We [heart emoji] museums. Whether their focus is art or architecture, prehistory or pop culture, museums take the enormous complexity of a country’s culture and distill it into neatly printed factoids, light-up maps with buttons, oversized objets hung from ceilings and occasionally costumed character actors – all housed in an exquisitely repurposed or fabulously Frank Gehry-d building. From the twirling doors at the entrance to the themed pencils in the gift shop: we love ’em.
However, it’s the wild, wacky and winsome museums of Japan that really riffle our guidebooks. Leave your modern art this and your natural history that to the newbies and come worship with us at these cathedrals to the humble, cute and curious. Here’s our pick of the coolest, quirkiest and downright weirdest museums in Japan…
The museum for… anime-niacs
Ghibli Museum, 1-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka, Tokyo Prefecture
The animators of the legendary Studio Ghibli, headed up by Hayao Miyazaki, painstakingly hand paint each frame of their award-winning films that both delight (Spirited Away) and devastate (Grave of the Fireflies). Ghibli’s cast of iconic characters frolic in this fantastical playground in Mitaka: Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro) mans the ticket booth; kids can ride the Catbus; and a Robot Soldier from Castles in the Sky guards the roof. Watch rare short films, spy characters hidden in frescoes and stained glass, and leave utterly charmed.
The line that made us want to go ‘To make such a museum, the building must be put together as if it were a film’. Well, quite.
The souvenir Nostalgic grown-ups, you can regress into your childhood and knock back a Ghibli-themed beer: the museum’s take-out stand serves a Valley of the Wind brew with a beautifully designed label by Miyazaki’s son Gorō.
Cupnoodles Museum, 2-3-4 Shinko, Naka-ku, Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture
Unlike a plastic cup of noodles, this museum is a bottomless vessel filled with joy. The humble Cupnoodle is held in high regard in Japan; this museum celebrates its history, 5,460 flavour combinations and on-point cup designs. Sit in a recreation of the shed where Momofuko Ando invented chicken ramen; learn how to make noodles in a replica factory; and – the cup de grâce: build a bespoke Cupnoodle to take home – you’ll treasure it forever, or at least until its expiration date.
The line that made us want to go ‘Children see Cupnoodles from the noodle’s point of view’. How else will your child learn their place in the world?
The souvenir Cupnoodles matryoshka dolls – super fun cannibal cups!
For paper devotees
Paper Museum, 1-1-3, Oji, Kitaku, Tokyo, Japan
If it’s your first wedding anniversary and you don’t have a gift for your beloved, bring them to Tokyo’s Paper Museum, where pulp fictions are spun into paper facts. The collection’s breadth extends well beyond a piece of A0, with pre-paper woodblocks and palimpsests and paper toys such as sugoroku backgammon sets and karuta playing cards. The intricacies of paper manufacture and Japanese paper crafts are revealed, and we especially love the gardens where kozo, mitsumata and ganpi trees show paper in its infancy. All in all, it’s anything but wishy-washi…
The line that made us want to go ‘The Museum has a collection of approximately 10,000 books relating to paper.’ But then, when you think about it, all books relate to paper, so it’s really not that impressive.
The souvenir Some brightly patterned washi-paper postcards. But please, think of the trees: only get the origami kit if you’re actually going to use it…
For little monsters
Mizuki Shigeru Road, Taishomachi, Sakaiminato City, Tottori
Yokai are mischievous Japanese spirits that take many forms, from snakes with human heads to anthropomorphised umbrellas (yes, really). Manga artist Shigeru Mizuki created the wildly popular GeGeGe no Kitarō series by weaving the nation’s folklore with stories from his war-torn past and pop-culture tropes. More than 150 of his creations, including zombie-esque lead Kitaro, a part-human cat girl, and Kitaro’s father Medama-oyaji (who was resurrected as an eyeball), have been cast in bronze and displayed on a road in the artist’s hometown.
The line that made us want to go Nothing says ‘great night out’ quite like the phrase ‘eerie air of the spirit world’.
The souvenir Kitaro’s father – a teeny yokai with a large eyeball for a head – looks surprisingly cute when climbing out of an earthenware sake cup. We’ll take two, please.
For sleepless nights
Mysterious Little Boys and Girls Museum, Shizuoka Prefecture, Futo Highway, Japan
This museum of sorts is packed with toys – Barbies, Godzillas, Astro Boy dolls, the Kamen Riders of Japan’s Candy Toys – but venture beyond the cutesy exhibits and things get considerably stranger. Life-size models of Marilyn Monroe and James Bond give way to fetish dolls, zombies, cursed figurines and a haunted house that scratches its spindly fingers on the exit door of sanity. Even those who’ll happily spend alone time with a ventriloquist dummy will feel the heebie-jeebies inherent in every nook and cracked-doll-head-stuffed cranny. But, like the hypnotic eyes of Satan himself, it is all oddly compelling…
The line that made us want to visit (sort of) ‘There are a number of cursed dolls’ – admit it, your interest is piqued.
The souvenir You’ll be happy enough if you make it out alive.