There he is, his head and hand protruding from the side of the Toho Cinema in Tokyo’s neon Shinjuku district. He roars again, blue flames spewing from his gaping mouth.
A minute later, he’s done. It’ll be another hour before he starts up again. As with all timed events in Japan, you can set your watch by him.
Imagine if in Sydney, you heard a roar and saw a giant mutant echidna clinging to the side of a building on George Street, or an enormous fibreglass Paul Hogan hanging from the Harbour Bridge. It’d be weird, right?
For outsiders, Japan is full of weird. Every product has a smiling mascot, every shop has some kind of light show designed to attract you. There’s a restaurant staffed by robots, owl cafes, and Hello Kitty traffic cones.
It’s overwhelming, exhausting, and very amusing, intentionally or not.
On the main street of the so-called Electric City of Akihabara in central Tokyo, I notice a poster on the side of a skyscraper depicting an anime girl’s bottom. Imagine if you saw that in Australia: a bum on the side of a building. It could be selling underpants and there’d still be outrage.
The city of Yokohama is home to the Ramen Museum. Of course it is.
And inside this ramen museum is a mock-up of Tokyo as it looked in the 1950s, ramen’s boom time. Okay, why not?
You can visit one of six ramen restaurants, buy ramen-themed gifts from a little shop – and get animal-shaped lollies crafted from molten candy before your eyes.
Sure you can.
In the gift shop proper, there’s a timeline of notable ramen events throughout history. You can buy an assortment of ramen utensils. There are in-house cup noodles for sale, featuring a cartoon fish and a chicken in sunglasses.
And up the back, there’s a fully-functioning slot car track.
Of course there is.
It’s easy to laugh and think “wtf so random”, but it isn’t random. Out of context it’s strange, sure, but it’s never really out of context. Visitors to Japan find themselves presented with a world so familiar in culture, yet so inscrutably foreign in nature that it’s hard to insert themselves into it.
Context comes through understanding, but for those not willing to make the effort, that’s impossible.
That said, it’s a little harder to explain Kawasaki’s Warehouse Arcade.
The imposing building is old and rusty, standing out in the otherwise gleaming city. The entrance slides open, and I make my way down an intensely red hallway. Already, I feel like I’m in a film.
Another door slides open, and I emerge into a painstakingly detailed reconstruction of Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong.
The Walled City, which was demolished in 1993, probably contained a video game arcade or two. This arcade just happens to contain the Walled City.
The Kowloon side of the arcade is full of games from the 1980s. The authenticity and detail are staggering: flyers stuck to walls, signs, bottles, roast ducks in shopfronts, even television shows playing to mannequins in mock-up apartments.
Okay, this is weird.
In the back, the decor and games are more contemporary. Upstairs, there’s ping-pong, pachinko and darts.
But nobody’s coming here for that. If you’re here, it’s because you want to visit ’80s Kowloon.
In today’s Kawasaki.
Of course you do.
I intend for my visit to the Vincent Van Gogh/Paul Gauguin exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum to be a respite from all the weird. Largely, the sombre exhibit fits the bill.
At the exit, I’m surprised to see capsule vending machines selling miniature versions of the artworks. There’s something about being offered a mini-Sunflowers in a tiny frame that kind of cheapens the entire experience…yet people are climbing over each other to get them.
Of course they are.
Getting there: The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum is a 40-minute train trip from central Tokyo, while the Ramen Museum at Shin-Yokohama is an hour south of Tokyo by train, as is the Anata no Warehouse arcade at Kawasaki.
Staying there: Any and all accommodation in central Tokyo is close to weirdness, thanks to the extremely efficient JR East train network and the city’s abundance of all things strange. The Hotel Gracery in Shinjuku features the Godzilla head, but rooms close to him may be a bit noisy. Visit shinjuku.gracery.com for more info.
* The writer travelled at his own expense.
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