Japan is kooky. And I love it. On my recent trip to Japan I took my daughter Jasmine for her first visit and took great joy introducing her to the wonderful oddities of one of my favourite countries in the world. Here are our Top Ten Kooky things we saw or experienced:
Animal cafes are popular in Japan. That’s not cafes that you can bring a pet to, but rather cafes filled with animals that you can cuddle or pet. There are cat cafes, bunny cafes, hedgehog cafes and even cafes where you can cuddle goats or snakes. I don’t really like cats and my daughter wasn’t that keen to cuddle a snake, but when I discovered that there are owl cafes we had to visit one (maybe it was all the Harry Potters films that we watched). The owl cafes are very popular – I had to make a booking weeks in advance. The Owl Cafe and Bar Owl Village in Harajuku is tiny. We paid 1,500 Yen (about $AU18) for an hour visit – which includes a drink, an ‘owl souvenir’ and 35 minutes with the owls. There were only six of us in the ‘owl room’ which we shared with seven owls. My favourite was Bob the Eurasian eagle owl, while my daughter Jasmine took a shining to Haku the barn owl.
My daughter had no idea what we were about to see. She just thought that the ‘Robot Restaurant’ had waiters dressed as robots. There were some robots when we walked in to blindingly bright ‘waiting room’. They were playing in a band on a small stage in the middle of the bar – although they were simply wearing sparkly outfits and silver motorcycle helmets. It was when we we’re ushered down a few flights of stairs to the ‘restaurant’ when it all got very weird. We were seated in the front row behind a somewhat cramped couple-sized cocktail table. It then started with a bang. Or lots of bangs. A parade of pretty young Japanese women came out and went bad-ass on traditional Taiko drums. Then the robots came. Remote-control ‘robots’ came and went or played roles in a laser and pyrotechnics battles. Then a mermaid riding a giant shark and a giant serpent, which blew smoke and sparks. You wouldn’t want to have epilepsy because the strobes light were on overdrive. By the end, the room was full of huge robots, dancing girls and giant spinning sushis. All to the accompaniment of ‘It’s fun to stay at the YMCA’. My daughter spent most of the show with a look of shock or bafflement on her face.
Even the entrance was seizure inducing
The Robot (or motorcycle gang) band
Waiting for the ‘show’ to begin.
These robots had nice legs
A dip in a Japanese onsen (a natural hot spring) takes mingling with the locals to a whole new level. There are thousands of onsen scattered around the country, and their mineral-rich waters are said to help with health complaints ranging from various skin conditions to arthritis. Oh, and in the majority of onsen you’re required to bathe naked. I’ve onsen-ed before in Japan (including an outdoor onsen in the snow at -15 degrees) and being in the middle of a sausage fest (most are split between the sexes) didn’t bother me that much at all. The onsen at the Green Plaza Hotel in Cortina, however, took naked mingling to the extreme. The place was packed (that’s the onsen below without people – I couldn’t really take a camera in when it was full), so that meant naked Japanese men were almost sitting on top of me. I was also the only non-Japanese person there, so I sort of stood out (so to speak).
Cherry Blossom Viewing
For just a few weeks every spring, Japanese folk indulge in an annual ritual known as hanami – literally ‘looking at flowers’. All over the country people have hanami parties under the blooming cheery trees, bringing food and drinks. Lots of drinks. Not only were we were very lucky to time our visit in Tokyo for only the few days when the trees are in full blossom, we were staying in an Airbnb only a few minutes walk from the most popular cherry blossom spot. Ueno Park is one of Japan’s oldest and most famous public spaces, and it attracts epic-sized crowds to admire its 1,000-plus blooming cherry blossoms. Space underneath the pale pink Yoshino cherry trees is coveted, so folk get there early to claim their spot. We went during the day and at night and the place was crazy – particularly at night when a few sakes had kicked in. On a wander there one evening I was welcomed into a group of very tipsy businessmen who fed me beer and something on a stick, while nodding and smiling at me a lot. By half way through the evening there were a lot of collapsed (as in blind drunk) folk everywhere.
Besides getting trashed, the other very important part of viewing the cherry blossoms is taking photos of them. Lots and lots of photos. We also visited the neighbourhood of Nakameguro at night, where the cherry trees line both sides of a canal. The perfectly photogenic trees are also lit up with lanterns and we had to fight our way through tripods and selfie sticks just to view them.
The Nakameguro canal
Getting that all important close up shot…
…getting shots just like this.
Jasmine joined in as well.
A few here didn’t even make it to nightfall.
Cardboard boxes are the dining table of choice.
Harajuku in Tokyo is the centre of Japan’s most extreme teenage fashion styles. On our walk down the very packed Takeshita Dori (Takeshita Street) we spotted some seriously wacked out fashion combinations. My favourite was goth meets cutesy Disney. Sadly I didn’t get a photo, though – it was bad enough just staring at them let alone shoving a camera in their face!
There’s nothing kooky here.
I didn’t see this one, but WTF?
There are almost 6 million vending machines in Japan. You can find them everywhere – including in the middle of a quiet suburban street. On another trip to Japan I stayed in a capsule hotel (that’s a whole new level of kookiness) and in the foyer they had vending machines for ‘salarymen’ who had missed the last train home and crashed the night. The had a row of vending machines that dispensed business shirts, toothbrushes, singlets and underwear. Or, if you fancy you could get women’s underwear or used school girl’s underwear. In Japan you can also get bananas, hot pizzas, live crabs and they even have a ‘puppy’ vending machine. I kid you not.
I’m not even sure what they were dispensing here.
Used underpants anyone?
The Japanese are known for being very neat and organised, and a great example of this is when it comes to serving up food. Even a simple take away donut gets daintily packaged up like a present. However, it’s the compartmentalising of meals that I found the most endearingly kooky. At the dinner buffet at our hotel in Cortina (the Green Plaza Hotel) the plates had eight separate compartments and the local folk (we were the only non-Japanese staying at the hotel) were fastidious in their placing of food on their plate. Every single person had a beautifully and perfectly art directed plate of food.
…and never the twain shall meet.
The breakfast buffet at the Green Plaza Hotel.
I didn’t go inside any love hotels on our trip (or previous trips I hasten to add). They can be rented out by the hour for a ‘rest’. Although we didn’t see inside any love hotels we walked past many in Shibuya’s Love Hotel Hill (real name Dogenzaka). Some looked like Disney castles, caves, jungles and there’s even a giant Godzilla monster. Although I haven’t been inside one (no, really) I found a few pics of what you might expect inside one of he themed love hotels…
Quick, to the Batcave!
Santa Claus is cumming to town.
The plastic Japanese food that you see in the window of many Japanese restaurants look good enough to eat. That’s the whole idea – to entice you inside to sample the real food. It started with Japanese dishes, but now there are plastic hamburgers, ice creams, bacon and eggs and even plastic beer. The best place to see the whole range is Kappabashi Street in Asakusa – where shops sell them to the restaurants. There a rows of perfectly crafted sashimi next to spaghetti bolognaise and hugs of beer. And I bet a few of them taste better than some of the airline food that I’ve eaten in my travels.
The plastic beer collection – and famous floating chopsticks.
My lunch (the Tempura Soba) looked exactly like the plastic version in the window.
The Japanese sure do love Kit Kat. ‘Kit Kat’ approximates to ‘kitto katsu’ – a Japanese expression meaning good luck. There are apparently over 300 different flavours in Japan, including the tasty delights of Baked potato, Soy sauce, European Cheese, Hot Japanese Chili, Sake, Bakeable Custard and Miso Soup. Jasmine and I became a little obsessed with them and scoured shops for interesting flavours. We bought a few varieties, but Jasmine’s favorite was Purple Sweet Potato, while I quite fancied the Strawberry Cheesecake flavour. Here are some of the other wacky flavours you can get…
Purple Sweet Potato (Jasmine’s favourite)
Where is the good ol’ plain Kit Kat?