I was trawling down my Facebook feed yesterday when a post from Tokyo Otaku Mode popped up. I always view their posts with a degree of trepidation – will it be an inappropriately dressed lolita gazing at the camera in an alarming cosplay get up, or will it be a sneak peak at covert Jap-anime culture, a window into geek’s district Akihabara or some intricately-crafted coffee art?
I was in luck, instead of a doe-eyed teenager with impossible breasts staring wistfully in a tutu and a blue wig, I found a round up of the cutest and most creative ‘charaben’ – a more creative form of character bento that would put most people’s packed lunch attempts over here to shame.
These lunch boxes are works of art, with faces and cartoon characters painstakingly recreated using seaweed, coloured rice, wafer-thin omelettes, carved hot dogs and sculpted radishes.
All images from Tokyo Otaku Mode’s Pinterest.
Back in 2011, the BBC ran an insider report on Japan’s impressive lunch boxes, which you can still watch online here, but lunches seem to have gone beyond industrious mothers preparing them at home to big business, and there’s no way all of these are made ‘just for the kids.’
In fact there are even websites, like justbento.com, that are dedicated to teaching visitors how to make these elaborate bentos, from beginner’s rice balls to expert character masterpieces.
This dedication, control, extreme level of creativity and sheer, wonderful madness typifies Japan to me, or at least the Japan that I experienced when I visited in 2011.
For me, Japan was my rabbit hole and I fell helplessly down it. I travelled all over Tokyo, losing Street Fighter battles in the smoke-filled arcades with Japanese teenagers and wandering around the vast, multi-story manga complexes ogling figurines, comics and costumes before leaving for Osaka, the neon-wonderland, the heart-wrenching concrete jungle of Hiroshima and beyond, to Nara and Kyoto.
The following is an extract from an article I wrote expressing my bafflement and enchantment with Japan, the confusion I felt for its paradoxical mixture of rigid structure and customs and recesses of deviancy and its blurred social margins. The original piece can be found here.
I was bowed to by airport staff who nearly scraped their foreheads on the ground in deference, then forcibly rammed onto a train by a ‘pusher’ – a white-gloved gentleman who has the dubious job of ramming as many people as possible onto rush hour trains. I saw a woman harshly reprimand her five-year-old for staring at me on a bus, then was subsequently hunted down by hundreds of Lilliputian school children in pikachu hats toting surveys in Nara Park while their teacher pointed me out, saying something along the lines of: “Quick, get the foreigner!”
You’re greeted by a deafening chorus of: “Youkoso, ohayouuuu gozaimasuuuu” when you enter any shop, a cry that follows you around as every different employee – who genuinely seems in love with their job – walks within a metre of you (and just you wait for the complicated thank you and goodbye song and dance if you buy anything). Then there are the times where human contact is severed completely, like the restaurants where you order your food from a vending machine, which spits out a ticket for you to hand to the chef, cutting out the middle man entirely.
Japan in Five Oddities
1. The Ghibli Museum
Part exhibition house, part shrine to the legendary animator, artist and director Hayao Miyazaki, who co-founded and created Studio Ghibli and all the wonder it produced from My Neighbor Totoro and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to the blockbuster hit Spirited Away.
This crazy museum feels like stepping through the looking glass. There are magical mobiles and murals, tiny doors, strange passages, floor to ceiling sketches and a life-size version of the cat bus from Totoro, complete with dust bunnies (although, as I discovered, you can only go in it if you’re a child).
2. Maid Cafes
These are scattered throughout Japan but mostly found in concentration around the geeky Akihabara district in Tokyo. In these cafés, waitresses dressed in cosplay maid costumes act as servants and treat customers as masters (and mistresses) in a private home. A young lady dressed as a cartoon character simpering, serving tea and calling you master? Sound weird? That’s because it is.
3. Manga Kissa
Can’t afford the sky high accommodation costs at the local hostel? Why not spend the night at a Manga Kissa instead. These glorified libraries come with booths separated by curtains and sometimes walls. You pay by the hour or overnight, get a comfy chair, a computer and unlimited access to the library of comics, films and books to while the night away. Drinks and showers are usually included as well. I tried it and after the sixth neon fizzy drink and hours spent watching poor quality versions of Black Swan and Star Trek I left dazed, confused and quivering from a sugar high at the first light of dawn.
4. The Penis Festival
Every April the festival of Kanamara Matsuri, or ‘The Steel Phallus,’ gets under way in Kawasaki. The object of celebration is recreated in sweet form, in carved vegetables, decorations and a parade.
The Kanamara Matsuri apparently came from local legend surrounding a penis-venerating shrine that was once popular among prostitutes praying for protection from sexually transmitted diseases. There’s also the slightly more disturbing legend of a sharp-toothed demon that hid inside a young woman’s vagina and castrated two men on their wedding nights. The young woman sought help from a blacksmith who made her an iron phallus to break the demon’s teeth, leading to the enshrinement of the item. What? Exactly.
For more examples of the truly, inexplicably bizarre you should have a look at this website: japanisweird.com, which features – you have been warned – among other things: a japanese KFC Colonel, an intimate relations practice room for teenagers and more adult-sized costumes clearly intended for children than you can shake a Pocky biscuit stick at.”