A quick tour of Tokyo's kawaii culture (cuteness), written for Travel and Leisure SE Asia. Because everyone needs some cute Tokyo stuff in their life.
Hello Kitty, Japan’s queen of kawaii and an official “tourism ambassador” for 2010, has her very own theme park on the outskirts of Tokyo where she, boyfriend Dear Daniel and dozens of dancers dazzle wide-eyed tots with a glitzy stage show set in a magic forest. Visitors can tour Kitty’s house, eat Hello Kitty jello and embark on a theme ride so packed with peculiar characters it’s like “It’s a Small World” on LSD. Inevitably, all paths lead to the gift shop, where fistfuls of yen change hands for Kitty pajamas, backpacks, cuddly toys and even packets of Kitty-brand dried squid.
As if Walt’s creations weren’t cute enough, the folks at Tokyo Disney Resort went and dreamed up Duffy the Disney Bear, Mickey Mouse’s adorable latte-colored teddy companion. More style accessory than souvenir, on any given day, half the visitors at Disneyland and DisneySea will be humping their Duffy from one official photo point to the next, taking snaps of the little guy in various states of hug. If you really want to blend in, note that it’s de rigueur for couples and friends to sport matching mouse ears or a signature Minnie bow, available at kiosks on every corner.
Maid Cafes are veritable churches of cute, where otaku types (read: nerds) pay by the hour to sit in pink-decorated diners and be called “master” by waitresses in frilly maid outfits and pigtails playing out babyish “eternally 17” personas. The first cafes appeared in Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics district and otaku refuge, at the turn of the millennium, and now some of them – like @home Café and Maidreamin - boast several branches. To appreciate Maid Cafes, you need to get the concept of moe – which loosely describes an attraction towards fantasy characters. But curious tourists are welcome, and it beats Starbucks any day.
Step past the ubiquitous claw games in Tokyo’s many amusement arcades and you’ll usually find a bank of all-white “beautician” stations – think photo booth meets the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here, girls (and boys) transform themselves, with a bit of Photoshop touch-screen wizardry, into cuter-than-life J-Pop starlets. It works like this: pop 500 yen in the slot, strike a pose for the camera, then edit your image Cosmo-style, adding fake eye-lashes and a new hair-do, airbrushing any pimples, and widening the eyes and lips. Decorated with the mandatory kisses and love-hearts, it makes for a hilariously freakish souvenir.
Dressing-up like your favorite anime or manga character is no child’s play for Tokyoites. Outfits should be meticulously faithful if you want to earn the respect of your fellow otaku. Harajuku is Tokyo’s cosplay epicenter - head to Harajuku Bridge on Sundays to see the kids strutting their stuff. If you want to get the look, Shibuya has a number of niche boutiques selling complete Goth or Lolita get-ups, or for a bit of fun, hit-up the back alley stalls in Akihabara for a pair of animal ears (cats are always popular) or some giant-sized furry bear paws.