A Tokyo toy story
In need of a squishy vinyl monster? Robots in tin, plastic or diecast? Action figures and spaceships? You're in the right place. This is the city that spawned the Transformers, after all.
Collectors around the world love Japanese toys for their unique designs and attention to detail. But while everyone knows that Tokyo's modern toy stores can be fun places to hang out, its antique toy stores are another trip altogether, a time trip, to be exact. These musty little shops are like constantly changing museums of toy history. Only everything is for sale. And unlike normal Japanese establishments, bargaining is permitted, assuming you're buying enough to make it worth the owner's time.
The four shops below represent some of Tokyo's finest.
1. Toy Cats Showcase
Owner: Yuichi Ishii.
Claim to fame: The best antique toy shopping on the west side of town.
Specialty: Microman, Diaclone, Chogokin robots.
Pride and joy: A 1973 mail-away premium Microman figure, one of only several known to exist. Price? "No way am I ever selling this. It's like the soul of the store."
General feel: A subterranean gem on the west side of the city, Toy Cats rents out showcase space to other dealers, offering customers a great deal of variety. Toy Cats Showcase is the best place to pick up "gently used" new toys at a fraction of the retail cost and a positive treasure trove of Micronauts toys, of which the owner is a crazed collector himself.
Quote: "We specialize in everything from vintage robots to Dragonball, so come one, come all."
Toy Cats Showcase: Horiuchi Building B1, Kichijoji Honcho 1-26-4, Musashino City, tel. 0422 23 1055, 12-8pm, toycats.net
2. Gojira-ya (a k a "Godzilla-ya")
Owner: Masahiro Kizawa.
Claim to fame: One of Tokyo's oldest and funkiest toy shops.
Specialty: Tin robots, vinyl figures, Showa era detritus.
Pride and joy: "Kojira" (not to be confused with "Gojira") bootleg model kit at ¥4,000.
General feel: Opened 20-plus years ago in a cramped space directly beneath the Chuo line train tracks, Gojira-ya is an institution. Named after the eponymous giant monster that wrecked the city in so many horror flicks, it's a dusty, musty treasure trove of Showa-era ephemera. Best part: When the store closes for the day, the owner goes downstairs to run a tiny izakaya until the wee hours -- also called Gojira-ya and also packed to the gills with vintage toys.
Quote: "I was born in the same year as Godzilla, so I wanted to make a place with a friendly atmosphere for him." You mean for customers? "No. For Godzilla."
Owner: Hidetaka Kami.
Claim to Fame: A secret haven for die-hard toy collectors.
Specialty: Classic 1970s monster vinyls and die-cast robot toys.
Pride and joy: Seventies "Tamagoro" robot store display at ¥350,000.
General feel: Long known among aficionados as a must-see for visiting collectors, this hard-to-find shop occupies the second floor of a totally nondescript building in Arakawa-ku. Neighbors and passersby undoubtedly have little idea of the sheer visual insanity unfolding within its walls. The store is crammed, floor to ceiling, with showcases that display all sorts of seventies and eighties toys. Even the most jaded die-hards admit the selection is one of the best in town.
Quote: "Foreign collectors are always welcome in my shop!"
Jyarinco: Machiya 1-20-9, Arakawa-ku, tel: 03 3893 4045, 12:30-8:30pm (closed Thursdays), www.jyarinco.com
4. Mandarake Complex
"Toy Leader": Naoaki Takasugi.
Claim to fame: Tokyo's biggest vintage toy store.
Specialty: Everything under the sun.
Pride and joy: 1960s "Sasahira" vinyl kaiju from "Return of Ultraman" at ¥2.1 million.
General feel: The Wal-Mart of antique toy stores, the massive Manadarake chain has shops throughout Tokyo and other Japanese cities, but the Complex remains its crowning jewel and flagship. It may lack the personal touch of the other shops listed, but has a mind-blowingly wide selection of toys from very old to very new, in all price ranges.
If you only have time to visit one antique toy store in Tokyo, make it the 7th and 8th floors of the Complex. Unlike other mom-and-pop style shops, bargaining isn't allowed here. But prices tend to be on the reasonable side anyway. ("Reasonable" being a relative term in a world where paying ¥2,000,000+ for a monster toy can be considered a "score.")
Quote: "There are new things showing up here every day, so we never know exactly what is going to be in stock. Every day is like a surprise. That's the fun of working and shopping here."