New Zealand Law Society - Monsters and quirky museums in the land of the rising toilet seat

Monsters and quirky museums in the land of the rising toilet seat

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Japan has given the world so many concepts, from sumo wrestling to sushi, from sake to karaoke, that it’s impossible to resist the temptation to visit an intriguing country that mixes the traditional with the very modern.

But going to Japan also offered an opportunity to seek out some of the more unusual things it has thrown up.

The search for Godzilla

Or Gojira as he is known locally. Now semi-retired on Monster Island, Godzilla rarely makes an appearance these days other than when he’s wheeled out by Hollywood for a B-movie, so I had to make do with a visit to what has been dubbed Hibiya Godzilla Square in central Tokyo. The nation’s defender against all sorts of beasts, human criminals and even environmental disaster, is the natural star, with a three-metre high statue on a platform suitably placed right in front of Toho Cinemas (Toho Studios made most of the Godzilla films). This new statue, modelled on the latest B-movie remake, replaced one that was based on the old Godzilla from the 50s and 60s films, during a revamp of the area.

Godzilla also has his own dedicated store within a mall in another area of Tokyo, and I found it easy to be separated from several thousand Yen with its array of figurines, T-shirts, books et al, all dedicated to the fire-breathing dinosaur-related beast, as well as his allies and enemies and other movie genres. A reportedly impressive Godzilla Park exists outside Tokyo, with the statue doubling as a children’s slide, but time prevented a visit here.

The museum of two-minute noodles

Japanese street scene

Japan isn’t short of majestic museums, statues and other historical structures. But you just can’t go past a museum dedicated to the humble cup of instant noodles. This is a plush five-storey building in a revamped part of Yokohama, a seaside and port city that acted as the playground for Tokyo’s well-to-do citizens. Despite the building’s size, it is sparsely laid out and somewhat under-utilised. It includes a children’s play area and you can pay a small amount (about NZ$4) to make your own noodle cup package with individual drawings, and there is also a chance to make noodles themselves.

A cartoon showing on a reel tells the story of Momofuku Ando, who created the first ever packet of instant ramen in 1958. Using a cartoon image of Mr Ando, the film reveals that the hitherto failed businessman latched on to the idea of mass-consumption noodles in the 1950s when his wife was frying noodles instead of boiling them. Realising that they dried up when fried, and could be rehydrated, as it were, later, Mr Ando got to work in a small shed behind his house – recreated in the museum – sleeping four hours a night to create a product that is now available in most supermarkets around the world.

In 1971, Mr Ando had a second brainwave, noting that placing a plastic cup over the noodle cake rather than trying to put the noodles into the cup was the easiest way to package the culinary delight, and therefore the first cup noodle product was established. Mr Ando was clearly a genius and at the age of 95 discovered a way of creating space noodles for the untapped intergalactic space market.

Heated toilets and flash bathrooms

Japan is way ahead of the world when it comes to bathroom comfort. It’s not unusual to go into, say, a Starbucks to find the seat is already warm. Some toilets start flushing just as you’ve sat down, and in one hotel the seat rose up on entrance to the bathroom, to save you from lifting it up. It didn’t matter if you were going to brush your teeth; the seat still lifted up. The throne would often contain a variety of buttons and lights, which I left alone in case I pressed the wrong one and something unpleasant occurred.

But it also seems that old traditions remain in this futuristic-looking nation and some bathrooms contain instructions – with an easy-to-follow graphic – on how not to use the toilet, ie, don’t stand on it.

Japan is gadget country and always looking to the next invention. So, perhaps, it was a little surprising to stumble across an exhibition dedicated to the Walkman, which was invented by Sony back in 1979. This includes original versions of the cassette Walkman through to discmans and other devices. You could even listen to these, perhaps the only opportunity the mainly young attendees would ever get to hear a tape. CDs remain popular, with what is likely to be the only surviving Tower Records stores in the world, due to the Japanese branches separating from the international branch many years ago.

Japanese music – known as J-Pop – is an acquired taste but a friend suggested I seek out bands like Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sandii and the Sunsetz, the Plastics, Melon, Pizzicato 5, the Sadistic Mika Band and other post-punk obscurities (to Western ears that is). I duly did but purchases were restricted due to the number of zeroes in the price.

Art deco ship and token pre-war heritage

Japan has a vast array of temples, shrines and Imperial Palaces, many of which are centuries old, though some had to be rebuilt due to fire, natural disasters and wartime bombing. Being such a modern nation, the bulk of buildings are recent, which leaves a large gap in architecture from the early 20th century up to the second World War. The Tokyo train station, built after the war, is a vast, elongated red earth-coloured structure that looks out of place nestled amongst raging new office blocks. But it is hugely impressive and a tourist attraction in its own right. The station has a grim past: the original building saw two prime ministers assassinated here.

Yokohama has largely retained its art deco era buildings, with a particular standout being the New Grande Hotel, or rather the original entrance which has been retained, with its magnificent marble staircase. Opposite the hotel, within Yamashita Park, is the berthed Hikawa Maru ship. This beautifully restored vessel was built in 1929 and sailed between Kobe and Vancouver and Seattle. It was regarded as a state-of-the-art liner at the time with art deco fittings, and life was very comfortable for its first-class customers on the extremely long journeys. It served as a navy hospital ship during the war, surviving mine strikes, unlike two other similar ships built around the same time.


Talking transport in Japan brings us seamlessly to the Shinkansen, or bullet train. These magnificent, sleek machines can travel at up to speeds of 320km/h, though the ones we travelled on were about 50km/h ‘slower’. They are spacious, comfortable, clean, and punctual, and if you miss a train (as we did due to my father getting lost in the Tokyo train station) there’s no extra costs and they just put you on the next train. You can buy beer onboard. In fact, you can buy beer virtually anywhere, and at most times, but you won’t see much in the way of binge drinking.

A country is about its people, and the Japanese are extraordinarily courteous and helpful. Japan hasn’t picked up some of the annoying habits New Zealanders possess, so graffiti is almost non-existent, litter is sparse, pedestrians wait for green lights, and on trains, while most commuters look at their cell phones, they’re not shouting down them about a meeting the next day.

The trip was taken before the Rugby World Cup, but I never got the impression that the event was being eagerly awaited on by the population. There was a weary ‘oh yeah that’s on’ feel but the international media’s take on millions of rugby-hungry fans seemed a touch fanciful. The Tokyo Olympic Games being held in 2020 seemed, however, to capture the imagination of the baseball-loving public. It’s amazing what a run by the national team can do, however.

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