Not so strange after all: Making sense of 'weird Japan'
You hear it all the time from tourists and journalists visiting for the first time: “Japan is so WEIRD! What’s that all about?”
Different it may be, but as a wise man once said, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
Sure, a lot of Japanese custom seems offbeat when viewed through the lens of a different culture.
Taking potshots is easy. But when you approach things on their own terms, in their own contexts, most of Japan’s supposed “strangeness” transforms into -- well, everything that’s great about the country.
And in that spirit, here’s our list of supposedly “weird Japan” things that just might make your next trip even more fun.
The more you understand this stuff, the less far-fetched most of it seems. Take it from someone who knows -- if being weird is wrong, I don’t want to be right!
1. Bizarre museums
Every major metropolis has its collection of fine art museums, and Tokyo is no exception. But the metropolitan area is also home to a host of privately funded facilities featuring more down-to-earth collections.
Think of these pockets as the fruits of the otaku philosophy -- living examples of how personal obsession can enrich society as a whole.
They’re occasionally very down-to-earth indeed, such as the Meguro Parasitological Museum, which is filled with, well, do we need to spell it out?
Or if you prefer learning about what goes in rather than comes out, there’s the oddly spelled Yokohama Raumen Museum, dedicated to everyone’s favorite cheap noodles.
Or perhaps take a spin round the Kitahara Tin Toy Museum, also in Yokohama, which is bursting with robots, spaceships and ray guns aplenty.
I’d even lump in Kichijoji’s Ghibli Museum, which is run by a big animation company (kind of like Disney), yet surprisingly tastefully done (kind of unlike Disney). Plus, it has a giant robot on the roof.
Meguro Parasitological Museum, 4-1-1 Shimomeguro, Meguro-ku, +81 (0) 3 3716 1264, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, kiseichu.org
Kitahara Tin Toy Museum, 239 Yamate-Cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama, +81 (0) 45 621 8710, 9:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily, www.toysclub.co.jp
Yokohama Raumen Museum, 2-14-21 Shinyokohama, Kohoku-ku, Yokohama, +81 (0) 45 471 0503, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, www.raumen.co.jp
Ghibli Museum, 1-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo, +81 (0) 422 40 2233, www.ghibli-museum.jp
2. Robots and monsters
So, what exactly is it about dudes in giant monster suits that gives Japanese people the warm-and-fuzzies?
Some experts theorize that it’s because the setup is a logical extension of techniques used in kabuki and other traditional arts.
And giant robots? It’s a natural extension of Japan’s seemingly bottomless hunger for cutting-edge technologies from abroad that started way back with the acquisition of kanji from China, firearms from Portugal, modern medicine from Germany and culminating in their defeat at the hands of a high-tech device at the end of World War II. Perhaps.
Japanese are masters of creating characters. So you could say that robots and monsters are anthropomorphic representations of technology and its aftereffects, respectively.
(For those who don’t remember, Godzilla is the product of nuclear testing gone haywire.)
The best places to soak up giant robot and monster culture are right here in Tokyo -- the (admittedly diminutive) statue of Godzilla in Hibya, and the life-sized statue of the anime robot Gundam in Odaiba.
The Godzilla statue can be found in Hibiya Park, map.
Gundam dominates the scenery behind Diver City, 1-1 Oume, Koto-ku, Tokyo, www.divercity-tokyo.com
More on CNNGo: Have your heart warmed at Hayao Miyazaki's Ghibli Museum
3. Backside obsession
Anyone who’s spent any amount of time in Japan knows that its people have a penchant for earthy humor.
Scrolls portraying “farting contests” date back centuries, and portrayals of smiling poops are a common sight in comic books, drugstores and on street signs (really).
The upside of this infatuation with the backside? An open discussion of “toilet topics.”
From the 1600s, through well into the 20th century, the inhabitants of Japan’s major cities actually sold their solid waste products for use as fertilizer, making Edo and its ilk among the cleanest of the world’s cities.
Is it any wonder that this is the country that developed the Washlet?
Yes -- Washlets, with their instrument panels to rival an air-traffic-control station and their frightfully accurate water jets aimed at our nether regions.
They may flummox newcomers at first -- just search Flickr for “Washlet” -- but once you get used to the convenience of warm seats and a full (ahem) undercarriage wash, it’s tough to go back.
And while the openness of Japanese towards discussing bodily functions may strike some as odd, to quote another masterpiece of fine literature, “Everyone Poops,” is it really so weird to be upfront in dealing with the subject?
For the latest and greatest in Washlet technology, don’t miss the Toto Showroom in Shinjuku.
Toto, 26/F Shinjuku L-Tower Building, 1-6-1 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Wednesday, showroom.toto.jp
4. Getting naked with friends
Everyone looks equally silly without clothes on, right? So why get hung up about leaving your dainties on the hangar?
Don’t get the wrong idea. Japan isn’t exactly a nation of nudists -- there’s a time and place for taking off your clothing in front of friends and family.
That place is called the onsen -- the hot spring bathhouses beloved by Japanese and nearly anyone else who’s had the pleasure to use them.
Trips to (gender-segregated, alas) baths are traditional ways to unwind here, which can lead to some nervousness on the part of first-time visitors.
No matter how great they may be as people, most of us don’t want to see our pals, parents, even bosses stark naked. Yet you’d be surprised at how easy it becomes to take it in your stride.
Particularly after a nice hot cup of sake or three, served atop a little float right in the tub at more upscale resorts. C’mon, we all start lives in our birthday suits.
And once you’ve worked through your cultural squeamishness about baring it all in the onsen, you can earn your wings by participating in one of Japan’s Hadaka Matsuri -- naked festivals! If you’re a guy, anyway. Again with the segregation, huh?
More on CNNGo: Best Tokyo onsen
No article about “weird Japan” would be complete without at least a mention of the nation’s pornography scene -- by strange turns simultaneously repressed and vibrant.
Repressed in the sense that, thanks to postwar moralizing by American occupiers, Japanese porn is required by law to blot out images of genitalia with a digital mosaic effect. Pretty ironic for a culture that takes nudity in full stride.
On the other hand, a refreshing lack of religious taboos regarding sex for pleasure means anything else is absolutely fair game. Anything ...
Which gives us the mind-bending world of Japanese “pink” publications.
Movies, cartoons and more, where it’s illegal to show simple intercourse between man and woman but is perfectly kosher to openly showcase nearly any other off-the-wall sexual behavior or fluid exchange you can think of (and undoubtedly more than a few you can’t.)
A trip through a large Japanese porn store is like a tour through the depths of the human id.
You will undoubtedly learn more about the human animal and its strange proclivities here than in a year of collegiate psychology studies.
And consider this. While may be fun to point fingers at the often strange world of Japanese pornography from the safety of abroad, one has to ask: Who’s really weirder -- those who satisfy their urges, or those too embarrassed to embrace their inner freaks?
Akihabara is your one-stop shop for Japanese pornography. For starters try Lammtarra, a mini-skyscraper of pornography.
Like many Japanese adult shops, the first floor sells a halfhearted selection of mainstream films for a veneer of respectability.
But take the stairs one flight up and the real adventure begins, with fetishes organized by floor. You have been warned.
Lammtarra, 1-5-2 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, +81 (0) 3 5207 5656, 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m. daily, www.lammtarrashop.com
More on CNNGo: Japan’s porn stars make their way in the real world