Weird and wonderful
From parasite museums to cat cafes, Stephen Lacey explores some of Tokyo's wackier attractions
Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation depended for its mastery on a sense of two characters lost together in the alien culture of Japan – a sense that is all-too-easily recreated by undertaking a search for a parasite museum in 38-degree heat and 90 per cent humidity.
There can be few countries on the planet that have such a penchant for strange museums as Japan, and a lot of them are in Tokyo. The city has a laundry museum, where you can look at old clothes dryers and pegs, and one dedicated to socks, where you might get lucky and find that argyle one that went missing in the wash.
A couple of years ago, bathroom-ware manufacturer Toto set up a temporary toilet museum in one of its showrooms (apparently the loos made for sumo wrestlers are super-sized).
Perhaps this museum mania is born from the fact Japanese homes are small and there are few back gardens where a man can keep a shed. All those weird bits and bobs that are elsewhere hidden away in the privacy of a person’s store cupboard – 200 Bulgarian corkscrews, say, or an extensive collection of pre-war English outboard motors – need to be housed somewhere.
That somewhere may as well be a museum, where admission fees can be charged.
So instead of some eccentric keeping his collection of leeches and fleas in a spare room for the benefit of close friends only, he puts them in a three-level office building in Meguro and hangs a museum sign on the door. He sells parasite- themed T-shirts and key chains to make a dollar on the side. The highlight of this museum is a nine-metre long tapeworm, removed from the stomach of a healthy(ish) man and stored in a glass display case. Even at 10.30am, it’s drawing a murmuring crowd. Then there are the rows of formaldehyde-preserved God-knows-what (most of the signs are in Japanese) and a praying mantis infected with horsehair worm. It may just be a bit of gruesome fun, but it’s enough to put the weakstomached off their rice noodles for life.
Next stop: the Tobacco and Salt Museum, in Shibuya, with its display of cigarette packets and cartons from around the world, next to a replica of a tobacco shop staffed by a smiling mannequin.
I think back to long car trips in the Christmas holidays, Mum and Dad puffing Ardath and me having to wear a gas mask in the back seat of the Valiant to avoid the smoke.
“Are you OK?” my wife asks, “You look clammy.”
“I need to get out of here.”
“What about the salt?” “B****r the salt.”
Akihabara was once known as “electric town” for the proliferation of shops selling electronic goods. Over the past five or so years it has become a hub of otaku culture – a celebration of manga (comics) and anime (animation). Here, young folks (called cosplayers) strut around in the costumes of their favourite cartoon characters.
Every floor in an eight-storey department store devoted to otaku is packed with people with way too much time on their hands, buying everything from statuettes of Astro Boy to packets of Pokemon cards. There’s even a rather disturbing display case of Lolita figures in compromising positions.
It’s little surprise that the cafes and restaurants in Tokyo should be as strange as its museums. The Japanese must have decided that food tastes better if served in a themed environment. There’s an Alice in Wonderland restaurant, where you eat perched on oversized furniture; Christon Cafe, which resembles a Catholic Church (you can dine in a confessional); Alcatraz ER, where cocktails are poured through syringes and staff wear the uniforms of doctors and nurses; The Lockup, a restaurant themed around a prison cell and where you can expect to be handcuffed; and a Vampire restaurant full of candelabras, broken mirrors, skulls and a large centrepiece coffin.
Gundam Cafe, near the Japan Rail station in Akihabara, seems relatively tame by comparison. Gundam is a series of children’s cartoons created in the 1970s. They are based on a giant robot fighting a war in the Principality of Zeon. The cafe has a space-age aesthetic, and a huge Gundam model looks down on you while you dine on Gundamshaped cakes and read Gundam manga, or watch Gundam on the big-screen television. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to scoff down a glow-in-the-dark electric-blue ice-cream sundae, the Gundam Cafe is for you.
Cat cafes are another quirk peculiar to Japan, and these bizarre establishments can be found all over Tokyo. The idea is you pay about HK$80 for an hour spent patting pedigree pussies, and perhaps grab a beverage while you are at it.
The 17 moggies that call JaLaLa – little more than a small room in a Akihabara backstreet – home all have cheesy names: Anne the Abyssinian, Bell the Bengal and … well, you get the idea. It must be a good life; they lounge around on the floor being stroked by locals and German backpackers. A sign on the wall states the rules: “No picking up cats! No waking sleeping cats!” No exploration of Tokyo’s unusual eating establishments would be complete without looking in on a maid cafe. This is where the waitresses dress as French maids and refer to their customers as “masters” and “mistresses”, going so far as to weep when you leave.
Maidreamin is Tokyo’s most famous maid cafe, but we are refused entry when a young maid spots my wife’s camera.
“No photos,” she squeaks in a voice that would make Minnie Mouse sound husky.
“Is that your real voice?” I ask.
“Yes,” she squeaks, twirling her parasol.
“Can we come in?” “No.”
And with that we walk away … we still have a ramen noodle theme park to visit.