There’s no getting away from the fact that, for all its amazing culture, beautiful scenery and ancient traditions, Japan is a pretty weird place. After all, this is the country that introduced the rest of the world to Takeshi’s Castle, wasabi-flavoured KitKats and capsule hotels. If you’re on a mission to have a truly unique holiday, then here are ten bizarre travel experiences not to be missed.
10. Have lunch at a maid café
Maid cafés have grown in popularity since the early 2000s and there are now more than 200 of them across Japan. They are a typical sight in the Akihabara district of Tokyo and exist to pander to the fantasies of their mainly otaku clientele (obsessive anime and manga fans), many of whom dream of being pampered by an adoring woman.
Push your way through the crowds and sooner or later you’re bound to stumble upon a young, innocent-looking ‘maid’, her kawaii (cute) outfit consisting of frills and bows and possibly a pair of fluffy animal ears. These maids line the busy streets and hand out flyers to lure potential customers into the cafés above.
Once inside, the maids will treat you as their esteemed master or mistress, kneeling to pour your drink and serve you food. You may find this fun and amusing or awkward and exploitative – either’s understandable. In some cafés, customers can play games with the maids, such as Rock Paper Scissors or Karuta, a card game popular with Japanese elementary school students. Others cafés offer services such as back massages, ear cleanings (yes, really) and spoon-feeding, possibly for customers who feel their childhoods were somewhat lacking in maternal affection.
9. Go on a mascot hunt
Japan is obsessed with mascots. These characters represent everything from products and services to geographical areas, with every prefecture in Japan having its own. There are mascots for sports teams, regional foods and even local tax offices. They range from adorable to downright terrifying (see: Meron-kuma, or ‘Melon Bear’, a nightmarish fanged beast with a melon for its head).
Few mascots can rival the giddy success of Kumamon, a rosy-cheeked black bear representing the southern prefecture of Kumamoto. In 2011 he was voted the number one regional mascot in all of Japan and has since achieved widespread fame, generating billions of yen in revenue.
Not all mascots have fared quite so well. It’s estimated that there are around 1500 mascots across the country and some local governments have begun culling the more obscure ones in order to save money. However, even if you only seek out the most popular mascots, by the end of your trip you’ll be weighed down with enough key chains, notebooks and cuddly toys to last a lifetime.
8. Check into a love hotel
There’s a wide range of accommodation to choose from in Japan, from ancient ryokan, opulent western hotels (think Lost in Translation), and cramped but popular capsule hotels. Another interesting option is the love hotel, which sounds a bit dodgy but is (mostly) completely above board.
Japanese homes are typically small and traditionally people have lived with their extended families, making solitude a rare luxury. Love hotels sprang up to cater for young couples looking to get away and spend some quality time together.
A well-known place for love hotels is Shibuya in Tokyo. Set back from the busy streets of this popular shopping district is an area known as ‘Love Hotel Hill’, where a lot of love hotels are clustered together, their entrances discreetly tucked away. Such is the emphasis on privacy that it’s unlikely you’ll see another person throughout your stay. If you do happen to bump into someone in the lobby, they’ll probably avoid eye contact.
Once inside, a touch screen computer will display the available rooms. You have the option of booking a ‘rest’, which allows you to use the room for just a few hours, or a ‘stay’, which lets you check in overnight. Select the room you want and then pay for it at the front desk. You probably won’t see who you’re paying, as they’re often hidden behind a small hatch.
One of the things that sets love hotels apart from other accommodation options is the sheer variety of choice. Rooms may come with Jacuzzis, karaoke machines and arcade games. Many are themed, sometimes catering to quite ‘singular’ tastes, to paraphrase Christian Grey (sorry). The downside is that you can’t usually book in advance, so your best option is to rock up as soon as the hotel opens for the night and hope that the room you want is available.
7. Ski through ‘snow monsters’
Many people don’t realise that Japan is a major destination for winter sports. In fact, it’s hosted two Winter Olympics and has some of the heaviest and most consistent snowfall in the world.
Mount Zao is a volcanic mountain range in northern Japan that straddles the border between Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures. In the winter it becomes one of the most popular skiing and snowboarding resorts in the country, with 15 slopes catering for all abilities.
Winter sports aside, one of the highlights of a trip to Zao is to see the ‘snow monsters’. At the summit, 1600 metres above sea level, you’ll find thousands of massive hunched and contorted white figures. At first, it looks as though some giants have gone mad and built a field of deformed snowmen.
This is actually a phenomenon known in Japanese as juhyo: fir trees covered in snow and ice and battered into weird shapes by freezing winds whistling through from Siberia. You can take a lift to the mountain top and then ski or snowboard your way back down through the monsters, a truly bizarre experience.
6. Visit the entrance to Hell
Way up on the northernmost tip of Japan’s main island, Osorezan is a caldera volcano that still shows signs of activity. Considered one of the three most sacred places in Japan, its name translates literally as ‘Fear Mountain’.
According to popular mythology, this spot marks the entrance to Hell. Under a red bridge, a small stream runs into Lake Usori. The stream is believed to represent the river that the deceased cross on their way to the afterlife, whilst the waters of the lake are poisonous and sustain no life.
Nearby Bodai-ji temple is set in a desolate landscape of scattered grey rocks. Visitors leave colourful piles of children’s clothes and toys in honour of Jizo, who is believed to guard the souls of unborn babies and dead children. As you wander past steaming clouds of sulphur rising from the earth, it’s easy to see how this remote and creepy location got its reputation as a place where the living and the dead converge.
5. Get buried alive
Ever wondered how it feels to be buried alive? On the southern island of Kyushu you can experience this firsthand. Ibusuki is a small seaside town famed for its volcanic sands, which are kept warm by geothermal activity just below the surface. At some point, an enterprising local clearly decided this would be a good way to draw in the tourists, because now crowds of visitors flock here to be buried up to their necks in the ‘sand baths’.
Wrap yourself up in a yukata (a thin cloth robe) and make your way down to the beach, where lined up in rows are a series of pits that look a bit like shallow graves (because, well, that’s basically what they are). As soon as you lie down on your back in one of these pits, you’ll have hot sand shovelled on top of you until you can’t move your limbs. Luckily, your head is left poking out.
It’s recommended that you spend no more than ten minutes buried in the sand, but this rule isn’t enforced so part of the fun is to see how long you can cope with the heat (try not to pass out, though). As you sweat out half your body weight, keep reminding yourself that you’re cleansing yourself of impurities and it’s good for you. This may or may not be true.
4. Watch monkeys taking a bath
In the height of winter, vast areas of Japan are covered under metres of deep snow. There are few options available at this time: hibernate under a pile of blankets, throw yourself down a mountain strapped to a pair of skis, or make the most of the many hot springs (known as onsen) across the country and soak yourself until you resemble a prune.
One troop of Japanese macaques has chosen the latter and become celebrities in the process. Now known internationally as the Japanese ‘snow monkeys’, this semi-wild group spend the winter months hanging around an onsen in Nagano prefecture, popping in and out of the hot water and slipping into a trancelike state as they relax in the steam. Their wrinkled reddish faces already resemble prunes, making it hard to tell exactly how long they’ve spent in the bath.
It’s not often you have the chance to get so close to monkeys without having the bars of a cage in the way, making this a perfect photo opportunity. Alas, everyone else has the same idea so although the onsen is relaxing for the monkeys, it’s less relaxing for the crowds who come to snap selfies with them.
3. Force feed yourself noodles
The rather unfortunately-named wanko soba is a type of noodle from Iwate prefecture in northern Japan. Served in small bowls containing little more than one mouthful of noodles at a time, it represents Iwate’s most famous (and possibly only) food challenge.
The aim is to consume as many bowls of soba as you can. It’s not officially a race, but if you go with a group of friends it will doubtless turn into one. In the city of Morioka, a number of restaurants specialise in wanko soba. You’ll be led to a low table and given a bib and an empty bowl. Your waitress will stand above you, brandishing a tray precariously stacked with lots of small bowls of noodles. She’ll tip one serving into your empty bowl and your job is to slurp it down.
Every time you finish, your waitress will top up your bowl with more noodles. Fifteen small bowls equate to one standard bowl of soba. Around the thirty mark, you’ll probably start to slow down. KEEP GOING. If you pause for too long you’ll lose your momentum. It’s more efficient if you don’t chew. Condiments are provided with the noodles, but ignore them – they’ll take up valuable stomach space.
When you finally decide you can’t handle another mouthful, you need to cover your bowl before it’s refilled again. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, as your waitress will try to sneak in some more noodles before you can grab the lid. Women consume an average of fifty bowls of wanko soba, and men an average of sixty. If you reach 100 bowls you’ll be given a free plaque commemorating your achievement. Once the stomach pain fades, you’ll no doubt look back on this as one of your proudest moments ever.
2. Get naked with strangers
Thanks to all the geothermal activity going on under the ground, Japan has thousands of onsen scattered the length of the country. Their mineral-rich waters are said to help with health complaints ranging from various skin conditions to arthritis, and visiting an onsen is an essential Japanese experience. However, first you’ll need to shed both your inhibitions and clothing, as in the majority of onsen you’re required to bathe naked.
It’s important to wash yourself before entering the bath. Strip off in the changing area and leave your clothes in a basket. Next, sit down on a low stool and take a shower. You may feel a bit self-conscious scrubbing yourself in front of other people, but don’t worry, they’re (probably) not staring at you. Once you’re clean, you can slip into the hot water and soak away your troubles.
Most onsen are single sex, but mixed sex baths do exist for the truly adventurous. Although recent reports have been circulating of a mixed onsen in Tochigi prefecture that had to be closed down due to illicit late night orgies, you’re more likely to find yourself surrounded by a bunch of elderly Japanese farmers of both sexes than in the middle of an adult film shoot. Perhaps a bit less exciting, but it still takes ‘mingling with the locals’ to a whole new level.
1. Parade behind a two metre penis
Komaki is a fairly average Japanese city without a huge number of attractions to tempt tourists away from the bustle of nearby Nagoya. It does, however, have a penis shrine. Yes, you did read that correctly. Penis. Shrine.
Tagata Shrine dates back around 1500 years and houses a female kami, or god, embodying fertility and renewal. The grounds are strewn with phallic rocks and statues, whilst the shrine building contains a selection of wooden members of varying sizes. Ring the penis-shaped bell hanging above the entrance, rub the tip of the nearest statue and say a prayer.
On the 15th March every year, the Tagata Honen Matsuri is a fertility festival involving the procession of a two metre long wooden phallus through the streets. For a day, Komaki bursts into life as thousands of people descend upon the city to buy genital-themed sake cups and wander around sucking penis lollipops.
Amid much cheering and applause, a group of men hoist up the carving and make the kilometre-long journey to Tagata Shrine. The jovial atmosphere is enhanced by the generous pouring of sake, handed out in large quantities by cheerful volunteers. Free alcohol and giant penises: what more could you ask for from a festival?