Sniff This: Tokyo’s Smell Exhbition

You live in Japan long enough and the whole idea of “weird Japan” kind of goes away. What was once “weird” just becomes life. Oh, there’s a giant mascot shaped like an onigiri standing outside the station? Must be Tuesday.

But then your boyfriend says “I want to go to the smell museum,” and the weirdness jumps right back in your face.

Currently on display at the PARCO Museum in Ikebukuro is the Smell Exhbition, showcasing a variety of olfactory samples both delightful and dreadful.

The Smell Exhibition is exactly what it says it is; a collection of odors, encased in jars, that you open up and take a whiff of. The sniffables are arranged in sections. You got a row of perfumes, another of flowers, one of animal scents, and so on. Some are scents you might expect to find, such as lavender and cherry blossom. Others, like beaver, are not. But those are the ones that make the place interesting. You can go to any shop that sells air fresheners and get a nice whiff of cinnamon, but where else will you be able to go to take in a nice deep breath of whale?

Without question, the allure of this place is in the bad smells, especially the exceptionally bad smells, which are so pungent and putrid they’re each locked away in their own booths. They start rather mildly with Kusaya, a popular fermented fish sold in Japan. This one is a nostril burner, that’s for sure, but at the same time it smelt kind of appetizing, I could imagine giving it a go sometime, might taste good.

That cannot be said for the putrid order they offered up next, which was the dreaded stinky tofu. I’ve long heard about this stuff, seeing it showcased on shows like Bizarre Foods, and had always wanted to get a whiff of it myself to see just how bad it really was. I assumed it would be like blue cheese, or the fermented fish I smelled earlier – definitely abrasive to my nostrils, but may appetizing too.


Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

I’ve never smelled a rotting corpse, consider me sheltered. I imagine the rot of decomposing flesh might be downright rosy when compared to the heave-inducing pungency of stinky tofu. Stink bombs smell better. I’d rather surround myself in broccoli farts and the musk of asparagus pee. Its essence was so profoundly putrid that the sample of durian, a notoriously stinky food, was downright pallet-cleansing. 

In actuality, durian wasn’t all that bad. I certainly didn’t enjoy the smell, but it was more curious than wretched. It smelled a lot like the smell they add to natural gas. Unpleasant and not something you’d want to be around all day, but manageable for sure.

Ditto for stinky feet, although I’m going to be real and admit that the faux-foot smell they have on display doesn’t hold a candle to the olfactory oblivion that my leather loathers could emit on an exceptionally hot Tokyo day. I’m the reason Odor Eaters exist. The hilarious “Old Person’s Smell” wasn’t all that awful either. I had experienced worse-smelling old people that very week though, so maybe I was just numbed to it.

In the very back of the exhibition was surströmming, something that I had never heard of before. But one peak inside the booth and I could figure out what it was; some kind of pickled or fermented fish. My boyfriend informed me that surströmming is some kind of legendary fermented fish, known in some circles for being the worst-smelling thing in all the world.

I think those circles were right. The surströmming samples were encased in plastic, and the lid had to be opened for you to properly smell them, but that wasn’t necessary. The acidic vapors of the brine-soaked herring was already overpowering. My boyfriend, braver man than I, lifted the lid to take a whiff and immediately recoiled in disgust. I had already smelled enough, even from several feet away, I had my fill. My face felt like it was melting. After backing away from the surströmming booth, the smell still lingered in the back of my throat. I huffed down some cinnamon and lavender scents, hoping they would wash it out, but to no avail. Eventually we had to leave the exhibition all together and I had to drink some coffee before the evil odor finally vacated itself from my nasal cavity.

So yeah, it was an experience, one I feel like I have to recommend. Yeah, sure I almost puked, but only almost! If you’ve ridden the subway in NYC, you can handle it. If you’re going to be in Japan this month and want to experience something you certainly can’t experience anywhere else, it’s worth the trip.

The Smell Exhibition will be on display on the seventh floor of the Ikebukuro PARCO building until February 28. Tickets are 800 yen. For more information, visit their website.

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