Sunday morning, 10 a.m., Harajuku district, home of Goth girls, squid crepes, crystal tattoos, $400 T-shirts. All but the hardiest hipsters from the all-night raves passed out hours ago. But Giga and Luka, eyes red as Bloody Marys yet still standing by the grace of some unknown substance, manage to make it to the magical opening hour at Kiddy Land. They join babes in arms, young mothers, pimply geeks, wide-eyed foreigners and giddy local teens stepping through the looking glass into the Mad-Hattered world of Japan's coolest toy store.
Johann Strauss II blaring from a DVD of "2001: A Space Odyssey" on a Kiddy Land flat-screen monitor aptly greets Giga, the street name of 31-year-old Tarobei Kurume, a VJ at Maniac Love, a techno club nearby. He whisks past the rug rats with Luka (29-year-old girlfriend Migiwa Matsuo) in tow, both decked out in outer-space-meets-club-kids ensembles -- all gleaming synthetic fabrics, rhinestones and neon-green chains (good for twirling around necks on dance floors). They make for the anime-covered glow sticks section, popular among 3-year-olds and J-ravers alike. "We come here once a week, more if we can," Giga says. Out of a bag, he unholsters the realistic computer-game machine guns he uses to feign armed assaults while dancing. "I got these here. Yeah, they've got the best stuff."
If Willy Wonka were Japanese, Kiddy Land would surely be his fantastically warped invention. You've got your Mickey Mouse dolls and board games. But they are lost amid the thrill of Japanese pop culture trinkets and enabling whimsies designed by and for this cute-obsessed nation of the overstressed and the excessively shy.
Crowds ogle Ma-Mail, a bioengineered plant that grows from a seed after five days of watering to reveal a message -- "I love you" or "Good luck" -- emblazoned on a sprout. Ideal for those not quite brave enough to say the words face to face. "They are most popular as gifts, from parents to children, or children to their friends," says a polite female floor clerk.
An impossibly slender teenage girl adorned with purple blush, face glitter and a real Chanel bag is eyeing Nowa Nowa, a therapeutic, robotic, teddy bear-meets-puppy sort of creature who has locked himself in a tiny trunk. The owner must lure him out with soothing strokes and kind words. If you shake too hard, he yells, "Don't frighten me!" If you win his confidence, you can eventually entice him out to play. Nearby sit other komono -- or "cute little things" -- so prized by Japanese. Eerily lifelike electronic fireflies, buzzing soothingly, perch on weeds inside a small, intricately carved cage. "Your parents will let you keep these insects because the sound will calm them," assures the printed sales pitch.
On six floors, there are Ultramans, acrobatic Godzillas, robot soccer games, electronic pets that can date, mate and produce offspring, remote-controlled wrestling beetles and voice-sensitive, bowing Weebles.
Floor 3 is the blitzkrieg of cute. Tokyo is home turf of Hello Kitty, and she takes no prisoners here. There are big kitties, small kitties, space kitties, geisha kitties, kitties on cups, on pens, on notebooks, on cell phone covers, on watches, on umbrellas, on backpacks.
At 11:54, two local Goth girls -- one donning black toenail polish and a skull shirt, the other in baby doll fringe -- are swooning over a Kuromi kitty toy. The social outcast of "Helloworld," the plush kitten clothed in a black vinyl hood with skull bones looks like Hello Kitty as heroin addict. "She's just so cute," squeals Sayaka Kurata, 16.
Rilakkuma, an exceedingly adorable bear, is so hot now that he has his own "boutique" at the Kiddy Land storefront. His elaborate rags-to-riches story involves turning up one day at the home of a lonely "office lady" -- or one of the hordes of working, single Japanese women in their thirties and forties. Michiko Motoyama, a 32-year-old wearing a flowery smock, lives by herself in a small apartment and had already bought one. She stopped by Sunday simply to caress the jumbo Rilakkuma on display. "He really does comfort me when I come home," she said, her hand stroking the velveteen bear.
By 1:30 p.m., Kiddy Land is standing room only. The pint-sized and their parents retreat to a story time on the third floor with Takoru-kun and his friends. The mascot of an Osaka TV station and now a merchandizing bonanza, Takoru-kun is a plush octopus fritter who laments that he was made with only dough and no seafood. He escapes the street vendor who made him and pals up with an octopus friend, Takobei, for adventures. They include a brush with the Shinto god of Octopus Fritters -- a food especially popular with Japanese kids.
The show ends, and 2-year-old Rin Tanaka turns to her mother.
"Mama," she says, "I'm hungry."
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of occasional articles looking at life in foreign countries through the prism of time.