Japan is beautiful, serene, and dignified, but it can also be one of the most weird and wonderful places on the planet. Let’s take a look.
Japan is an unforgettable country and high on the list of dream destinations for millions of people around the world. It also has a reputation for being a little different from everywhere else. By that, we mean the weird and wonderful side of Japanese culture. While some of this can be put down to simple cultural differences and other aspects can be written off as cliched generalisations about the country and its people, there are also lots of genuine examples of Japan’s wacky personality, unbridled imagination, and sense of fun. We’ll take you through our recommendations for ten of the weirdest and most wonderful Japanese experiences, activities, sights to see, and places to visit, and how to get there with the JR Pass.
Top Ten Weird and Wonderful Sights and Activities in Japan
1. Eat at a robot restaurant
Japan is known for its futuristic mega cities and advanced technology. It’s also known for being quirky and fun. Tokyo’s world-famous Robot Restaurant brings all of that together in one place with dancing robots, cosplay, J-Pop, and neon lights, to create a unique and unforgettable night out that’s half meal and half entertainment extravaganza. The restaurant is located in the vibrant area of Shinjuku - one of Tokyo’s most famous districts. Read our Travellers Guide to Shinjuku for much more on this brilliantly wild and wacky area.
2. Take part in real-life Mario Kart
Loved by millions of gamers around the world, Mario Kart is one of Nintendo’s biggest franchises and now you can take to the streets in actual go-karts and race around dressed as your favourite Mario Kart characters from Mario and Luigi to Bowser, Peach, and Toad. The races are organised and run by Street Kart Tokyo Bay using the name MariCAR. One thing to bear in mind is that you’ll need an international driver’s licence to compete. For more on Nintendo, read our guide to Japan for Gamers, Otaku, J-Culture Fans, and our feature on the Super Nintendo World theme park in Japan.
3. Journey to Hell Valley
The gateway to Hell can be found in Japan - well, not really, but it certainly looks hellish. Noboribetsu City - famous for its onsen hot springs - lies on the south coast of Hokkaido, roughly halfway between Sapporo and Hakodate. Of the many hot springs that supply water to Noboribetsu Onsen, several come from an area called Jigokudani. This vast area lies just above the town and is a hot bed for volcanic activity that has left it looking like a bleak, alien landscape. Hissing vents, a lingering smell of sulphur, and a barren landscape have earned this attraction the nickname Hell Valley. For more on visiting this area read our guide to Noboribetsu and Visiting Hell Valley.
4. Learn the history of cup noodles
The Ando Momofuku Hatsumei Kinenkan museum or cup noodles museum is dedicated to the history of instant ramen noodles - something more commonly known in the West as a ‘pot’ noodle. You may find it amazing that there is a whole building dedicated entirely to cup noodles, but this interactive museum in Yokohama is a major tourist attraction with lots to offer. There’s also a cup noodle museum in Osaka. Read our guide to Visiting the Cup Noodle Museum for everything you need to know.
5. Stop off the parasite museum
Not for the faint-hearted and probably more weird than wonderful, the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo houses 60,000 specimens of parasites, including tapeworms as large as 8.8metres and a severed turtle’s head filled with bugs - yikes! Truly a unique and weird museum experience.
6. Explore post-apocalyptic ruins on ghost island
Used as a location for films from James Bond to Battle Royal, the enigmatic ruins of Hashima, Nagasaki, is known as ‘ghost island’. A former mining colony, parts of the island reopened in 2009 as a unique sightseeing destination for tourists, this spectacular and ominous location is like exploring a post-apocalyptic future or desolate alien planet. For more on ghost island’s appearances in the movies, check out our guide to Japan on Film. As a bonus tip, another chilling destination (and definitely on the weird side) is Nagoro, otherwise known as the ‘doll village’. Here, the declining population - less than 40 people live there - have been replaced by life-size dolls created by an artist to repopulate the town. When a resident dies, a new doll is created and installed in the town. It really is like a real-life horror movie.
7. Unique food experiences
Japan is a noted paradise for food lovers and while many of its incredible delicacies and dishes have become world-famous and relatively common place in the West, such as Sushi and Wagyu beef, it is also home to more unusual food favourites such as black eggs hard-boiled in sulphurous volcanic sand or Mr. Kanso - a famous Japanese restaurant that only serves canned food! Rather than choosing food from a menu, you take cans from the walls and use plastic cutlery to eat it. Much of what Western visitors find unusual about eating out in Japan is actually to do with etiquette. For example, to noisily slurp the broth from a bowl of noodles is considered good manners in Japan rather than bad. For more on food etiquette read our guide to Japanese Table Manners. Other interestingly different food experiences in Japan include the abundance of vending machines (more than five million stocking everything from bananas to lobster), KFC for Christmas dinner, and the fact that food on trains is actually good - in fact there’s a whole culinary movement around it. Read our Guide to Ekiben: The best train food you’ll ever have for more information.
8. Visit Japan’s animal islands
If a country had one island off its shores filled with cute animals roaming freely that would be impressive enough, but Japan has several. From rabbit islands to cat islands, if you’re an animal lover and you’re in the mood for a day trip with a difference then these islands could be for you. Okunoshima is Japan’s famous and mysterious ‘rabbit island’. With a population of more than 1,000 rabbits across the small island, which is covered with overgrown ruins and walking trails, it makes a fascinating place to visit and explore, especially if you’re an animal lover. To get there from JR Hiroshima Station, travel via JR Mihara Station using your Japan Rail Pass to JR Tadanoumi Station. It’s then a short ferry ride from the station to Rabbit Island. Read our guide to Visiting Okunoshima for more.
Not to be outdone, wild cats have also taken over an island in Japan - Aoshima in southern Japan where kitties outnumber humans six to one! There’s also Tashirojima in Miyagi which is also overrun by cats. As well as these islands, Japan also has the likes of Nara Deer Park, Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, where you’ll see Japanese Macaques lounging in the hot springs (a weird and wonderful sight in itself!), and numerous sealife wonders such as the Ishigaki Manta Scramble. For more animal experiences off the beaten track, read our Wildlife Tour of Japan.
9. Attend a traditional festival
Japan loves festivals and traditional matsuri are a very important part of Japanese culture. There are thousands right across Japan and while they range from serious and sober to happy and joyful affairs, there are also a few which are decidedly different. Three of the more unusual ones are Hadaka Matsuri (the naked festival), Nada no Kenka Matsuri (the fighting festival), and last but not least, Kanamara Matsuri (the festival of the steel phallus - yes really!). The infamous and light-hearted ‘Penis Festival’ (as it is also sometimes known) takes place every year during April in Kawasaki. Although the unusually shaped floats may generate a few smiles, the meaning behind this festival is actually about the wish to have children, as well as for equality and fair treatment across genders. As such, this matsuri is very popular with the LGBTQ+ community. For more on these events and our top recommendations read our guide to The Top 12 Festivals in Japan.
10. Weird and wonderful accommodation
From capsule hotels and spending the night curled up between bookshelves, to hotels staffed by robots, rooms themed after Hello Kitty, and retreats with Buddhist monks, Japan boasts some of the world’s most interesting, bespoke accommodation. Japan was the originator of the capsule hotel concept, and it remains a quintessentially Japanese experience that’s well worth trying for those in the mood for a different kind of accommodation. The aptly named ‘Capsule Hotel in Osaka’ was the first of its kind in the country in 1979 and spawned a hotel phenomenon that was replicated all over Japan and right around the world. For a detailed guide and our top recommendations for capsule hotels to try, read our article Staying In A Capsule Hotel. On a similar note, a Japanese book hotel is essentially a hotel that’s a combination of bookshop, library, reading room, and accommodation all in one. In some cases, the rooms are essentially capsules between bookshelves and you can lie in bed reading (and surrounded by books) to your heart’s content - truly a book lover’s dream. Japan also boasts the Henn na Hotels chain, which feature state-of-the-art robot hotels around Japan where guests are assisted throughout their stay by anthropomorphic robots. As you can see, Japan has cornered the market on unusual accommodation and there is even more to come in 2022 with the opening of a new hotel in the former Nintendo HQ, Hello Kitty hotel rooms in Kyoto, and more.
As we said above, these are just ten examples of the weird and wonderful things you can get up to in Japan. There are many, many more activities to recommend and sights to see as well as lots of fantastic experiences, which are not necessarily weird or strange, but are certainly unique to Japan and are essential for those wishing to gain an insight into Japanese culture. These include temples and shrines, festivals, flower gazing, tea ceremonies, sumo matches, onsen, staying in a ryokan, the Studio Ghibli Museum (and soon to be opened Ghibli Park) and much more. There are also lots of unique places, particularly districts where you can be transported to the future such as Akihibara’s ‘electric town’, experience Japanese ‘kawaii’ cute style and cosplay culture in Harajuku, or step back in time to the Edo period in one of The Most Beautiful Villages in Japan . Again, not weird but definitely wonderful! Thankfully we have guides to all of this and more for you to read up on before you travel.
- Alongside the weird and wonderful, there’s also off-the-beaten path and remote locations that might similarly appeal to travellers seeking something a little different. Read our guide to The Most Remote Places in Japan.
- Also, how about considering one of Japan’s Lesser Known Cities for your next holiday? You might just discover a fantastic new destination and they could be ideal for those who like less touristy spots.
- Similarly, there are some major cultural experiences in Japan that can be really different for Westerners without being weird. For example, quintessentially Japanese activities like Attending a Sumo Match or bathing in a Japanese Onsen are unique and highly recommended experiences for international visitors.
- For more on Japan’s diverse food options, read our Beginners Guide to Japanese Food and Regional Dishes.
- Prepare yourself for a weird and wonderful trip to Japan by researching our guide to the Five Books To Read Before You Visit Japan.
- Whether it’s weird and wonderful or just a regular holiday to Japan, it’s important to be prepared. This includes staying connected with a Pocket Wifi device, organising extra help with our Meet & Greet Service, and most importantly having a Japan Rail Pass booked for unlimited travel on the country’s trains.