Big in Japan #2: Pokémania

Last week I introduced my trip to Japan, and talked about the Arcades. You can find the article here. This week it is time to catch 'em all!

Being in Japan means being bombarded with popular franchises. On every corner of the street you can find references and merchandise from Studio Ghibli, Shonen Jump and the likes. I even saw an art theater in Kyoto which had a play based on Naruto! Two franchises stand out however and can be found literary everywhere: Hello Kitty and Pokémon.

The little white cat with the red ribbon combats the yellow mouse with the red cheeks for most exposure: You can find them on food, toothpaste, shampoo bottles, umbrellas, as plush figures in the claw games or as tiny figurines in the gashapon (toy capsule machines). Throw a rock and chances are you hit something with Pikachu or Hello Kitty on it.

I could write a whole column about Hello Kitty, but let’s not do that and instead focus on the worldwide phenomenon that is Pokémon, and exactly how big it is in its home country.

Pokémon in the Streets

As I said before, it is hard to wander around a Japanese city without seeing some reference to Pokémon. Kids go by wearing their Pokémon hat or backpack. Grocery stores have shampoos and soaps with the little creatures on it, and there is a whole rack of Pokémon-themed candy in supermarkets. I think it is safe to compare Pokémon’s popularity in Japan with Disney’s popularity here in Europe. But instead of Elsa or Cars, you will find Pikachu shining on socks, lunch boxes and the like.

Riding the subway I saw a TV commercial from an energy company, who used a 3D animated Pikachu playing with a kid. Makes sense given its electric nature! But this just shows how big the franchise is over there.

BiginJapan03Genwunners rejoice: Generation 1 in plush form!

Japan’s many game arcades with their claw games often have one or more machines dedicated to Pokémon, and gives you the chance to test your luck of luring in a big plush for just a couple of yen. I know the luck I have with rare item drop chances from the RPGs I play though, so I didn’t dare to go down the path of trying my luck with a crane game.

What I did miss however was Pokémon GO. I would have expected that the streets of Japan would have been swarming with Pokémon GO players, doing raids or conquering gyms. However, I didn’t see that many people play it on the streets. I fired up the app now and then myself, and there were enough signs that the game is still actively played. Plenty of Pokéstops had a Lure Module active. Maybe the Japanese people are just less open in their playing. It fits their polite nature, where they don’t want to cause a nuisance by bumping into people by being distracted by their smartphones.

Welcome to the Pokémon Center! We hope to see you again!

If you are big on Pokémon merch, there is one location that you don’t want to miss: The Pokémon Center! There are 11 Pokémon Centers scattered around Japan. In my trip I visited three of them. The lovely Hiroshima Pokémon Center with it’s big red Gyarados statue, the tiny Tokyo Station Pokémon Center (finding it is a journey in itself) and the big one: Pokémon Center Tokyo DX.

Entering a Pokémon Center means being greeted by a joyful soundtrack of Pokémon songs, and every Center has its own centerpiece: A big Red Gyarados, Ho-Oh and Lugia, or a giant Snorlax. For the rest there are racks and racks crammed with merchandise: From cookies to keychains to clothing. And plush! Lots and lots of big and small plush, from weird-looking giant Melmetals to Ditto-faced Furrets. Tokyo DX had almost the entire first generation as plush. I picked up #045, and anyone who knows my forum username can probably guess who that is.

A lot of the stock is the same in all Pokémon Centers. If you are looking for something really exclusive though, it is worth visiting a bunch of different ones. Hiroshima is home to one of Japan’s biggest baseball teams: The Hiroshima Toyo Carp. As a result the Pokémon Center there had an excellent line of Carp x Koiking merchandise: Shirts and towels where the team mascot is changed into Magikarp. A perfect combo!

BiginJapan08Pokémon Center Hiroshima sports some great gear

The tiny Center in Tokyo Station puts Pikachu in a cute train conductor uniform, which is exclusive for that Pokémon Center. Worth the trip for train fanatics! Even if you are not looking for a train-themed Pikachu, I would still recommend a visit to the Tokyo Station Center. Not necessarily for the shop itself, but it is located in Tokyo Character Street, an indoor shopping street under Tokyo Station. As the name suggests the whole street is dedicated to popular TV characters, with shops for Moomin, Nameko, and of course Hello Kitty. One word of warning though: it is not easy to find, as the whole area under Tokyo Station consists of multiple floors, has a ton of different entrances and it is very disorienting in the process. The tactic we used to find it was: Go to Tokyo Station, follow some vague instructions combined with a non-accurate phone GPS, wander around in circles, get frustrated, decide to give up and move on and then accidentally stumble on the right street.

BiginJapan18This yellow friend can be found under Tokyo Station

And then there is the big one, the mother of the Pokémon Centers: Pokémon Center Tokyo DX! It is only a walking distance from Tokyo Station. Next to the immense amount of merchandise, Tokyo DX also has a wall of touchscreens with interactive versions of the Pokédex which are fun to toy around with, and there are some some Pokémon arcade games as well. On the same floor is also the Pokémon Café. Themed cafés are a popular thing in Japan, and it is no surprise there is a Pokémon-themed one as well. Expect to find a dancing Chef Pikachu and food in the shape of Pokémon. Themed cafés aren’t cheap, but it is cool to visit one or two when you have the chance. Unfortunately we didn’t have a reservation and we couldn’t sneak in Team Rocket Style, so we chose to get our coffee fix at the Kawaii Monster Café instead. If you want to visit the Pokémon Café be sure to make a reservation in advance through their website.


And that's it for week 2, arigatõ for reading! Next week we will end our journey in Akihabara Tokyo, which is crammed with big electronics shops and a lot of retro gaming goodness. Sayōnara!

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