in Japan.
1 The Kanamara Matsuri
There is one Japanese legend which states that a demon named Vagina Dentate hid inside a bride’s vagina and chopped off the groom’s man bits on their wedding night– you can’t make this stuff up. In order to solve this problem a blacksmith fashioned an iron phallus to break the teeth of the demon. Today, that legend has turned into Kanamara Matsuri or Festival of the Steel Phallus which is celebrated every first Sunday in April in Kawasaki, Japan.
The festival started in the 1970s and continues to get bigger every year. Unless you frequent adult entertainment conventions, you’ve probably never seen anything like this before. At this festival you’ll see considerable tributes to penises. Penis costumes, penis flats, penis candles, penis popsicles, penis costumes and penis shaped foods – it’s all here. Considering the number of pictures of Japanese and foreign visitors posing in compromising positions with phallic shaped objects, we’re going to say this festival, while weird, demonstrates similarities in North American and Japanese culture.