2. Meet La Carmina, the alternative travel and fashion blogger behind the blog La Carmina.
La Carmina is the author of two books about quirky Japanese pop culture — Crazy, Wacky Theme Restaurants: Tokyo, and Cute Yummy Time — and also appears on multiple TV shows about subcultures around the world, including Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, and National Geographic’s Taboo.
“My family and I went to Tokyo a lot when I was growing up, and I became mesmerized by the ‘fashion tribes’ I saw in Harajuku and Shibuya,” La Carmina, who’s originally from Vancouver, Canada, tells BuzzFeed Travel. “They dressed in ways that blew my mind! So I started blogging about Tokyo trends in 2007, and since then, my site has developed into a full-time career.“
3. So if you wanna see the weirder underbelly of Tokyo, start with La Carmina’s travel tips video …
… and then check out all of her recommendations for the most mind-blowing stuff you’ve gotta see, eat, and do when you’re there.
5. 1. Fukuro no Mise Owl Café
“Trends move at the speed of light in Japan, and cat cafés have become old news. Owl cafés are currently all the rage,” she says.
“At Fukuro no Mise, I sipped coffee and petted over a dozen wise birds of all breeds and sizes. I even took a cue from the other Japanese girls, and took a cute selfie with an owl perched on my head!” More info here.
6. 2. Pompompurin Café
“Tokyo has many theme restaurants dedicated to cute characters, such as Pokémon and Hello Kitty. Pompompurin Café celebrates one of the lesser-known Sanrio mascots, a yellow puppy in a beret,” says La Carmina.
“All of the food is adorably decorated with smiling animal faces – but the flavor combinations, like chocolate pancakes, a bowtie noodle, and mashed potatoes — will leave you scratching your head.”
7. 3. Alice in Wonderland Café
“If theme restaurants aim to put their customers in fantasy worlds, then Alice Café takes them ‘through the looking glass.’ The Cheshire Cat winks from the elevator, and the waitresses, dressed as Disney Alices, hand you a pop-up storybook that doubles as a menu,” says La Carmina.
“Even the cutely-decorated food matches the theme, with items like caterpillar sushi, Cheshire cat sundaes, and Queen of Hearts pizzas. I filmed a travel TV show here, and my friends and I dressed up as Goth versions of the characters to fit the theme.”
8. 4. Square Enix Artnia Café
“Look for a giant white egg, and you’ll know you have arrived at Square Enix’s Artnia café,” says La Carmina. “The makers of the cult video game Final Fantasy have built a café to celebrate its beloved characters, like Cloud and Chocobo. Fans can admire rare Final Fantasy figurines in the museum, or hug a smiling Slime stuffed toy. The café fills up quickly, but it’s worth the wait for themed food like Moogles-decorated pancakes.”
Japan is the native land of Hello Kitty, so it’s no surprise that there is a decadent Sanrio theme park just outside Tokyo, says La Carmina. “The experience resembles a Day Glo acid trip, with smiling, and slightly unnerving, giant characters everywhere you turn, and a strange musical starring life-size versions of Hello Kitty and Daniel. The rides are only for children, but anyone can enjoy the cat-shaped food and pink glittery gift shops.”
10. 6. Abilletage
Popular with Tokyo Goths and Lolitas, Abilletage is an independent boutique decorated with red velvet curtains, chandeliers and antiques, says La Carmina. “The owner, Bambi, is a corset maker who sources accessories — like leather gas masks — from all over the world. She specializes in intricate custom corsets, and has designed outfits for Jpop stars Koda Kumi and Ayumi Hamasaki. I love to escape the bustle of Shinjuku by stopping by her parlor, for a pot of rose tea.”
12. 7. Kabayuki Tavern
“Kabayuki looks like a nondescript tavern in Utsunomiya … until you meet the waiters, who are two monkeys in kimonos!” says La Carmina.
“These macaques are trained to serve hot towels and bottles of beer, but watch out: They’ll snatch edamame from your bowl when you’re not looking. While you eat your meal, the monkeys perform a raucous stageshow. They wear bizarre masks, balance on a ball, play instruments, and even make ‘sexy poses’ on cue.”
13. 8. Visual Kei concert
“Visual Kei is Japanese rock (J-rock) at its most flamboyant,” explains La Carmina.
“These male musicians spend hours on devilish makeup and backcombed hair — and often, one of them cross-dresses as a cute girl. Most of these ‘VK’ bands are too small to tour outside of Japan, so if you’re in Tokyo, this could be your only chance to see them live,” she says. “I watched a band called Satan take over the stage in ghoulish Alice in Wonderland costumes. They waltzed, spat blood, and tortured a baby doll. Teenage fans in “I Satan” t-shirts headbanged to every song, and yelled out ‘Sah-tah-nuu’ between the sets.”
15. 9. The “disgusting drink” at Cos-Cha Akihabara (maid café)
“These Japanese maids may look sweet, but if you agree to the ‘disgusting drink challenge,’ you’ll see a very different side to them,” says La Carmina.
“At Cos-Cha Akihabara, the girls mix cocktails of seaweed, raw eggs, milk and natto (a sticky fermented soybean). The brave customer, usually a nerdy male, has to chug it down within a time limit. If he fails – and he inevitably does – the cute maid delivers an enormous, painful slap to his face!”
16. 10. Human brain slush at Alcatraz ER
“I appeared on Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods, and took Andrew Zimmern to a horror themed restaurant called Alcatraz ER. A girl in a skimpy nurse uniform took us to a table, and locked us up behind bars,” says La Carmina.
“I ordered a cocktail, and it was served inside a bloody, decapitated mannequin head. I drank the red slush straight from the head with a straw, and felt like a zombie dining on brains.”
18. 11. “Dirty” underwear
“In the ‘geek’ district Nakano, I stumbled across a ‘super used’ underwear vending machine,” says La Carmina. “Insert 500 yen (U.S. $4.50), and you’ll receive a random capsule containing dirty panties … or so it seems. But the truth is, there’s a disclaimer that the garments are not actually used, but made to look and smell as if they were!”
19. 12. Tenga eggs
“A visitor friend asked me: ‘Why are Easter eggs being sold in vending machines throughout Japan?’ And I had to explain that these are Tenga, or ‘pleasure devices’ for men!” says La Carmina. “The company is known for stylish sex toys such as the Deep Throat Cup: sleek on the outside, with a lubricated vacuum and textured nubs on the inside.”
21. 13. Dai-Kaiju Monster Bar
“Godzilla is alive and well in Nakano, an eccentric neighborhood for anime-lovers,” says La Carmina. “Every Wednesday, the minuscule Luna Base Bar turns into ‘Dai-Kaiju Salon,’ a kitschy celebration of Japanese monsters like Mothra. The space is decorated with rare toys and drawings by famous manga artists. Customers bond by watching 1960s Ultraman films together, and can take turns wearing a full-body pink monster suit! My friend Naomi put on this behemoth, and gave people walking by a good scare.”
22. 14. DecabarZ
“DecabarZ is a favorite hangout for Tokyo’s Goth and subcultures crowd,” says La Carmina. “The Shinjuku club looks like a Day-Glo candyland, and has theme nights such as ‘shibari rope bondage’ or ‘1980s pole dancing.’ On my last visit, I drank absinthe with drag queens, and danced with Jem and the Holograms cosplayers until dawn.”
23. 15. Department H fetish party
“Alien strippers, slave boys on chains, bloody body modifications… that’s par for the course at Department H, the most outrageous fetish party in Japan, if not the world,” says La Carmina. “Every month, Tokyo’s fringe subcultures come together for a night where anything goes. Many wear full-body latex costumes that turn them into anime dolls. On one of my TV shows, we featured ‘bagelheads’ at the party. This body mod involves dripping saline into the forehead, which creates a temporary bulge that resembles a bagel!”
More info here.
25. 16. Nile Perch
“Harajuku fashion often has a creepy-meets-cute aesthetic, explains La Carmina. “The dream of the 80s is alive and well at Nile Perch, a Harajuku shop for “fairy kei” fashion. These designs are an explosion of childhood nostalgia: Think pom-pom hats, pastel tutus, and cardigans covered in hearts.”
26. If you’re interested in wearing Harajuku fashion, La Carmina is currently selling hundreds of items from her unique Japanese wardrobe, here on Depop.
Most items are rare and not found outside of Japan, and she’s making them available for the first time. There are octopus corsets, bunny bags, pin-up dresses, and more.
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