It was 2009 when I first discovered Chara Hiroba, and it changed my life.
Hi, I’m Danny, by the way. I used to write for Tough Pigs, and then I went to help create Muppet Wiki, and with one thing and another, it’s been a while since I’ve written a My Week column.
So, 2009. I was doing some research for the wiki about international Sesame Street merchandise, and I discovered Chara Hiroba, a plush toy manufacturer that makes prizes for Japanese arcade games, especially claw crane machines. I looked at their site, and learned that for the last ten years, they’ve been making five completely unique Sesame Street toys every month, and those toys have become increasingly bizarre and abstract.
That was when I decided that I had to visit Japan.
I don’t know if you pay attention to Sesame Street merchandise at all, but it’s a lot more generic than it used to be. Back in my day, in the 1970s and 80s, there would be new designs for every product — like this plastic plate, which used three different pieces of original art.
And then computers came along and ruined everything. This Elmo plate was made in 2012, and it uses the same clip art picture on the matching bowl and cup. In fact, that Elmo pose has been on pretty much every Sesame product made in the last three years. Computer-aided design has made it easy to copy, resize and paste that image onto everything, adding a backpack or a frisbee into the scene for variety. You could say that the licensees are lazy, but really they’re just being realistic — you can’t waste money on new illustrations if your competitors are all coasting on Photoshop and clip art.
Except in Japan, where the rules are exactly the opposite. I wanted to go and see it for myself.
My husband Ed and I prepared for a long time, and we finally went on the trip in October 2012. Ed was excited to learn about the history and culture of an unfamiliar country. I was excited to hunt for goofy-looking Sesame stuff. Here’s what we found.
First stop: Tokyo
Tokyo has the highest population density of any city in the world — more than 9 million people in the core city area. That’s more people than New Jersey, all packed together in one city. And that was easy for us to believe, because it seemed like they were all out on the street at any given time of the day.
The only way that we could understand anything we saw in Tokyo was to remember that it’s a lot of people living on a tiny island. So if a Japanese person decides to do something, then it’s likely that a) ten other people are already doing it, b) they’re probably doing it better than you are, and c) you will probably run into eight of them before lunch. That means that if you want any chance of making an impression, then you need to do it bigger and crazier than anybody else. A new fashion can burn through Tokyo and be out of date by the time you get home.
Because the population is so dense, there’s a really intense love for small, colorful accessories that give you individuality without taking up a lot of space — pencil cases, calendar books and assorted dangly items that hang off your bag or your phone.
Here’s an example that we saw on our first day in Tokyo — a display of cell phone cases in an electronics store.
About half of the phone cases on this wall are decorated with Disney characters. This is not even the entire stock of Disney cell phone cases in this store at this particular moment.
So the good news for me was: There’s a lot of Sesame toys out there. The bad news was: There’s a lot of everything out there.
So I hit the ground running, and started looking for toy stores. The biggest toy store in Tokyo is Kiddy Land, in the Harajuku district.
Kiddy Land is ridiculously cool: 5 floors, and packed with crazy. The top floor is almost entirely Hello Kitty. There are also huge areas for Disney, Lego and Studio Ghibli.
On the ground floor, where the new toys are, I found my first Sesame toy: crystal Cookie Monster and Elmo puzzles by Beverly Enterprises. (I bought the Cookie Monster one, and it’s impossible. It has three dozen tiny plastic pieces, and they refuse to interlock with each other. I’m currently advertising for a Japanese child to come over and help me put it together.)
Heading downstairs, we visited Snoopy Town, which used to be a separate store but was recently absorbed into the Kiddy Land collective.
The Peanuts characters are huge in Japan, especially Snoopy and his siblings. You probably remember Snoopy’s brother Spike, who lives in the desert and talks to a cactus. But Snoopy also has four more siblings — Belle, Olaf, Andy and Marbles — who appeared very sporadically, mostly in the 90s. In Japan, they’re so deep into Snoopy that Kiddy Land had a special merchandise display just for Olaf.
Snoopy Town was busy, even on a Thursday afternoon. I bought a little Peanuts book and a magnet, and when I paid for my items, the clerk asked me if I wanted to pay in installments. Apparently that’s a question that you need to ask people at Snoopy Town. Seeing these people shop made me feel like I must have been Japanese in a previous life.
After that, I started to get frustrated — I couldn’t actually find any Sesame or Muppet stuff. This was baffling. The 2nd floor was mostly stationery and plush toys, including an extensive area called “Disney Avenue”. This was an exciting area for us, because one of Ed’s favorite characters is Stitch, and he’s super popular in Japan, starring in his own anime show. As far as Japan is concerned, there’s Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Stitch, and then there’s everybody else.
This was a happy discovery, but the downside was: the Muppets didn’t live on Disney Avenue. The movie came out in Japan in May 2012, but there was no Muppet merchandise in the Disney area at Kiddy Land — and as we discovered later, there were no Muppets in the Tokyo Disney Store, or in all of Tokyo Disneyland.
We finally found the tiny little shelf in Kiddy Land that had Sesame Street and Muppet merchandise. Just to set the level of my expectations, this is a picture I found of a Kiddy Land display from 2009:
And this is what we found on our trip in 2012.
There were three Muppet items — a backpack and a sticker book imported from the UK, and a Kermit keychain from the US. The Sesame merchandise amounted to some Sanrio leftovers — a few pencil cases, a little set of postcards from 2005, and three cups.
This was pretty depressing. Keep in mind that two floors down, there was a huge endcap of merchandise based on Snoopy’s fat brother.
This was the strange thing that we found everywhere in Tokyo. Don’t worry, I have plenty of fun things to show you, especially at the Universal Studios theme park. But I was expecting a crazy avalanche of Elmo toys pouring out of every shop window, and it just wasn’t there.
The reason why is probably best expressed in this blog post by a fashion-conscious girl visiting Tokyo in March 2010. She has a picture of that huge Elmo display at Kiddy Land, with the caption: “Tons of neon Elmos, I think he’s out of style now tho.” And that’s pretty much all you need to know about Tokyo.
So over the next few days, I kept track of the characters that I saw the most in Tokyo stores. According to my completely subjective survey, #1 was Hello Kitty, as expected. #2 was Disney animation, especially Mickey, Minnie and Stitch. #3 was One Piece, a hugely popular manga and anime series about teenage pirates. #4 was Snoopy and his siblings. And #5, amazingly, was the Moomins, fantasy creatures from a series of children’s books published in Finland in the 1950s. Moomins aren’t very well known in the US, but they’re pretty popular in Europe and a huge craze in Japan.
So you can walk into any given store in Tokyo, and if there are any products with cartoons or licensed characters on them, then you’ll find at least three of those five.
And the interesting thing about that list is that those characters aren’t necessarily current. Stitch had a recent anime series, and One Piece is ongoing, in print and on TV. But the last Peanuts comic strip was in 2000, and I have no idea how the Moomins became as popular as they are.
In the US, a character’s popularity rises and falls based on the new movie releases and TV seasons. In Japan, it seems like there’s a more complicated algorithm. The Sesame Street fad swept through Tokyo a few years ago, and passed by. But if the Moomins can be this popular, then I have to imagine that Sesame Street will come back around sooner or later.
But that’s enough theory. Let’s go find some cool stuff.
Akihabara is a district of Tokyo, popularly known as “Electric Town.” This is the part of town where the neon lights are on all night, and it’s the major source for computers, appliances, video games and anime merchandise. (You can actually find those things in about one out of every three stores anywhere in Tokyo, so just imagine what you’d have to do to become known as the area for that.)
The main activity in Akihabara was just to walk in and out of countless little stores, wondering what the hell it all means. The best store we found was Akiba Culture Zone, a huge shopping complex for manga and anime fans, with two floors devoted to toys.
It’s a little hard to describe the setup, because I don’t think we have anything like this in America. Each floor was kind of like the dealers’ room at a non-stop science-fiction convention, where all of the merchants have settled down, brought in furniture and started raising families. We basically walked around surrounded by racks and plexiglass cases, and if we found something that we wanted to buy, then we had to figure out which of the several nearby cashiers was the one responsible for taking our money.
It’s mostly a place for manga, anime and science-fiction, with side interests in Disney animation and Hello Kitty. I did manage to find some scattered Sesame toys, including the Kubrick figures and two puzzle keychains.
Walking through some Akihabara arcades, I found a crane machine that had Sesame toys. It wasn’t quite the gorgeous Chara Hiroba plush explosion that I’d been hoping for — these were clearly the grade-B versions. I don’t know who made these toys; the tags just say 2011 Sesame Workshop. They looked sullen and misunderstood.
But I came to Japan for the claw machines, so it was too late to back down now. I put a 100 yen coin into the machine, and tried to maneuver the claw and snag an Elmo. No luck. I paid 100 yen for another try. To be honest, I’ve never quite grasped the mechanics of these machines; the claw always seems to have the gripping power of a handful of noodles. Japanese children must get special crane machine martial arts training.
There was nobody else in the arcade at the time, so the guy running the machines took pity on the unskilled American. He opened the glass door and repositioned some toys, so that a little group of them was close to tipping over into the basket. I put in another 100 yen, brushed the claw against that group, and four of them toppled down. Success! It wasn’t exactly an epic victory, but I’d bagged three Elmos and a startled looking Big Bird. It was a good day.
We found another high-energy nerd attractor in the Nakano district. Nakano Broadway is more like a shopping mall than Akiba Zone was, with lots of little shops packed next to each other. But unlike your typical shopping mall, Nakano Broadway has two different stores that sell nothing but doll eyes.
There are four floors, all interconnected in surprising ways, so it was very easy to get disoriented. Early on, I made the noob mistake of passing by a store with some postcards that I liked, thinking that I would come back for them later. I never saw that store again. It’s possible that I didn’t remember exactly where it was. It’s also possible that the store closed down while I was on another floor, and reopened under new management. Almost anything is possible in Nakano Broadway.
Most of the stores there sold second-hand plastic toys, either crammed into display cases or packaged in tiny plastic bags. The aisles were so small that they were practically two-dimensional, so I sort of crab-walked through the racks, scanning for interesting things.
As all collectors know, the trick in a situation like this is not to focus. Your eyes drift past the display, and you let your instincts pull your attention to the shapes and colors you’re looking for.
Relax. Focus on your breathing. You’ve done this before. This is what you’ve been trained for.
Mono Comme Ça
Okay, one more stop for today — the fabulous Mono Comme Ça, the only store in Tokyo where I actually found new Sesame Street stuff. And, happily, it was stylish and trendy and amazing.
Mono is part of a Japanese fashion retail company called FIVE FOXes Co. They have a couple dozen brands, including Comme Ça, Mono Comme Ça, and Comme Ça Commune. Don’t ask me why; I have no idea.
Mono created a 2012 collection of gorgeous Sesame items. The core design was based on a graphic of Elmo peeking into frame, which they turned into pillows, tote bags, coin purses and mugs.
They also had plush “dancing speakers”, whatever those are, a set of Sesame socks, and the obligatory dangly plush items.
So that’s the trip so far — not the Sesame bonanza I’d hoped for, but I had a Cookie Monster puzzle, a surprised Big Bird and a fancy Elmo pillow, which isn’t a bad haul. But from here, the rest of My Week is about the place where the Sesame lives — Universal Studios Japan.
Click here to put on your dancing speakers and head to the ToughPigs forum!
by Danny Horn