Welcome to the first in what is (hopefully!) a new mini-series of articles and reviews of the various toy stores in the Tokyo area. I’ve been heading over to Japan for years now, but for a variety of reasons I’ve never actually taken any pictures or written many reviews of any of the stores I’ve visited. This isn’t because I was trying to protect my “fishin’ holes” or because I didn’t want to write anything up. It’s because I am a lazy, lazy bastard.
It took the super-secret “X-factor” of Josh Fraser being in Japan for an extended period at the same time I am to get me off my duff and start typing again. I’m here scrimping and saving and building up my little translation company in a cramped room on the outskirts of Tokyo. Josh is here living high off the hog on his company’s expense account in the city’s equivalent of Beverly Hills.
I’m a cheapskate. He’s loaded. And in our spare time, by all that is holy to us (in Josh’s case, C-10 boxes; in mine, cheap-ass robot sofubi) we’ll try to bring you drool-inducing photo exposes of the best Tokyo’s toy stores have to offer. Think of it as a living Datafile of the hard, mean toy-streets in this character-obsessed city. Our mission: to document ever single damned toy store in the Tokyo metropolitan area – or go broke trying. And probably both.
Muchas gracias to Josh B. of CollectionDX for hosting the photos (and Josh’s personal account of the debauchery!) Click on over and take a gander at Josh’s obsessive photo-work for the full expose. And look for more toy store reviews this spring, when I’ll be packing up my stuff and heading over to the Motherland for good!
Speaking of bangin’, man, my head hurts. I just landed in Tokyo 24 hours ago. (My biggest problem is that I always try to drink my way through jetlag. Or perhaps that’s my greatest strength.)
When you’ve got jetlag, nothing seems real. It’s like you’re offset a few degrees from reality. There’s a sort of quiet nibbling at the edges of your perception. Threatening to send you sprawling to the pavement in a narcoleptic crash if you don’t maintain, as Hunter S. Thompson would say.
I should probably be in bed. It’s 12:45 in the afternoon and I’ve been up for ten hours already. The only thing keeping me on my feet is a steady stream of Pocari Sweat sports drinks, carbohydrate-rich meat buns from the local convenience store, and the burning desire to finally see some goddamned toys.
And to see Josh. Where the hell is that guy? The trick to beating jetlag is to keep moving constantly, and I’ve been standing here at the “Moai” statue behind Shibuya station for a whole five minutes now. Manintan. Wait! There he is, thank god. No time to talk. I grab Josh and lurch for the trains. We’re going to my all-time favorite store in Tokyo: Forest Gang. (Whenever I hear that name, I always get this image of Bambi with a nine millimeter. But the joke’s on English speakers: “gang” means “toy” rather than “Menace II Society” in Japanese.)
The shop’s in Sugamo, about twenty minutes north of Shibuya. It’s not the cheapest place in the world, but then again, neither is the rest of Tokyo. “The Gang” is huge, though, at least on par with most American vintage toy stores I’ve seen. And it has the STUFF, boy. I’m not kidding. It’s so packed full of toys, you simply can’t take it all in on the first pass. (Like CIA analysts poring over satellite imagery, Josh and I later found ourselves enhancing and studying the digital photographs to strategize for follow-up visits.) You’ve got to hand it to Forest Gang for the sheer volume of toys they’ve crammed onto the shelves and hung on the walls. Cases are divided roughly by genre: Takatoku Z-Gokin in one, Popy Chogokin in a host of others, Machinders in the middle, and all sorts of random obscurity stuffed into cases ringing the whole place. Focus is pointless here. It is an impulse-shopper’s wet dream.
Right off the bat, the differences in taste manifest: Josh makes a beeline for the Popy tins at the back of the store; I nearly knock over a stack of enormous Tupperware toy-sarcophagi in a desperate dive for the sleaze-vinyl shelves.
We’re both rewarded. Josh spots a tin Getta Dragon he’s been searching for. “Mr. C-10” frets like a mother hen as he watches a clerk open the box. Fortunately for Josh’s blood pressure, the guy ends up using the flat part of a boxcutter blade (an old trick to prevent creasing the center of the lids when opened.) My epiphany hits in the midst of negotiating a slight “gaijin discount” for Josh (“would you mind giving this poor white boy a break? Thank you.”) I spot the mint-on-card set of Clover Dunbine mini-vinyls I’ve been craving, tacked high towards the ceiling on a rafter beam. As if that weren’t enough, I notice a loose Getta III Jumbo Machinder in one of those Tupperware tombs. I feel The Hunger rising as I watch the owner join the two halves together. And that’s when we spot the Jumbo Daikumaryu. It’s filthy and awaiting apprasial, but we cajole Mr. Forest Gang into let us cuddle it. My cup runneth over. These pieces are way, way rich for either of our blood. But any day where one gets to see an incredibly rare JM or two up close and personal is a good one in my book.
As we leave, Josh $600 poorer but one ultra-mint, C-10 specimen of a tin Getta Dragon richer, we ponder the strange English on the side of the bag Forest Gang gave us. “ELEPHANT FAMILY. Their humming make us happy.” Absolutely damn right. So happy, I’ve totally forgotten I’m fifteen time zones removed from reality.
GO, GO, GODZILLA
Hyped from our visit to Forest Gang, Josh and I decide to jump on the train again and try our luck elsewhere. Our target is a shop that he’s never been to before, and that that I barely remember from a hasty visit four years previous: the unashamedly old-school Godzilla-Ya. We amble along the dank streets and alleys of Koenji under a sky that seems to threaten rain at any minute. We finally locate the store in a warren of fetid tunnels under the tracks of Koenji station, and it’s everything I remember it to be: basically, everything Forest Gang isn’t. It’s tiny. It’s dark. It’s located in a questionable part of town, the walls nearby covered with graffiti and right-wing political posters. Its clerk looks like a Japanese member of the Ramones.
But that being said, it’s been here for longer than nearly any other vintage toy store in Tokyo save for Magic Box, and it happens to be a friendly and welcoming place. Even sort of cozy. Here, there’s so little space, they’ve actually tacked toys to the ceiling to make more display room. Ancient cases that look as though they were salvaged from the owner’s grandmother’s basement house a tightly clustered riot of mini-vinyls, Choro-Q sparking toys, and other unloved specimens. Like a prison for the ne’er-do-wells of the Japanese toy world. I wonder how long they’re in for. Judging from the dust, they could well have been here since day one.
Not much sparks our interest here, but the ol’ karmic boomerang is in full effect. Josh has been freaking out for some reason (something about the fact that I keep accidentally kicking the C-10 box of his Getta Robo tin when he walks in front of me.) I explain the situation to the guy behind the counter, who nods sagely and offers a perfectly sized empty cardboard box for Josh to armor his new acquisition. And we didn’t even BUY anything here! In gratitude, I fork over 1000 yen in bail money to liberate a pitiful rendition of Machine Blaster Sandaio from toy purgatory. Is that a smile of relief I see on its face?
It’s times like this that I almost forget how jaded I’ve become about collecting these days. Hitting the streets again, Josh and I make plans to do it all over again next weekend.