30 Weird Things That Only Exist in Japan
The world loves Japan for its weirdness, and not without good reason! From futuristic toilets, fanciful maid cafes, miniature capsule hotels, and lightning-fast bullet trains, an unforgettable encounter with the unique and unexpected awaits on almost every street corner! For your daily dose of Japanese charm, here are 30 things that only exist in Japan!
Sep 15 2021 (Sep 01 2022)
1. Vending Machines Are Everywhere
Japan is home to over 4 million vending machines! Most are stocked with a broad selection of sodas and canned coffee, while some of the more intriguing iterations are filled with action figures, umbrellas, soup, milk, natto, art, anime merchandise, beer, cigarettes, and more! For a deeper look, check out our list of 10 off-the-wall vending machines you can find in Japan.
2. Smart Washlet Toilets
Japanese super toilets, known as “washlets,” come equipped with a smorgasbord of high-tech functions. With various backside sprays, water temperature controls, perfumes, and even noise-covering sounds, these toilets of the future put the others to shame. While overwhelming at first, they can be easily handled with a few basic tricks.
3. Limited Edition Kit Kats
While kit kats themselves are entirely normal and enjoyed worldwide, Japan has ramped up the creativity with a whole bunch of exciting, one-of-a-kind flavors unseen anywhere else. While the popular matcha kit kat immediately springs to mind, it’s only scratching the surface! Some of the more unique highlights include yogurt, wasabi, adzuki beans, manju, cheesecake, apple, pudding, and even sake-flavored kit kats!
4. Futuristic Capsule Hotels
Taking “compact” to the next level, capsule hotels are the accommodation of the future! Offering a cheap and cozy place to rest your head amongst the crowded cities of Japan, these sci-fi-esque pods offer a surprisingly comfy, no-frills stay for those just looking to crash. But don’t think you’ll be sacrificing luxury - Japanese capsule hotels are often furnished with shared baths, televisions, entertainment rooms, food service, books, and more! For more information, check out our round up of capsule hotels in Asakusa and Ueno!
5. Lavish Love Hotels
If you ever spot a unique or mysterious hotel displaying prices per hour, you’ve encountered one of Japan’s infamous “love hotels.” Privacy is a rare commodity in Japan, with invasive parents, nosy neighbours, and tiny apartments making bringing someone back to your place a strenuous feat. Love hotels solve these issues, allowing a discreet escape for romantic escapades in the sanctity of absolute privacy. In addition to serving couples, love hotels can also be used as a place to sleep or even as your main accomodation in Japan! Here are our top picks for Tokyo’s best affordable love hotels.
6. Free Tissues Handed Out on the Street
Wander the streets of Japan’s major transit hubs and you'll likely be passed a set of free tissues. Usually displaying a company’s logo and information, this hospitable form of advertising means you’ll rarely want for tissues while touring Japan! Why can’t more companies abroad advertise like this!?
7. Wet Towels Before Meals
While now spotted across the globe, the practice of cleaning one’s hands with a wet towel before a meal is a distinctly Japanese mannerism. Likely placed beside you on the table, “oshibori” wet towels allow one to wipe their hands and freshen up before starting on the main course. Often warmed or cooled to accommodate the season, they are a welcome sight appreciated by many. While it’s tempting to use it as a napkin too (and don’t be ashamed if you really need to), general Japanese etiquette dictates it for hand-use only.
8. Adorable Randoseru Backpacks
Cute yet smart “randoseru” backpacks can be spotted on the backs of Japanese elementary school children as they commute to and from school. Often costing a fortune, they are crafted from high-quality materials such as leather and built tough to survive all 6 years of elementary school. Despite the cutesy appearance, they originated as a European-inspired military backpack commonly seen during the Edo period (1603-1868). In fact, the word randoseru comes from the Dutch word “ransel,” meaning backpack.
9. Kotatsu to Help You Survive the Winter
While Japanese homes largely lack central heating systems and insulated walls, they more than make up for it with the super cozy “kotatsu.” This electric-heated table and blanket combo provides a comfortable and energy-efficient way to survive the Japanese cold - although you’ll have endless trouble getting up!
10. Blue Traffic Lights
Drivers in Japan stop on red and go on...blue? As the Japanese language traditionally made little distinction between the colors green and blue, the word “ao,” translating as “blue” in English, was and still often is used to describe both blue and green. While modern Japanese also uses the word “midori” to describe green, the remnants of this culture have remained, most notably in the traffic light system. According to the standards set by the International Commission on Illumination, the color of the Japanese traffic light is technically a shade of green that is extremely close to blue. Interestingly enough, the first traffic lights in Japan officially had “green (midori)” lights according to law, however, many publications and people at the time began to refer to them as blue (ao), leading to the official definition eventually being changed from green to blue to reflect common opinion.
11. Otoshi Dishes You Didn't Order
Pre-meal “otoshi” dishes are essentially compulsory appetizers, acting as a sort of cover charge along with a supplement to whet appetites and bridge the gap between the main meal. As they’re often pre-prepared and ready to go, you can expect the waiter to whip out the otoshi almost immediately, sometimes even before you’ve ordered! Popular otoshi includes spicy octopus, offal stew, edamame beans, potato salad, and more. Study up on our Japanese izakaya guide to prepare yourself for any other surprises!
12. Name Plates on Houses
Have you ever seen a Japanese address? Confusing right! Maze-like ancient roads rendered many of Japan’s street systems messy and bewildering, making individual street names almost totally redundant. Instead, neighborhoods are split up into individual blocks known as “chome,” forcing houses on different streets to share an almost identical address. To solve mail issues and help guests track down the right place, the use of personalized “hyosatsu” name plates has become the norm. Often affixed near a letter box or doorway, hyosatsu display the homeowner’s surname either in Japanese characters or the English alphabet. While most are simple and cheap, others are expensive and extravagant, serving as a kind of status symbol.
13. Cute and Kooky Yuru-kyara
“Yuru-kyara” are Japanese mascots used to promote towns, regions, tourist attractions, products, and more. Ranging from cute and funny to downright bizarre, they can be found across all corners of the country. Two of the most iconic Yuru-kyara are NHK’s mascot Domo-kun and Kumamon from Kumamoto Prefecture (seen above), who are both known worldwide. While often hit or miss, the influence and money behind them is not to be underestimated - Kumamon alone brought in 124.4 billion extra yen for Kumamoto in just two years!
14. Stunning Rice Paddy Art
Made famous by the town of Inakadate in Aomori, rice paddy illustrations are a form of natural art regularly displayed between June and October. Made by manually planting differently colored strains of rice to form a picture when viewed from above, this painstaking art form kicked off in 1993 as a promotion campaign for a brand of rice. It has since blossomed into a local tradition, with previous iterations including jaw-droppingly intricate pictures of Audrey Hepburn, Godzilla, Marilyn Monroe, Star Wars, and more.
15. All-You-Can-Drink Alcohol!
Japan’s omnipresent all-you-can-drink alcohol (nomi-hodai) courses are designed for friends and coworkers to have a good time without fear of running up the check. With some as cheap as 3,000 yen (including food) for 2+ hours of free-flowing beer, wine, cocktails, sours, and more, it’s a hard bargain to pass by! All-you-can-drink courses are generally not for people dining alone, so you’ll need to get a group together before giving it a try.
16. Purikura - A Real Life Photoshop Experience
Once again, Japan has taken something simple and transformed it into a technological wonder! This time it’s the humble photo booth, which has received an extravagant upgrade in the form of “purikura.” This enhanced photography experience boasts make-up, skin tone, eye-widening, weight loss and other effects to make you look like a celebrity...or an alien. You can also digitally add colorful stickers, notes, and dates to your photos, which will be instantly printed out multiple times to share and bring back home. For the extra curious, here are 10 facts you probably didn't know about purikura.
17. Toilet Slippers
Toilet slippers are a specialized bathroom-only pair of indoor slippers providing a welcome barrier between you and the bathroom floor. Alongside Japanese homes, they are most often encountered in ryokan inns, traditional restaurants, and chaya teahouses. Not all Japanese households have them, so don’t be surprised if you occasionally have to go barefoot.
18. Automatic Taxi Doors
Taxi drivers in Japan can automatically open and close the doors to their vehicle via a remote control panel, providing an additional bit of customer service to make the entire process smoother for all. A common surprise for first-timers to Japan, this technology came into popularity during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to reduce the need for taxi drivers to be constantly stepping out of their car. While it’s perfectly fine to open and close the doors yourself, why waste the effort! For more taxi etiquette, check out our tips on riding taxis in Japan.
19. A Mountain of Energy Drinks!
In a society that runs on overtime, energy drinks are big business in Japan! Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores are packed with tantalizing energy drinks often taking the shape of small, medicine-like tonics brimming with vitamins and nutrients. One of the most popular is Lipovitan D by Taisho Pharmaceuticals, which is loaded with taurine, vitamin B, caffeine, and inositol, giving drowsy workers or sleepless partiers a powerful kick of life. There are also lemon and orange-flavored vitamin C supplements, jelly sipping-packs with vitamins and minerals, and turmeric tonics to prevent hangovers!
20. Wearing Masks Is Common
While the outbreak of COVID-19 has normalized mask-wearing across the globe, it’s nothing out of the ordinary in Japan. Whether you’re sick, taking the train, lacking makeup, looking tired, or just trying to survive pollen season, Japan has a deeply embedded culture of mask etiquette. Looking around the streets nowadays, you’ll seldom see anyone without a mask, and even after the effects of COVID-19 wear off, it’s unlikely to change.
21. Drinking in Public Is A-OK
While stringent open container and public intoxication laws have all but banned public drinking in many countries, Japan is quite the opposite. You’ll see travelers purchasing beer for the train, college students gathering for drinks in parks, and even impromptu street parties in nightlife districts like Shibuya and Roppongi! While this would be nightmarish in many other countries, Japanese manners prevent most from going overboard, making the streets fun and safe places to be no matter the time.
22. Super Speedy Bullet Train Cleaning
Made famous by the 7-minute miracle video (above), Japan’s celebrated bullet trains are miraculously cleaned, sanitized, and prepped for the next trip in under 10 minutes by a crew of tireless dedicated workers. While such a feat would be a logistical nightmare for most countries, Japan’s bullet trains are in a league of their own!
23. Free Footbaths to Warm Your Feet
Free public footbaths, known as “ashi-yu” in Japanese, are dotted across many of Japan’s hot spring villages and elsewhere, providing a place to warm up and rest tired feet in the pristine waters of natural hot springs. Just take your shoes off, pop them in, and relax! Don’t forget to bring a towel though - there’s nothing worse than socks with wet feet!
24. Fake Display Food to See What You’re Getting
Restaurants in Japan will often display realistic plastic models of their dishes to entice passersby and flaunt what’s on offer. A big help for those lacking language skills, these plastic delights often adorn the windows of Japanese, Chinese, and family restaurants to make the time-consuming task of choosing where to eat straightforward. It’s no surprise this practice has spread overseas!
25. Two Valentine's Days?
Complementing the original Valentine’s Day, Japan celebrates romance again a month later on White Day (March 14). As a general rule, women will give chocolates on February 14 while men will return the favor on White Day - usually in a larger size! In addition to your special someone, cheaper chocolates are often handed out to coworkers and friends in a tradition known as “giri choco,” literally meaning “obligation chocolate.”
26. (Almost) No Trash Cans
Japan’s lack of trash cans in public spaces is a puzzling contradiction in this land of ultra-convenience. Those that can be found generally accommodate vending machines and are limited to cans and plastic bottles. While Japan once had more trash cans, many were removed as part of counter-terrorism efforts after the Tokyo subway attack in 1995. While it can be annoying, think of it as an incentive to reduce your environmental impact!
27. Anime Cafes and Restaurants
Pokemon, Hello Kitty, One Piece, Sailor Moon, Doraemon, and more, anime and character cafes inspired by Japan’s favourite franchises are dotted all across Tokyo and other major cities. With cleverly designed cakes, drinks, ice-cream, pancakes, and other delights imitating the colors and styles of beloved characters, these cafes are an otaku dreamland! While some are open all year round, many are seasonal events set up for a limited time only, so don’t wait around if you find one you like!
28. Maid/Butler Cafes
Maid and butler cafes are the epitome of “weird Japan!” Often found on the streets of Tokyo’s otaku hub of Akihabara, patrons can enjoy the service of impeccably-dressed Japanese maids and butlers as they entertain with songs, dances, and performances. The food is also super cute, covered with sauce illustrations of cats, love hearts, and more, taking “kawaii” to the next level.
29. Luxurious Fruits Over $100!?
Costing upwards of 15,000 yen (approx. $140 USD) a pop, Japan’s iconic square watermelons are far from an everyday treat - and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Some of Japan’s most expensive fruits include the jet-black Densuke Watermelon, which has sold for a record price of 650,000 yen (approx. $6,000 USD), along with the ping-pong ball sized Ruby Roman grapes, which start around 40,000 yen (approx. $365 USD) a bunch. But what makes them so costly? And who would actually pay that much for fruit? All the answers lay in our guide to expensive fruit in Japan!
30. Themed Trains
Japan’s themed trains spice up travel with unique decor, fun activities, and exciting tie-ins to beloved franchises. Highlights include the Genbi Shinkansen, which is filled with installations by prominent artists inspired by the surrounding scenery of Niigata, along with the Toreiyu Tsubasa, which offers a footbath and viewing window to take in the gorgeous scenery of Fukushima and Yamagata in peak comfort. There are also anime and game-inspired trains, such as “Pokémon with You” in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, along with others featuring wood fireplaces, playgrounds, kotatsu seating, gourmet meals, sake tasting courses, open-roofs, and more! Make your journey as thrilling as the destination with these 10 unique trains you can ride in Japan.
Excitement Around Every Corner!
Making ordinary things fun and special - that’s what Japan is all about! No matter how many times you visit, a fresh dose of exhilarating Japanese culture awaits! While often a little shocking at first, once you get over the initial surprise, you’ll realize just how wonderful and essential most of these items actually are. In fact, many leave Japan wondering how they’ll ever survive without them! Use this list as a guide to start uncovering “weird Japan” and ramp up the excitement on your next Japan adventure!
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Top picture: EQRoy / Shutterstock
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.