Japan is known for a lot of wonderful things. There are the beautiful cherry blossoms in the spring, majestic Mount Fuji, and a royal family whose illustrious lineage stretches back thousands of years. But then there are the other things. The weird things. The rumors that are so bizarre you kind of wonder if they are true or not. Usually they do turn out to be true, because Japan has taken weirdness and made it a national pastime.
That means Japan has a lot of crazy things you can’t find in other countries. Sure, now that the world is so connected, sometimes the weirdness seeps out a little bit, but in general, Japan is home to plenty of bizarre things that only show up there. Just walking down a regular street can be a voyage of discovery into the weird and wonderful. Here are some of the very esoteric things you can find almost exclusively in Japan.
Stores where you can buy human contact
The Japanese are in the middle of a love drought. Young people in particular have stopped bumping uglies, and say finding relationships is "too much trouble." But it’s human nature to seek affection, so in 2012 a brand-new type of business opened in Tokyo’s electronics district. Soineya, according to Japan Today was the first-ever "sleep together shop." Yep, that’s monetized physical affection.
But not like that. The whole thing was much more innocent, as the store’s webpage described the service as: "the simple and ultimate comfort of sleeping together with someone." Like, literally sleeping. For a few thousand yen, customers (okay, male customers) could sleep in bed with a beautiful woman. He could shell out more money for extras, like putting his head on her lap, petting her hair, or staring at each other. The kinkiest stuff on offer were a foot massage or the woman changing clothes (presumably not in front of the customer.)
The service was apparently "quite popular," according to Japan Info, and by 2019 there were more cuddle cafes. Seen as a legitimate stress-reliever for office workers, the service even became equal opportunity. At the Rose Group, women can "rent" men for a quick two-hour nap, all the way up to a full 48-hour boyfriend rental (as long as you don’t expect any intimate contact with your fake boyfriend.) These cuddle cafes won’t help Japan’s plummeting birth rate, but at least people are getting a bit of human contact.
The suggestive Kanamara Matsuri festival
Shinto is Japan’s original, nature-worshiping religion. And whenever you get belief systems that are in tune with the natural world, there will be fertility festivals. Shinto’s is Kanamara Matsuri and it’s centered around a town just outside Tokyo. According to Buzzfeed News, the festival originated from a legend of a demon that hid in a woman’s privates and bit off anything that went inside. This was a problem for the women’s various husbands. Finally, a blacksmith made a steel member, the demon broke its teeth, and the blacksmith and the woman lived happily ever after. The town’s Shinto shrine celebrated this tale with a large representation of the steel tallywhacker, and over the centuries people with STDs or fertility problems would come ask it for help.
The Independent says "the tradition was lost in the 1800s," but a priest brought the festival back in the 1970s. It was a relatively tiny gathering for decades, but now it draws more than 50,000 people every April. Many of them are foreigners, there to enjoy the sight of statues of giant male genitalia being paraded through the streets. There are vendors selling absolutely everything shaped like, well, you know, from candles to hats to vegetables. It’s attended by grandmothers, children, and crossdressers. The festival is marketed as LGBT-positive and non-discriminatory, as well as still holding some religious significance. These days, the money raised helps to fund HIV research. But more than anything, it’s a party celebrating the peen.
Vending machines that sell absolutely everything
Japan is absolutely chock-full of vending machines. According to Tech In Asia, as of 2014, there were 3.8 million "automatic sales" machines in the country, or about one for every 33 citizens. That number doesn’t even include slight variations on the vending machine, like change dispensers or those ones that spit out toys in the little plastic bubbles.
Vending machines in Japan sell a huge range of stuff, including newspapers, hygiene products, and drinks. But even those normal categories manage to shock international tourists, since beer and sake can be purchased just like you would a soda.
However, the most infamous Japanese vending machine offering is a lot crazier than that. Also not included in the official numbers are machines that sell young women’s underwear. Used underwear. While this sounds too out there even for Japan, Snopes verifies it’s true. The clothing is extremely expensive, and the more used the pricier it is. Of course, there is no way to verify who wore it or for how long.
The machines seem to have appeared first in 1993, and there was a huge outcry against them, but they weren’t breaking any laws. Obviously, no one had foreseen anything so gross. Finally, some businessmen were charged with selling antiques without a license (the idea being the underwear qualified since it was second-hand), and the machines allegedly went away. But if you go looking for them in Japan today, you can still find them in seedy areas.
A serious mayonnaise obsession
Mayonnaise went mainstream in Japan in 1925, according to The Japan Times. Toichiro Nakashima lived in the United States for a bit, and decided the way to make young people in his country grow as tall as those in the West was to get them to eat mayo. He mixed up the recipe a bit, adding more eggs and some apple vinegar for a sweeter taste. Then he started the Kewpie Corporation and Japanese mayonnaise was born. It became an absolute obsession in the country.
It took some work, though. Since the Japanese usually ate cooked or preserved vegetables that weren’t conducive to being dipped in mayo, Kewpie was marketed as more of a seafood condiment. From there, it started showing up as a regular ingredient in literally everything. Sora News 24 says the Japanese rarely sit down to a meal without a mayonnaise-based dish on the table. You’ll find it on meat, noodles, and sushi. Cakes can have mayo in the batter, the icing, or both. Pizza is regularly doused in mayonnaise, with it included as a standard topping on most Domino’s offerings. Kabuki Shojo claims it gets even weirder, with mayo-flavored potato chips and ice cream, and even mayonnaise-rimmed margaritas. It’s such a beloved condiment, numerous restaurants are themed around the ingredient.
The distinct mayo is cited as one of the foods most missed by expats, and visitors to Japan often fall in love and bring bottles of the stuff back home with them.
Iconic elevator girls in department stores
In 1929, a department store in Tokyo reopened after an extensive renovation. According to the anthropology blog Savage Minds, new features meant to tempt shoppers through the doors included air conditioning, a post office, and pretty young women running the elevators. The latter became iconic.
Is Japan Cool? reports the store’s elevators were originally run by men, but the job quickly became one of the most coveted for Japanese women, which is not surprising considering their limited career prospects in general. It didn’t matter where in the country they came from, because they were all taught an "intentionally fake," high-pitched way of speaking in the standard Tokyo dialect. While foreigners often find their voices annoying, they’re meant to carry easily through a loud, crowded store, as well as be a clear indication that while they might be young, pretty, and trapped in an elevator with you, they are not there to be chatted up.
More stores added elevator girls, although today they are an "endangered species." Guidable lists only four Japanese department stores that still employ them. The women wear smart uniforms with hats and gloves, push the floor buttons for customers, make sure no one gets trapped in the doors, and answer any visitor questions. They often show up in various media like films, cartoons, comics, even a popular 2006 McDonald’s commercial. The elevator girls are considered an important part of Japan’s tradition of hospitality, and a piece of cultural history worth saving.
A culture that encourages sleeping on the job
Japan was in the middle of an economic boom in the 1980s. They became proud of how hard they worked, according to the BBC, with one ad slogan from the time extolling the virtues of working for 24 hours straight. That bubble may have burst, but the attitude of working yourself into the ground is still there. Somewhat counterintuitively, this means workers want to be seen sleeping on the job.
Inemuri, or "sleeping while present," has been practiced in Japan for at least a thousand years, reports The New York Times. The idea is you’re working so hard, you absolutely must nap. The Japanese also consider it a form of multitasking, so you still get credit for attending a meeting even if you fall asleep in it. You’re showing commitment to what’s important, rather than leaving just because you need 40 winks. The Culture Trip says that not sleeping at work could even make you look bad. Your boss might encourage quick naps, or you might fake it just to be seen sleeping when you aren’t tired, because it means you are pushing yourself like crazy.
People sleep in public as well (Japan’s low crime rate means they are unlikely to be robbed), but there are rules. Manspreading is a no-no, as you should always try to nap in a compact position so you’re not disturbing others. Women are also expected to avoid sleeping in an "unbecoming" position, because sexism is ridiculous.
Pushers shoving commuters into packed trains
The trains in Japan are a big deal. Their technology is some of the most advanced in the world, and millions of people take advantage of it. They are also disturbingly punctual. NPR reports in 2018, a company offered an official apology when one of their trains left 25 seconds early, saying, "The great inconvenience we placed upon our customers was truly inexcusable." And if a train is ever delayed commuters are given a certificate to present to their boss, explaining it wasn’t their fault they were a whopping five minutes late to work.
This emphasis on punctuality means the trains absolutely cannot wait around while stragglers slowly work their way into a carriage. In Tokyo especially, trains and subway lines are jam-packed during rush hour, and with so many people looking to get to work or school, they sometimes need a bit of help boarding the train. CNN says thankfully, polite, white-gloved "oshiya" are there to assist. When a carriage is already full to bursting and the last couple people on the platform are having trouble getting on, the oshiya come along and shove them in as hard as they can.
Also known as "pushers," for obvious reasons, these helpers are legitimate employees just trying to help. If the crush is so bad that one pusher isn’t enough, another couple will come along to assist. It’s a surreal but effective solution to the overcrowding problem, and lets all trains depart on time.
Beer cans for the visually impaired
Unlike America, where basically the only drinks sold in cans are beer and soda, Japan loves to throw any beverage into aluminum. (This makes it easier to sell in the ubiquitous vending machines, after all.) There are canned juices, every type of coffee you can think of, and even more esoteric stuff. This isn’t an issue if you have the use of your sight, but if you are blind, suddenly you have eight different types of canned drinks in your fridge and no way to tell them apart. In the morning, when you are all groggy and reach for a canned coffee, you don’t want to make a mistake and end up with a mouthful of refreshing, but decidedly inopportune, beer.
In an attempt to be more accessible to the visually impaired, Japan’s beer brewers recognized the problem and decided to do something about it. According to VinePair, that solution was a Braille warning on the top of the cans indicating that they contain alcohol. While all the cans have something, there’s no uniformity: some says "beer," others say "alcohol," and a couple just have the brand name.
In a country where many individuals have a genetic allergy to booze, known as an "alcohol flush reaction," the ability to know what they’re drinking before they take a swig can actually stop blind people getting sick, or at least uncomfortable, so it’s extremely helpful.
Linguistically confusing blue traffic lights
In virtually every country in the world, there is a very simple constant on the road. It doesn’t matter if you are driving on the right or the left: when you get to traffic lights, red means stop, and green means go. But in Japan, you’ll see lights with a distinctly bluish tinge. If you ask what color they are, you’ll find out the Japanese called them "ao," which literally means blue.
According to Atlas Obscura, this comes down to a weird issue with the Japanese language. Originally, they only had words for four colors: blue, black, red, and white. Everything we’d consider green was covered by their word for blue. A distinct term for green is a "new" addition to the language, showing up around 794-1185 AD. This means there’s a holdover for calling green things blue, like Granny Smith apples. When green traffic lights showed up in Japan in the 1930s, everyone started calling them blue.
Over time, this became a problem. Linguists were driven to distraction by the incorrect usage, and it was confusing to international drivers. The Japanese faced pressure to start calling green lights green just like everyone else in the world. But instead of changing their language, they changed the color of the traffic lights. A law passed in 1973 said that all traffic lights had to be "the bluest shade of green possible." That way calling them blue is technically accurate and no one can get mad.
Fruit that costs more than a car
American supermarkets are overflowing with cheap fresh fruit, which most people still don’t manage to eat the recommended amount of. But in Japan, fruit isn’t taken for granted like that.
According to Reader’s Digest, the Japanese see fruit as a special treat. The history of Buddhists in the country leaving gifts of fruit for the gods means it’s treated with respect, and fruit is also considered an important part of human-to-human gift-giving. That’s not as miserly as it sounds, because in Japan even basic fruits are stupidly expensive. It can get so pricey, families will often split a single fruit between everyone, rather than each have their own.
But their love has gotten a bit out of hand. "Bruised and misshapen" fruit never makes it to Japanese supermarket shelves. As if that’s not enough, high-end fruit stores sell luxury produce, where a single apple can cost $24. The king of Japanese fruits is the muskmelon, which will see you shell out $125. The price sounds a little less crazy when you learn about the labor-intensive process needed to grow one, including selecting only the best seeds, pollinating the flowers by hand with a paintbrush, and massaging the fruit so its skin glows.
And there’s a level up even from that. Watermelons grown in special shapes can run $1,500. And in 2016, a pair of Yubari King melons went for $27,000 at auction. So stop complaining about eating your five a day.
Nameless streets with misnumbered houses
Most countries have a very simple way of locating an address. Sure, your GPS might lead you into a lake every now and then, but basically, it’s easy. There is a street name and a street number. Those numbers are in order, even if evens are on one side and odds on the other. It’s not that hard to figure out.
Japan apparently decided that simplicity is no fun, which makes finding an address there a comically difficult process. According to Japan Info, most roads in the country don’t even have names. Because many streets in Japan are so old, there is no grid system layout; instead there can be small, twisty lanes without signs, that intersect and veer off in bizarre ways. It can feel like being in a maze.
The address will also be the opposite to what most people are used to. Instead of going from specific to broader (number to street to town, etc.) it goes broad to specific. But once you finally find the right street, you should be fine if you know the number you are looking for, right? Wrong. Japan also decided that buildings should be honored by age, not location. The first or oldest building on a street gets the lowest number, and the second oldest gets the next number, and so on. That means if you are looking for number 17, it might be found in between number 2 and number 38, completely illogically.