At first glance, the tangle of disco-bright neon lights hanging on a white wall in front of me would not look out of place in a modern art gallery or urban fashion boutique.
Then I take a closer look at the rainbow-colored words it depicts in trendy typographies and I spot “unko” in Japanese, “tahi” in Malay, “bajs” in Swedish — and finally, the same word in English: “poop.”
The neon installation is one of a string of attractions, games and artworks on display at the world’s first Unko Museum. Yes, it really is a museum devoted to the universal joys of all things poo-related.
“Poo” and “kawaii” are not words that often appear in the same sentence — yet unko, in all its glory, has undergone the cutest possible makeover at the new pop-up museum, which recently opened in Yokohama in Kanagawa Prefecture.
Here, in a way that perhaps only Japan could excel at, the philosophy of kawaii has been painstakingly applied to poop. There are lashings of soft pastel colors, flashing lights, cute unko motifs and mascots, loud songs on loop, energetic staff in pink poo hats and a range of interactive poo-related games. It’s a simple — if clever — concept, bearing in mind the universal appeal of the humor of poo: If there is one word that makes kids around the world dissolve into instant giggles, it is surely “poo,” in any language.
Masaru Kobayashi, the museum’s general producer, explains: “There is no dirty brown poop in the Unko Museum: It’s all colorful, cute and pop-designed. Although poo is dirty and smelly, we believe that unko can be a fresh surprise and a new discovery for visitors if we change this into entertainment.”
Kobayashi adds: “Everyone, regardless of nationality, gender, generation or sex, knows poo. And it is always thought to be a social taboo in conversation and civilized human life. But, we all know that human beings love to challenge what are considered to be social taboos. Also, it is a Japanese tradition to sublimate such taboos into entertainment.”
My two daughters plus two small friends — all aged between 3 and 6 — put Japan’s pretty pink world of poo to the test. The Unko Museum, which is open until July 15, is located on the second floor of Asobuild, a contemporary white conversion of a former post-office building next to Yokohama Station.
Our poo experience begins before the main door even opens, as we stand beneath kitsch poo-themed chandeliers and are ushered along a queue by lively staff wearing oversized poo hats. Finally, we are led inside a dark corridor.
Following a brief introduction by staff, we are led to a row of rainbow-hued toilets and are instructed to sit down (adults included — there’s no escape). Then, to the delight of the children, we are told to do a poo. Cue lots of animated giggly panting (from the children, at least) before there is a large plop followed by a flushing sound — and a blue plastic poo appears as if by magic in the bottom of each loo.
After retrieving them and putting them on a stick — a souvenir that the kids proceed to wave around for approximately a week — we enter the main museum space: also known as Poops Plaza.
Here, its cute interior is packed to the rafters with unko motifs in ice cream pastels — from the wallpaper to the seats — and it is heaving with excitable kids, rushing between attractions.
The museum organizers were clearly having a laugh when titling the attractions, with names like the game of Hop! Step! Jumpoo!, and they are loosely divided into three categories: Unteractive, with lots of games; Unstagenic, perfect for poo-themed social media pictures; and Untelligence, with poo toys and products from around the world and neat rows of poo drawings by artists, framed by tiny toilet seats.
The kids immediately run off in different directions and disappear into the throng. A 6-year-old friend leaps into the ball pool in front of us — also home to a poo volcano, of course, which dramatically erupts every now and again, sending mini foam poos flying in all directions.
My 6-year-old daughter rushes through a series of poo scenes in the Unstagenic section — first bouncing among a world of pastel-colored flying poos that tastefully resemble meringues. She then skips past a neon wall installation lit up with “poo” in a range of languages and into a nearby princess tea party setting, home to a giant cake festooned with pink and gold poos.
Her 4-year-old sister is more drawn to an alternative unko universe — more precisely, a darkened room packed with infinity mirrors and flashing disco lights illuminating dangling poo motifs.
Meanwhile, their 3-year-old friend crouches on the floor in the Untelligence section, diligently drawing small but perfectly formed poos on the wall, then pulling toilet paper from the roll hanging nearby to tidy up her creation.
But it’s my husband who is the hardest to find. He is eventually located in front of a giant screen where he is enthusiastically attempting to beat two small children at a game of “who can shout ‘unko!’ the loudest.”
Needless to say, he wins. So it’s perhaps fair to conclude that the Unko Museum — and its cutification of all things poo-related — is not just for kids.
The Unko Museum runs until July 15 in ALE-BOX in the Asobuild complex in Yokohama. Advanced booking is recommended. Tickets are ¥1,600 (¥1,700 on the day) for adults and junior high school-age children, ¥900 for elementary school-age children and free for younger. For more information, visit ale-box.com/unkomuseum/.