Japan has always had a reputation for its distinctive culture and unique traditions, and for visitors spending time in the Land of the Rising Sun, it can feel like an intimidating submersion into a cultural ice bucket.
As an island nation with a long history of isolation, many aspects of the culture developed completely unaffected by outside influences. Feudal samurai ideals clash with cutting-edge technology; elderly survivors who have endured the full wrath of the atomic bomb mix with teenagers in Pokemon outfits. It’s little wonder that to Western eyes, Japan does appear to have a pretty high tolerance for strangeness.
Without a doubt, Japan is one of the most innovative and creative societies in the world. After all, where else can you find trains that travel at speeds upwards of 300 mph, or toilets that play music as you go about your business? But this is barely scratching the surface of wonder that is Japan. From fetishes catered to by vending machines, to cartoons, food and more, Japan is just… fascinating.
“Weird” is not a bad thing, we’d like to add, and from another perspective, it would be perfectly reasonable to question why is the West so weird compared to Japan? But for visitors to the country, it’s the unique aspects of Japanese culture that make it one of the most interesting places on earth.
Prepare to raise an eyebrow, or two, as we list 22 reasons why no country will ever be as weird and wonderful as Japan.
22 Super Weird Game Shows
Japanese game shows can be totally bonkers and some are so off the hook they wouldn’t even be allowed to be screened in any other country.
These game shows often put the participating contestants in staggeringly humiliating situations. They can be downright odd, like one game show in which one item in a room is replaced with a look-alike item made of chocolate and contestants have to try to find it by biting into objects. Or they can be downright disgusting, containing gore and explicit material. One thing is for sure, Wheel Of Fortune these ain't. Japanese game shows embrace weirdness to the full extent.
21 Vending Machines Aren’t Just For Snacks And Drinks
If you thought vending machines were just for snacks and drinks, think again. At slightly over five million nationwide, Japan has the highest density of vending machines worldwide. There is approximately one vending machine per every 23 people, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association. One reason cited for this is a combination of high population density and high real-estate prices, which has meant that Japanese people don't have a lot of room to store consumer goods and Japanese companies would rather stick a vending machine on a street than open up a retail store.
Machines in the country sell everything from sushi socks, bottled flying fish, surgical masks, and canned carrots to used underwear. Yep, you read that right.
20 Ultra-Expensive, Square Watermelons
Watermelon is a popular summer fruit in Japan. People also give them as gifts and play “suikawari,” which is like piñata, but with a watermelon. But then there are square watermelons, and this is where watermelons get interesting, odd, and super expensive.
Square watermelons were first designed to fit more compactly in fridges and to be cut more easily, but they’ve since become decorative items that can cost as much as $160. And Japanese farmers didn’t stop at square shapes either.
Other shapes include love hearts and triangles, which are grown in special containers or holds and take years of practice to get their shape right.
19 Creepy Or Curious? The Rent-A-Cuddle Cafe
The first “cuddle cafes” opened in Tokyo in 2012. Called Soine-ya (literally “sleep-together shop”), they allow male customers to sleep next to a woman for a fee. Strictly no funny business allowed, admission alone will set you back about $25.
Options start with a 20-minute nap and range up to 10 hours, or a very full night's rest. Prices vary considerably, with the lowest option fetching about $40 and the highest commanding the hefty price of $400.
In addition to napping, customers can order services ranging from "girl pats customer on the back" to “stroking the girl’s hair for three minutes.” Creepy or curious - you decide. It's undoubtedly weird, however.
18 The Most Elaborate Toilets In The World
Spending some time in the bathroom is a fact of life, so why not make it comfortable? Japan has become the world's most sophisticated innovator in lavatories and is now notorious for its complicated "smart toilets.”
Skip over the traditional squat toilets (which yes, involve squatting over an in-ground bowl) and you’ll find the toilets in Japan are generally more elaborate than toilets in any other developed nations.
It’s not uncommon to find one that makes noise to block any uncomfortable sounds, gives off perfume, raises its seat automatically, warms the seat, plays music or has a built-in bidet. It's no wonder Western tourists can sometimes find them a little confusing.
17 Human Soup? A Ramen Noodle Bath
Japan has a centuries-old tradition of traditional bathhouses. No biggie, you might think - other countries have the same. But the Yunessun Spa Resort in Hakone has taken the spa tradition and given it a uniquely Japanese twist.
Picture this: Bathing in a vat of pork soup and ramen noodles. Why would I do that, you might ask? Good question. “Lately people are very concerned about having beautiful skin, and they know the effect of collagen, which is contained in our pork-based broth. At this bath, everybody can have fun and take advantage of the healthy elements of ramen noodles,” says the spa owner, Ichiro Furuya.
No worries if ramen isn’t your thing. Yunessan Spa also has a sake bath, a green tea bath and more.
16 European Cheese-Flavoured Kit-Kats
The Japanese have a predilection for novelty foods and beverages that often seem baffling to Western palates. Kit-Kats are no exception and there are more than 300 different flavours, including soy sauce, European cheese, wasabi, grilled corn, miso, and sweet potato.
Due to a coincidence of language, the candy bar’s name sounds like the Japanese expression Kitto Katsu, which translates to “You will surely win,” so it is also a popular good-luck gift for students ahead of university exams.
15 Ice-Cream That Doesn’t Melt
Food scientists in Japan have invented ice cream bars that do not melt.
While experimenting with the chemistry of strawberries to help farmers affected by the 2011 tsunami, these scientists accidentally discovered a chemical that solidifies cream almost instantly. Ice cream bars made with this compound can hold their own against an air dryer for five minutes without melting. Best of all, your taste buds won't even notice.
The future is now, folks.
14 All I Want For Christmas Is…KFC
A fast food joint might be the last place you’d want to celebrate Christmas, but it’s the go-to spot in Japan, where people typically eat KFC on Christmas Eve. The tradition apparently started in the 1970s, when the manager of the country’s first KFC overheard foreigners saying they missed having turkey - a meat that’s hard to find in Japan - on Christmas.
Not many Japanese people celebrate the holiday, but the manager hoped fried chicken could be a good substitute for foreigners craving poultry. Good marketing helped the tradition stick, and now it's so popular, you might need to order your KFC Christmas dinner weeks in advance or risk spending hours waiting in line for it.
13 Naki Sumo Baby Crying Contest
Usually getting a baby to stop crying is the hardest part of any parents’ day, but during the Nai Sumo Baby Crying Festival, parents will hand over their little ones to sumo wrestlers in the very hope they’ll see tears.
The traditional festival takes place at the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, where Sumo wrestlers take the stage and hold up the participating babies and try to get them to start bellowing.
The origins of the bizarre practice date back hundreds of years and behind it is the belief that somehow the piercing wails work to drive off nearby demons that would otherwise bring you to harm.
Among the techniques used to make the babies cry include putting on a scary mask to freak them out and the old standby of just yelling into their little faces. But it’s all worth it, apparently, because the best cryer is ensured a long, healthy life.
12 Godzilla Is An Official Citizen Of Japan
Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward has a population density of about 17,000 people per square kilometre but in 2015 it granted citizenship to its biggest resident yet, who only goes by one name - Godzilla.
His citizenship also came with a job offer: Godzilla became the tourism ambassador for the Shinjuku ward, which is the least he can do considering he has destroyed the region in three of his films.
The reason cited for Godzilla’s special residency: Promoting the entertainment of and watching over the Kabukicho neighborhood and drawing visitors from around the globe. “Godzilla is a character that is the pride of Japan,” Shinjuku ward mayor Kenichi Yoshizumi said at a special ceremony to mark the occasion. That boy has come a long way.
11 Sleeping On The Job Is A Sign Of Commitment
In most countries, being caught napping on the job is not a good look. In Japan, however, it is totally acceptable because it is a sign of working hard, not indolence. Some companies even allow employees to take 30-minute siestas any time between 1pm and 4pm, and it’s so accepted it even has its own name.
This practice is called inemuri and, because it is valued as a sign of commitment, sleeping at train stations, in class, or in the office, is a much more common sight than in America or Europe.
10 Crooked Teeth Are A Fashion Statement
Anyone who has battled through the stigma of wearing braces (or any parent who has shelled out thousands for orthodonture) will understand the ends people in Western countries will go for straight, perfect teeth. In Japan, however, there is a growing trend among young women for yaeba (literally “double tooth”) caps on the canines, which lends their smile a kind of crowded, crooked appearance.
As bizarre beauty trends go, this one is somewhat costly to implement. Fortunately, in case this fad goes south, the procedure is reversible.
9 Blue Traffic Lights - Or Are They Green?
Almost universally, red means stop and green means go. It’s a lesson most of us learn years before we’re old enough to see over the dashboard. But what happens when you live in a culture where green also means blue?
Drive around Japan and you’ll notice green, teal, turquoise, and aqua lights and it’s all because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colours. In modern Japanese, the word midori means green, but the lights are still referred to as ao in official literature.
While international traffic law decrees all “go” signals must be represented by green lights, Japanese linguists objected to their government’s decision to continue using the word ao to describe what was clearly midori. The government decided to compromise and mandated that traffic lights use the bluest shade of green possible—still technically green, but noticeably blue enough to still be called ao. Simple, right?
8 Kids Clean Their Own Schools
Forget janitors, in Japan, cleaning one's own classroom and school is a part of their school education. Students as young as first graders set aside time every day to clean and maintain their classrooms, serve lunch to their classmates and even clean the toilets, as part of a tradition called o-soji.
A few times a year, they also clean up in the neighborhood around the school, and the practice is said to teach students to help others and respect their surroundings.
7 Sea Lion Curry In A Can
Japanese cuisine is revered throughout the world but that’s not to say all Japanese delicacies are for everyone. A prime example of the national palate’s eccentric side is a chain of restaurants called Mr. Kanso, which only serves food that comes out of a can.
At the more than 40 locations nationwide, diners can choose from more than 300 dishes, from cuisines from around the world. Options include salad in a tin from France, sea lion curry and Korean silkworm chrysalis. We're sure it's delicious.
6 Train Delays Make National Headlines
In 2017, a Japanese railway company issued an official apology for sending a train off 20 seconds early. The idea of "deeply apologising" for the "severe inconvenience" of a lost 20 seconds seems totally alien to most commuters around the world, who have to put up with much greater disruption with not so much as an acknowledgement.
Japanese trains are among the most punctual in the world. The average delay on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the most heavily travelled high-speed rail line in the world, is about half a minute. In fact, trains are expected to be so punctual that if a train is five minutes late, the railway company may issue official delay certificates, to provide proof for employers and appointments.
If a train is delayed for an hour or more, it may make the newspaper.
5 Rabbit Island - A Holiday Resort For Bunnies
As islands that are occupied by wild animals go, Okunoshima, better known as Usaga Jima or Rabbit Island, is probably the cutest and attracts thousands of travellers every year. Okunoshima, which is situated in the East Sea/Inland Sea of Japan, is inhabited by hundreds of wild rabbits that roam the forests and paths, chase tourists, appear in viral videos and just generally lounge around.
The bunnies are so friendly they’ll even jump up into your lap, and they provide a much-needed counterbalance to the island's otherwise dark history – as the production site for Japan's chemical weapons during the second world war.
4 Japan’s Hikikomori Hermits
Every society is home to a small number of people who could be described as reclusive, and often these are individuals battling with mental illnesses such as depression and agoraphobia.
In Japan, however, this past decade has witnessed a new phenomenon, the Hikikomori, a term used to describe more than half a million Japanese (80 percent male) who withdraw from all social ties - work, school, friends, hobbies - and lock themselves in their bedrooms often whittling away their time on the internet, playing video games, or watching TV.
Japan’s hikikomori hermits are decidedly young and these mostly disaffected teenagers and twenty-somethings are being dubbed as “the missing million.”
Psychologists have cited a downturn in Japan's economy, compounded by the centuries-long sense of shame or failure embedded within Japan's collectivist culture, as the cause.
3 Kawaii Culture And A Love Of All Things Cute
Everyone loves cute things, right? Well, Japan takes its love of cuteness to the next level and it's a well-established and very prevalent part of the culture.
The word "kawaii" is derived from a phrase that means "a radiant face" which refers to the blushing of an embarrassed person. Over time, the meaning mutated to the modern "cute" while the way it's written in the Japanese alphabet literally means "able to be loved.”
No place on earth appreciates cuteness like this country does - just think Hello Kitty, Nintendo and Harajuku. From adorable mascots and warning signs to pop culture icons and advertisements, kawaiiness is one of the most prized attributes a thing can have.
2 Tipping Is An Insult
If you live in the States or in Europe, you probably can't imagine going out to eat and not leaving a tip. That’s just rude, right? But in Japan, you're being rude if you do leave a tip.
The general consensus in Japan is if you’re paying for good service, why should you pay extra? Many Japanese believe that good service should be the standard and if you attempt to leave a tip, it may well be refused.
A good rule of thumb is not to tip in a restaurant, no matter how odd it may seem to you. Just be polite and thank your server for their service. Hotel staff also don’t expect a tip, but some staff that work for tourist companies are accustomed to receiving tips so may be grateful to receive a small gratuity. Just be sure to be discreet and place the money in an envelope.
1 Where The Streets Have No Name
Most Japanese streets don’t have names. The system used for postal addresses is complex and idiosyncratic, starting with the prefecture (kind of like a state), then the city or municipality, the district, and then the block (for urban addresses) or the land number (in rural locations).
The spaces in between streets are named and some house numbers are given numbers according to when they were built, but apart from in Kyoto and some Hokkaido cities, most Japanese streets are nameless. Does that clear it up?
References: telegraph.co.uk, businessinsider.com