Only in Tokyo: a tour of Japan’s pop-culture experiences
Whether you grew up on Godzilla, Super Mario, Hello Kitty, Pokémon or Sailor Moon, you’ll know that Japan’s pop culture has spread far and wide. In Tokyo, you can see it all come to life.
If you’re already a fan, read on to find your favorite pop-culture icons; if you’re not, read on to learn about the city’s sometimes-baffling, always-fascinating attractions. There’s also a lot that will appeal to kids and some awesome photo opportunities in store.
Visitors to Ghibli Museum sitting outside
The Ghibli Museum in Tokyo showcases the work of the director Hayao Miyazaki and animation studio Studio Ghibli © ColobusYeti / Getty Images
Visit the Ghibli Museum
Studio Ghibli, co-founded by directors Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao, is consistently responsible for Japan’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful animated films – a rare combination. It’s also responsible for turning out a whole generation of Japanophiles – those who fell in love with films like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001).
The Ghibli Museum captures the spirit of wonder that makes the films so enchanting, and several beloved characters are worked into the design. There’s also a small cinema here that screens original shorts directed by Miyazaki, Takahata and their protégés. Check the website for regular updates on what’s available.
Naturally, the museum has an excellent gift shop.
Toys at the Mandarake Complex
The Mandarake Complex sells a variety of Japanese pop-culture icons © jeagun lee / Shutterstock
Make a pilgrimage to the original Mandarake Complex
Mandarake Complex is a hugely important shop in the anime, manga and gamer universe. What started as a small used comic-book store in the 1980s has since grown into a national franchise. But while the new shops might be bigger (and easier to navigate) there’s nothing like the original shop in Nakano.
‘Shops’, we should say: the original Mandarake is inside a vintage 1960’s shopping centre, Nakano Broadway. When it outgrew this space, it didn’t move to a new location; it just took over more shops in the mall. The total now hovers around 25 – a significant chunk of the mall’s real estate. Each is highly specific, carrying just items like production cels from animated films, or vintage toys or rare manga. The combination of faded mid-20th century mall architecture and Mandarake’s somewhat mecha (mechanical) aesthetic gives the whole place an appropriately post-apocalyptic vibe.
There are other branches in Akihabara, Ikebukuro (this one is popular with fan girls) and Shibuya.
Costumed go-kart drivers pass on the streets of Tokyo
Costumed go-kart drivers pass on the streets of Tokyo © pio3 / Shutterstock
Ride around the city on a go-kart
It sounds crazy (and illegal; it’s not), but this is a real thing you can do. And it gets better: operators like MariCAR lend out costumes, so you can drive around dressed as your favourite character (be it Pikachu or Princess Peach). It’s thrilling, if not a little terrifying. While Tokyo traffic isn’t on the same level as your typical Asian mega-city, know that it still isn’t for the faint of heart. You’ll need an international drivers’ license.
If real-life go-karting sounds too intense, you can always opt for the virtual experience instead. VR Zone Shinjuku has a simulator of Nintendo’s early 90s (but timeless) Super Mario Kart racing game. Here, throwing virtual banana peels at your fellow drivers is perfectly OK. There are other attractions, too, at this temporary facility that will be open through mid-July 2019.
A Gundam robot on Obaida Island in Tokyo, Japan.
The 20m-tall Gundam robot on Obaida Island is a 1:1 replica © Nicholas Tan / 500px
Stand in awe before Gundam…
In case you don’t know Gundam, it is a widely popular Japanese media franchise rooted in an anime series that first appeared in the 1990s. The titular Gundam is a ‘mobile suit’ (in the parlance of the franchise), a giant robot weapon that is piloted by the series’ typically dashing young heroes.
Tokyo’s Odaiba has a 1:1 scale replica – measuring nearly 20m tall – of an RX-0 Unicorn Gundam, a model from one of the franchise’s later series. The Unicorn has two modes, ‘unicorn’ and ‘destroy’, and Odaiba’s model transforms – complete with moving parts and light displays – between the two several times a day. At night there are wildly photogenic light shows.
Godzilla peers over the Hotel Gracery Shinjuku
Godzilla peers over the Hotel Gracery Shinjuku © witaya ratanasirikulchai / Shutterstock
If you’re more of an old-school kaijū (big monster) fan, you can choose instead to pay your respects to Godzilla – the half-gorilla, half-whale star of Japan’s most famous media franchise of all time. There is a giant, ‘life-sized’ Godzilla Head statue peering over the terrace at the Hotel Gracery Shinjuku (where he looks about ready to attack the hotel).
There’s also a new (scale) model of the monster who appeared in 2016’s Shin Godzilla movie at the aptly named Hibiya Godzilla Square.
For a more intimate kaijū experience, visit Nakano’s Daikaijū Salon, which is decorated with hundreds of monster models. It’s a short walk from Mandarake Complex.
Plush pokemon toys, Tokyo
Plush pokemon toys, Tokyo © Rebecca Milner / Lonely Planet
Eat at the Pokémon theme cafe
Japan has a knack for making food cute – a talent that is well on display at the new Pokémon Cafe. On the menu: a pasta dish that looks like Pikachu hiding in a hedge, Snorlax hamburger and rice dish and an Eevee-shaped chicken burger. Of course the branded plates and mugs are for sale, too. Reservations are required for one of the 90-minute seatings (during which a special yellow guest makes an appearance).
Adjacent to the cafe is Pokémon Centre Tokyo DX, where you can pick up an even greater variety of Pokémon-branded goods.
The city’s largest Pokémon store is in Ikebukuro; there’s also an official shop at Solamachi, the mall attached to Tokyo Sky Tree.
Shop for all your favourite characters
In addition to the shops already listed above, a huge variety of character goods can be found at Harajuku’s huge toy store KiddyLand – which has lots of Sanrio character goods (including plenty of Hello Kitty) – and Tokyo Character Street inside Tokyo Station.