After a Sunday afternoon at Tsutaya, one of Tokyo’s popular bookstores, my friend and I were about to part ways when he insisted I stop by at Ginza. Ginza on a Sunday is a must-see for any tourist because the roads are closed to transportation, turning the wide swath of concrete into a walking and picnic area for the residents of the city.
As I walked up the subway steps off Ginza station, I saw families setting up lounge chairs in the middle of the road, soaking up as much summer sun as the tall buildings and boutiques (the Uniqlo is a twelve-story affair) would let in.
On my way to exploring the street, I saw a crowd gathered on one of the street corners, chattering excitedly with their phones whipped out. At first I thought it was an accident, an arrest or a celebrity caught unawares, so I pushed myself through the thick of the crowd to check out what had everyone so excited: it turned out to be a pair of kittens with hair scrunchies around their necks (an Elizabethan feline reenactment?) were perched on a street sign, looking naturally cute and slightly befuddled at all the hoopla. The other foreigners behind me were chuckling and shaking their heads, marveling at the Japanese predilection to all things cute or “kawaii” (with the “eeee” part drawn out as a squeal in direct proportion to how cute something is), but as a fellow kawaii-lover, I completely understood, and whipped out my own phone camera to start taking pictures of the cute kitties on their perch.
This is my version of Japan. As a kid growing up, my dad would always bring home a cute gift (usually Hello Kitty themed) from his Japan trips, and I would grow up recognizing Japan and cuteness to be synonymous.
It’s not just the merchandise, though that is certainly a big part of it. In Inuyama City in the Aichi Prefecture north of Nagoya, for example, their mascot is a giant, friendly brown dog dressed in a robe reminiscent of shoguns named “Wanmaru-Kun.” When I asked our tour guide to explain why a dog had been chosen to symbolize the city, he gestured that the imperial family’s symbol was a circle (“Wan”), while at the same time, a dog’s bark is also “Wan! Wan! Wan!” (yes, this is how dogs bark phonetically in Japan), ergo, Wanmaru-kun. A neat—and thoroughly cute—explanation.
Public reminders and other announcements also contain polite messages heralded by a happy cartoon or a cute animal dressed in human attire. It’s a visual treat and it leaves one a happy feeling, certainly happier than our own “Do not cross or else you die” road signs.
Residents of Japan are also known for their fascination over “keitai” straps, or little charms they attach to their mobile phones. No one is exempt from the lure of the cute mobile phone charms. Even our fiftyish male tour guide Yoshi-san, has a wooden cartoon fish dangling from his mobile phone. Keitai straps are ubiquitous—you can find these at any souvenir shop, department store, and even convenience stores. Some are sparkly, some are furry, some are teeny-tiny, while others are bigger than the actual mobile phone.
Wealth of cuteness
We should not be surprised at the wealth of cuteness in Japan. After all, it is the birthplace of the mouthless cat Hello Kitty who has been around forever and has been charming children and adults alike. It’s not unusual to see Hello Kitty collaborating with big designers and big brands in Tokyo, or dressed up in traditional Japanese costume or even as different kinds of sushi.
At the recently opened observation deck and broadcasting tower Tokyo Skytree (currently the tallest freestanding broadcasting tower in the world at 634 meters high), long queues were not only reserved for the observation deck and museums, a queue was building up to enter and eat at Moomin House Café, a coffee shop dedicated to Moomin, characters illustrated and written by Swedish-Finn author Tove Jansson.
Inside Skytree Town Solamachi’s shopping complex are shops dedicated to ubiquitous TV characters such as Domo-kun, and further down is a shop featuring one of my favorite characters, Rilakkuma (literally translated as “relax bear”). The Rilakkuma store was packed to the gills with mostly adults filling up baskets with every Rilakkuma-themed merchandise imaginable, from cookware, home decor, plushies, jewelry, ties and even bottled water.
At Harajuku near Meiji-Jingumae, I continued my search for kawaii by braving a parade and the intense summer heat by looking for a corner shop that caters to Tintin fans. The shop, which sells Tintin merchandise exclusively is a beautiful homage to intrepid journalist Tintin and his adorable canine companion, Snowy. Tintin fans should not miss this.
Fellow kawaii lovers and tourists with their kids in tow should set aside at least half a day for Kiddy Land. This five-floor shop at Harajuku is stuffed from floor to ceiling with every cute character you could possibly dream up. Each floor is dedicated to characters with cult followings—Snoopy and the Peanuts Gang, Studio Ghibli and the lovable Totoro, Disney, Hello Kitty, Rilakkuma, they’ve got everything (even the restrooms are decorated according to character), you will scream from the unbearable cuteness of everything (your wallet will also scream in agony after). As if that weren’t enough, telling shopkeepers your purchases are presents will entitle you to free gift packaging complete with cute stickers and charms to accessorize your gift wrapping with.
Love dogs? You will love Japan and its dog (and cat) affinity. Cat and dog cafés are commonplace here and folks who like shopping with their dogs in tow can stop and rest at Dog Dept. Café, a boutique selling dog clothes and merchandise with a café next door. The café offers great food with a special menu created for your furry companion, too.
Museums of cute are also present, like the Studio Ghibli museum, which sadly, I was not able to visit because I had not known about the advance ticket reservations (make sure to check the website of each museum you plan to visit, as they prefer advance bookings and appointments for visits). And of course, there’s Tokyo Disneyland and Sanrio Puroland, amusement parks where you can interact with well-loved characters from our childhood.
Five days in Tokyo and I’ve barely scraped the tip of the kawaii iceberg and I can’t wait to go back and lose myself in all the kawaii goodness.