10 completely unique things to do in Tokyo, Japan

One of the most captivating cities in the world, there really is nowhere quite like Tokyo. Its blend of traditional and hypermodern, together with the endless surprises that lie around every corner, put it atop the contemporary traveller’s list of must-see cities. Here are 10 weird and wonderful experiences that you’ll find only in Tokyo…
High rank sumo wrestlers line up with crowd in the Tokyo Grand Sumo Tournament. Photo: Shutterstock
High rank sumo wrestlers line up with crowd in the Tokyo Grand Sumo Tournament. Photo: Shutterstock

1. Immerse yourself in Japanese cute culture at Kawaii Monster Café

Ever since Gwen Stefani introduced the world to her Harajuku Girls, the riotous, over-the-top, DIY style developed by denizens of Harajuku has become synonymous with the Japanese word kawaii or ‘cute’. Fashion impresario Sebastian Masuda packaged the experience into a themed restaurant called the Kawaii Monster Café in 2015. It’s a tacky, touristy experience in the best sense of the words.

A hallucinogenic cake-shaped merry-go-round is the centrepiece of the fourth-floor café. At the ‘Milk Stand’, giant baby bottles hang from the ceiling. Huge rabbit, sheep and unicorn heads look down on you. The ‘Bar Experiment’ is a counter bar guarded by giant jellyfish. At night, the Harajuku Monster girls stage kawaii dance performances on top of the crazy carousel to pounding J-pop and a light show. The girls will invite you to join them on the carousel for a dance – join them if you dare.


2. Brave the rickety rides of Hanayashiki, Japan’s oldest amusement park

Hanayashiki is like New York’s Coney Island. People visit not for the latest high-tech rollercoasters, but for a charmingly retro experience, which offers a glimpse of the amusement-park world before the likes of Disneyland. Founded in 1853 as a flower park, Hanayashiki (meaning ‘flower estate’) manages to squeeze a lot of atmosphere and rides into a limited space. Among its attractions are a Thriller Car, Ferris wheel, a vertical drop called Space Shot and a relatively tame haunted house. The rollercoaster claims to be the oldest steel-track coaster in Japan, built in 1953.

Don’t miss the Bee Tower, which you ascend in gondolas and from where you can enjoy panoramic views of Asakusa and the Sumida River area. There are also offbeat, Japan-specific attractions like a tiny pond, where you can fish for baby lobster with a miniature fishing rod. There are also classes where you can learn about the tea ceremony, don a kimono, or experience being a ninja for an hour.

The 'Space Shot' tower ride at Hanayashiki. Photo: Shutterstock


3. Experience a transsexual cabaret show – and then drink with the cast – at Kingyo Club

Get ready for something truly risqué. Kingyo Club represents a new iteration of a long Japanese history of gender-bending theatrics. In the ‘90s, the cabaret here sprung out of a tradition of show pubs, but with a twist. Where show pubs often feature beautiful, young women of limited talent, the shows at Kingyo Club are largely performed by skilled ‘new half’ or transsexual actors in various stages of transition from male to female. This doesn’t seem odd in Japan, where TV variety shows often feature highly successful transsexual entertainers, and where homosexual relationships were widely recognised among the samurai classes. The upshot is that while LGBTQ culture is still in its infancy as a political movement, Japan has long had a flexible attitude towards gender and its fluidity.

Enter Kingyo Club and you’ll be ushered into a small but well-equipped theatre, served dinner and drinks and treated to a series of song-and-dance skits. The staging is flashy but the topics can be highly politicised. What Kingyo Club shares with other show pubs in Japan is this: after the show is done, cast members will emerge from the greenroom and ply you with drinks while they chat you up at your table.    


4. Get your nails sculpted into 3D masterpieces of art

Japan has adopted and co-opted many Western approaches to beauty. Nail art is one area where the nation’s sophisticated aesthetics and attention to detail have combined to produce the world’s most advanced practitioners. While in Shibuya, why not get your nails transformed into tiny seasonal or even anime-themed creations to show off back home?

Try Est Nail, where you can get your nails turned into looks ranging from ‘simple office’ to ‘girly date’ or ‘casual pop’; Et Ars Nail Salon, where skilled artist Ran Inoue will convert your nails into canvasses on which she will apply masterpieces by Van Gogh, Klimt or any painter whose work you should happen to fancy; or Disco, where nailist Nagisa Kaneko will render graffiti or abstract art onto your nails, or apply any image of your choosing depending on your taste and budget.


5. Fish from a boat inside Zauo restaurant then have chefs prepare your catch

The Japanese like their fish fresh – so how about a restaurant where you can catch your own fish and have it cooked for you on the spot? That’s the appeal of Zauo, a lively and perennially popular dinner spot inside the Washington Hotel, on the west side of Shinjuku.

You enter the wooden ‘boat’ built above a ‘pond’ holding a substantial number of fish. Staff equip you with rods and bait and give you some tips on how to catch your fish of choice. A selection of sea bream, flounder, snapper, mackerel and a few other varieties are available. With catch in hand, watch the staff filler and grill it, deep-fry it tempura style, slice it and lay it on rice as sushi, or simply serve it to you straight-up as sashimi. This being Japan, there’s plenty of drama. Staff beat a drum whenever someone lands a fish, and sing a brief prayer of thanks to the creature for giving you its life.

Zauo Restaurant. Photo: Thierry Draus/Flickr 

6. Mix sexy and futuristic at the only-in-Japan dinner show Robot Restaurant

Japan has its high-tech AI robots like Honda’s Asimo… and then there’s Robot Restaurant. The producers reportedly invested US$100 million into what is essentially a sexy cabaret show that climaxes in a series of epic robot battles. The show has become a kitschy must-see on the Tokyo tourist circuit, and the infusion of cash upped the ante of laser lights, smoke, special effects, monster robots and the perky young female dancers that ride atop them. If your idea of Japan is all Gundam, anime, cosplay, samurai and fembots, this is the show for you.


7. Watch sumo giants clash at the Ryogoku Kokugikan

Salt is ritually thrown into the ring, the referee cries out and two sumo leviathans hurl 24-plus stone of muscle and sinew against each other in a contest decided in nail-biting seconds. There are few experiences as quintessentially Japanese as sumo, a practice that is as much religious rite as athletic competition.

If you're staying in Tokyo during January, May or September, the opportunity exists to attend a basho (tournament). Six 15-day basho are held across Japan in professional sumo, three of them in Tokyo. If you are unable to make one, then it is also possible to visit a training stable and observe wrestlers labour through their morning routines.


8. Explore robot technology and cutting-edge research at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation 

Hajime Narukawa’s glass and steel building – the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation – stands out for its protruding silver hemisphere. Step inside and find a giant globe called the Geo-Cosmos that uses 10,362 OLED panels to display near real-time global weather patterns, ocean temperatures and vegetation cover.

Honda’s walking, talking Asimo is the star of a popular show, while other robotics exhibitions present the latest in ‘emotional’ android robots that Japanese researchers are designing for therapeutic as well as commercial purposes. Make sure to also visit the museum’s Dome Theatre GAIA, a spherical theatre that screens 3D films including The Man from the 9 Dimensions, which guides viewers through the esoteric world of theoretic physics via live action scenes, mesmerising graphics and the latest scientific data-visualisation techniques.

 Japanese moe character. Photo: Shutterstock

9. Visit a maid café and come to grips with mao culture

Otaku (‘fanboy’) culture means an obsession with manga and gaming, and immersion in moe – a Japanese term that roughly means an attachment to young, beautiful and innocent female characters. Akihabara’s maid cafés emerged to cater to otaku fantasies after they’d finished gorging on manga, games and electronics.

Many of Akihabara’s maid cafés can be found in and around Chuo-dori, and girls will often be handing out flyers to their establishments. Cure Maid Café was reportedly the first maid café ever. Cute girls in frilly maid uniforms attend to customers as they would a Victorian-era lord, while soothing classical music plays in the background. Lunch, dinner and tea service are on the menu, and for those with knowledge of the latest anime and manga, there are regular thematic events based on popular characters.


10. Catch a kitschy drag musical by the venerable Takarazuka Revue

Takarazuka Revue – along with a heady dose of glitter, razzle-dazzle, song and dance – offers the chance to see women playing men at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater. Created by the president of Hankyu Railways in 1913 to draw tourists to the westerly town of Takarazuka, the Revue exploded after a ground-breaking production of Rose of Versailles, the famous shoujo (girls) manga.

Contemporary productions often take the leads from the West End and Broadway. Recent shows have included adaptions of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Grand Hotel, with even kitschier offerings in the form of a woman playing the romantic lead samurai in a drama set in ancient Japan called Wind Over Yamatai-koku. The theatre will be packed with a fervent audience; after a performance there is often a rousing encore that gets people out of their seats, belting out their beloved favourites.

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