Cat-aclysim: Nyan da!

Long before the recent “cat-cafe” trend in Akihabara, people in southern Chiba Prefecture were getting catty.

Far removed from any major arteries of civilization on a rather remote countryside freeway dotted with local markets lies the weathered facade of cat-land “Nyan-da! Park.” Established in 1999 as an extension of the eccentric founder’s dream to “enter into a line of work related to cats,” “understand more about the deep nature of cats,” and “present others with a form of animal therapy,” it houses over 100 domestic cats from all over the world. For a charge of 1,000 yen you can stay until closing in the indoor park-like environment, petting, playing with, or just watching cats. However, their website http://www.nyanda.com/index.html now offers a live cat-cam during hours of operation in case you can’t make it out. They also have a gift shop of souvenirs and other related paraphernalia.

Though a bit far for a daily excursion, Batsu and Maru decided to take the three hour train from Tokyo to Tomiura Station.

As we approached Nyan da! Park, a strange high pitched sound could be heard – something resembling a cat’s meow (rendered “nyan” in Japanese). Shaking off any silly notions that a cat park would be playing a song composed of animal sounds, it became increasingly evident that indeed a continuous loop of cats singing “Smoke on the Water” set to a synthesized rhythm mixed with samples of cars wrecking played not only in the park, but throughout the complex. We were greeted kindly and sanitized before entering the feline sanctuary.

Not many visitors were there on that day, but some regulars brought cat treats, cat toys, and even blankets in the hopes of attracting more friends. They showed no inhibition rolling around on the floor to play with the cats. Nor did staff, dutifully walking around to check on cats, clean up (the place had almost no cat smell), and offer the occasional back to land on, for those kitties that had perched too high.

Most of the cats were out and about, but others were caged. A staff member informed me that the cats are let out according to a set schedule so as to regulate crowding and other activity. However, cats that are out and about can get to areas inaccessible to visitors at any time if they so desire.

One area of the venue is set up to resemble a Japanese style house, and also offers a low table nearby to accommodate guests (remove your shoes, please). It gives the strange suggestion of returning to an alternate home, but bears a striking resemblance to a museum or zoo. This is also the area featured on their live camera. “The World’s Largest Cat Toy” is on display, and available for rent at a price of 10,000 yen per 30 min. Resembling something more like the world’s largest cotton swab or tickle torture implement, employees will instruct you on how to use it should you choose to indulge.

As we utilized some of the many free sticky-rollers to clean up before we left, a staff member informed us that they’d be giving out “o-bento” in a few minutes. O-bento is a prepared box-lunch, usually consisting of rice and small portions of other foods arranged in a visually appealing fashion. Of course, we knew this was for the cats; it’s just the way you say “give the cats lunch” in cat kingdom.

The same staff member soon wheeled out a cart with dishes and a large plastic bowl, and ran it around the complex yelling, “Come on everyone! It’s mealtime!” He brought to mind the pied-piper, as more and more cats swarmed around, one even jumping on for a ride aboard the cart. He came to a halt exactly where he’d started and laid out the dishes. The armies gathered eagerly, but said nothing and waited in patience. Only then, in a very methodical manner did he serve out the food. Cats in the gallery, unable to make it to a food dish, were accordingly served a small spoon of fresh vittles where ever they sat. For such a large community, we saw no cat fights.

Nyan da! Park lacks the cosiness and familiarity of smaller venues, but makes up in quantity what the others offer in quality. The train ride, which follows the coast, is also a beautiful addition to the trip which could be paired with a visit to Tateyama, something of the poor-man’s tropical resort. The bus or train ride alone is exhausting, so unless you have other things to do in the area, it may not seem worth it. In other words, if you happen to be surfing, fishing, farming, or pan-handling English in the Awa region, it’s a great place to get away for a while.

Angel Dolls – Go Figure

Conspicuously placed in Ginza, Tokyo’s uptown brimming with the newest in “classic designer chic,” Angel Dolls has been buying, selling, and displaying museum quality dolls for over a decade. Though the shop has relocated several times, it has remained “always in Ginza,” according to the proprietress, also commenting that it has stayed in its current main street location for over five years. Slightly confused as to why such a seemingly out-dated children’s pastime should rub shoulders with the elite, one need only look at the prices – sculpts range from 80,000 – 3,000,000 yen. Then again, somewhere in the middle lies the Volks Super Dollfie, albeit much more customizable.

Angel Dolls caught my eye for a few reasons. First of all, they hold at least one special exhibit per month. Free of charge, it features both new and classical style sculpts from all eras. Second, in addition to dolls they also house a wide variety of antiques, including dresses, glass works, and furnishings. All of these are nicely woven into the shop, giving the impression of walking into someone’s living room as opposed to a museum or showroom. However, what stood out most were porcelain dolls sculpted, dressed, and posed very similarly to Asian ball-joint dolls.

In search of answers, Batsu and Maru combed their hair and ironed their shirts before wandering into fancy-pants Ginza up the back streets. When we arrived, we were kindly greeted, and left to wander about for a while. Since very few items are kept in cases, I was happily surprised we were given no warnings or shown the door.

The shop was divided into roughly three areas: European made dolls, Japanese made dolls, and the exhibition portion. Most of the European dolls came from Germany, and were over 100 years old. It gave an interesting perspective, as they sit in the middle of the shop and can be easily compared with more modern sculpts. There were many varieties of Japanese made dolls, and most were ornately posed with props, antique toys, and other dolls.

When asked about the style of Japanese made dolls, the proprietress was quick to summon the traditional European school and point to examples which illustrated some resemblance; namely child sculpts dressed in kimono. However, “newer artists are gaining their inspiration from figures and anime – so though the materials and technique may be traditional the product is something quite of their own invention.” She gestured towards the table behind us, upon which sat dolls called “Naoto,” a thin and pale male doll dressed in feathery black, and “Alice,” another rendition of Carol’s classic. A female doll lay languidly on a red sofa, wrapped in a seductive red satin robe that made her skin look ever the more pale while enhancing the subtle shadows in her face. Some dolls stood no more than 10cm high, while others were probably near 60cm – about the same sizes as commercial poly-resin ball joint dolls.

Showing no preference, only passion and knowledge, she was very helpful and invited us to come back anytime. I’ll inquire about photographing my next visit. Though I didn’t see any signs to prevent the curiosity seeker, it seemed the better thing to do. Please see the Angel Dolls website for pictures.

The most interesting thing that came out of this adventure is the suggestion that one trend in doll culture is coming full circle. That is, the modern poly-resin ball joint dolls which incorporate classical techniques in doll-making are now being cast in traditional materials. Perhaps a new era of neo-classical dolls will soon walk the earth. However, I don’t think this will sway most BJD enthusiasts, save for those who tend to lean towards pure collection; the strength and durability of poly-resin give the hobbyist much more flexibility over porcelain.

It’s Boxes for Cardboard Meat Buns

Back in 2007, a sensational story hit the press: due to a burgeoning food crisis and dwindling meat supplies, the Chinese were substituting ground cardboard for the ground pork generally found in meat buns. Add to this a growing food scare in Japan, where longtime household name manufactures were shut down one after another for food safety concerns. Mix in a dash of playful cynicism for most things Chinese, and pour into notorious otaku bulletin board community Ni-Channel. Let it sit for a few months, and you’ll get an amazingly funny result that inspired corporate hand Shuman Shuman to open “Cardboard Meat Bun Shop Maririn” last December in Akihabara.

Instead of producing meat buns made with cardboard, Maririn instead serves their large gourmet-style steamed buns in cardboad, selling both “Mens’ Salt Flavored” and “Ladies’ Soy Sauce Flavored” varieties at 420 yen each. The filling includes a blend of oregano, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg mixed into Ibaraki Prefecture natural-fed “Herb Pork,” overseen by a Yokohama Chinatown Meat Bun Specialist to ensure juiciness and flavor balance. To make the experience complete, Maririn is staffed with “Red Chinese” in cute pink Mao-era costume mock-ups.

Of course no business would be complete without a spokes character, of which the shop has two, readily emblazoned on every promotional material. Spokes characters Maririn and Kourin went to kindergarten together and came to Akihabara with the intent of promoting food safety practices – or at least so says their debut single which released in March of this year. Entitled “Kowloon Baby,” it tells the story of how the duo came to be called the “unit saving the world through meat buns.”

In addition to the release of “Kowloon Baby,” Maririn also announced a summer manju parfait to compliment the rising temperatures. While hearty meat-buns are more popular as a winter-time snack, small and sweet brown sugar flavored sweet-bean filled snack breads are eaten year round. Topped with a little bit of soft ice cream, and still served in their namesake packaging, Shuman Shuman seemed to keeping up with the times.

However, what started as a profitable and popular business spawned from playful internet rumors is now closing its doors for good as of June 9, 2008. The announcement came from Shuman Shuman on May 11, along with a statement that they had intended to close the business in May from the beginning. Maririn fans are advised to come for a last tasting every weekend until the 9th, where maids as opposed to traditionally costumed staff will be serving from 11am-6pm. Customers lingering for that long lost taste in years to come should stock up now, as Shuman Shuman is also offering national delivery of frozen product for this limited time.

A recent visit of the shop showed it filled with boxes and covered with notices. However, some fans are trying to keep the spirit alive by showing their support in the form of cash, conspicuously taped to windows. Whether or not this act of good will can save the cardboard meat bun is as of yet unknown (we counted only 4000 yen), but the cardboard meat bun has definitely left its mark on Akihabara history.

Volks Customer Appreciation – Cruising for Cash

Fresh from Kyoto, I received a supplementary to the bi-monthly product announcement catalog and invitation to a “Customer Appreciation Festival” Tokyo Bay Cruise for SD owners in my mail today.

Invitations were limited to Volks VS and VIP members only, though one non-member guest will be permitted per invitee. So far, the cruise will feature a buffet of fine dining cuisine and the opportunity to purchase limited edition goods, though plans for other events are also underway. The cruise will be on Saturday, July 19 from 7:10pm – 9:40pm and cruise around Tokyo Bay on what is sure to promise a romantic summer evening. The cost for participation is 12,000 yen for members, 17,000 for guests.

Three different limited edition releases will be available for purchase on the ship. The invitation contains a portion in which you can “check” the items you intend to buy, though is quick to note that most products are first come first serve. The items are:

1. Reisner the ScarFACE ~The Shadow of Captain~

  • An SD-17 boy limited edition sculpt, dressed as a rather stately captain. On eye is closed, scarred with what has become an increasingly popular mark of war for the SD series, or a good way to save money on eyes. Only one glass eye is included. The accompanying sword looks rather ornate, especially the hilt. Most articles and the doll’s skin are covered in a UV protective coating.
  • Includes: doll’s body, custom wig, boots, frock coat, tailored vest, dress shirt, trousers, sword holder, captain’s sword, and a sword wielding right hand as an included optional part
  • Price: 155,400 yen

2. Captain Cecil’s “Flare of the midnight sun” Dress set

  • A matching set of pirate’s clothes for an SD-13 boy doll in brilliant white, bound to provide ample costuming background for numerous doll-friend adventures.
  • Includes: captain’s hat, frock coat, tailored vest, dress shirt, trousers, sword holder, eye patch, boots
  • Price: 15,000 yen

3. Captian Cecil’s Eye

  • One glass eye with white pupil. Maybe that’s what happens when you get sliced in the eye. Or, maybe he had this glass eye custom made for you to buy.
  • Includes: one special order 18-19mm glass eye
  • Price: 5,000 yen

Though I must admit that the prospect of unveiling a pirate themed doll on a dining cruise ship is an idea I wish was my own, I’m still inspired with the awe of capitalism that makes buying a chance to buy a doll seem reasonable. This dinner cruise is totally out of my budget for a number of reasons, but I still stop to ponder what types of characters will be on that ship. If anyone were so bold as to pull out their purchase and play – would they be thrown overboard? After buying all of your limited edition goods, do you resort to gorging on international delicacies, or refrain due to the concern of endangering the pristine condition of your product? Presumably, most people will equally gorge themselves on limited edition goods (one per person, guests not included), but perhaps some folks just want to take their doll on a cruise – something generally frowned upon, but made possible through Volks. I may never know, but I’m very curious.

Greedy Eyes for Greedy Catz

Last January Neko Ja-la-la, the first “cat cafe,” opened in Akihabara. They offered six (now eight) top breed and well tempered cats in a small but soft and cushion-y environment set to ambient jazz and classical music. 500 yen buys 30 minutes of kitty playtime and unlimited photo ops. Drinks, including a nice variety of coffees, teas, juices, and beer, are also available at an additional but reasonable cost.

On a visit in January most clientèle seemed to have never interacted with cats. The staff kept showing us and others how to pet a cat; all customers I asked were not cat owners. Considering the small living quarters of city dwellers combined with often strict pet policies, it’s not at all surprising that the invention of a pet space was necessary for curiosity seekers to have first contact with domestic cats. In turn, it’s not at all surprising that policy had changed by February, mandating appointments for weekend and holiday visits due to the apparent surge in popularity.

On April 26 a competing store opened on Chuo Dori, the main shopping street in Akiba – though their official grand opening was May 3. Greedy Catz, with glitzed-out “deco” style graphics and website, is potentially the “idol-kei” variation of the cat cafe. Though 300 yen (500 yen on holidays and weekends) buys 30 minutes of cat-time, there is also a one drink minimum order. With a second story venue, a signboard rests outside to attract and guide potential customers. They offer later hours as well.

Batsu and Maru are currently organizing a thorough investigation of Greedy Catz in order to test this hypothesis. More information on any new developments will be made available as soon as possible.

Let’s Drinking and Driving

Kyosho (http://www.kyosho.com/) opened another “circuit bar” location in Akihabara’s new Akiba Tolim building last month. Kyosho Corporation manufacturers and distributes a wide assortment of both radio controlled and die-cast metal vehicles. Ferrari, Nissan, Cadillac, VW, helicopters, boats, construction machinery, bipedal athlete robots – it’s not choice, but choosing that proves problematic. Sizes range from 1/8 to 1/64 scale. Though Kyosho offers an assortment of products sold at various shops across the country, truth be told they only have two official shops. Both are in Tokyo, bordering the East and West sides of the Yamanote loop, a train line that circles around central Tokyo.

In addition to product showrooms, both Kyosho Omotesando and Kyosho Akihabara offer two special features. The first is racing courses: either bring your own vehicle or rent one out. The second is a bar and lounge: sit around and throw ‘em back, waiting for your turn at the remote. Though they may be encouraging drinking and driving, I couldn’t think of a better arena. The staff kindly corrects all accidents. In the Akihabara location, there are three total tracks – two of which have digital monitors displaing lap time. The third track seemed more like a test drive track, created mainly for staff to play around during off-peak hours and to attract potential customers.

When we decided to try our hand at the wheel, the staff was too busy playing around to help us. Nevertheless, we figured out the system with relative ease. The two types of cars available for rental were the 1/47 scale dNaNo and 1/27 scale Mini Z; a 15 minute rental course was 500 yen. Those who own or purchase cars receive Kyosho Memberships and can lease the track for 1 hour at 1,000 yen or 15 minutes and 300 yen. After deciding on our display names, we paid the fees and spent our wait time snapping photos. The staff even offered to assist.

Track A, on which we were racing, was a long winding course with one straightaway to display true speed. Having never wielded an RC car, one of the staff showed us the way and raced with us for a while until we got the hang of it. In no time at all, I had little control of my car but was still able smash my opponent derby-style, which offered a consoling vengeance if not victory. It was heartening to have the staff laugh around with us even though we were intentionally crashing their product. Indeed, it showed how serious they were at having fun.

Even other beginners on the course were treated with empathy and respect. The staff went out of their way to make sure everyone could control their car, and even when they couldn’t, staff corrected collisions and wrong turns. One salary-man gentleman who appeared in his late 30s remarked, “It’s like I’m driving drunk,” while jostling in an uncontrollable laughter. Another racer responded, “It’s OK, I don’t have insurance.”

Akiba Tolim, created with the intent to bring more female consumers to Akihabara, is filled with restaurants, sweets shops, hosiery, and other products more popular with the ladies. The addition of Kyosho Akihabra (lol) to the basement floor thus makes it a popular venue for couples as well as stray buisness men, as the basement also connects to the Tsukuba Express train line. Many couples, salary men, and even the stray foreigner were to be seen on our visit.

Cafe with Cat Goes to the Wolves

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From April 4-6, Cafe with Cat, located on the second floor of Toranoana’s Akihabara Main Store, held a special event celebrating the DVD release of Wolf and Spice.

Transforming into “Cafe with Wolf,” staff members dressed as Halo (patron Wolf Deity and character in the series) intermingled with the resident cats. Their costumes were incredibly ornate; both girls we saw on our visit had natural, long hair which complimented the ensemble nicely, though admittedly looked very hot on the mild spring day. In addition to wolf staff, the cafe featured three special menu items recreating memorable aspects of the series: traveler’s bed and breakfast, apple tart, and grape juice. Every customer received a black and white character design sheet, but those who purchased the DVD downstairs at Toranoana’s Akiba Main Store also received a lottery style chance at winning rare goods.

Batsu and Maru decided to visit Cafe with Wolf on the first day of the promotion, April 4, at about 3:45pm. To our surprise, the cafe was empty, but the manager was giving away tickets for the next seating at 4pm. Had we been aware of the seating processions, we probably would have killed more time at Radio Kaikan looking at figures. Then again, 15 minutes isn’t long. We wandered downstairs to ponder buying the DVD, but were dissuaded at the first sight of a 6,000 yen price sticker. I opted to watch the preview on the TV which stood before the entranceway for a few minutes, and then line up early to beat the anticipated crowd.

We stood first in line, and were thus first to enter at exactly 4pm, not a minute earlier. A wolfish staff member guided us to a table and explained the day’s special menu. As she walked away, I surveyed the surrounding area. In total, about five out of 20 tables were seated; the counter was empty. Perhaps this wasn’t their peak time, or perhaps the event wasn’t very popular; this is uncertain.

I decided to order the grape juice and apple tart from the special menu. The grapes used to make the juice were actually grown to make wine. After pressing, they have an extremely short shelf life – though the cafe promised there was not safety issue. I was surprised to be served a very healthy glass of virgin wine, about 2 cups in total, served over crushed ice. It was naturally sweet and delicious, giving me a bit of a head-rush as I struggled to finish it. The apple tart was simply delectable. The apples had been poached in butter and sugar with cinnamon, and the crust was sparse. Served slightly warm with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, I think I ate more than my alloted half. Sorry, Maru.

Other customers in the cafe were also ordering from the special menu. Most seemed to have gone for the chance at winning rare goods, quickly wolfing down their slop to get a grab at the prize. It looked thoroughly un-enjoyable from my angle, considering that Cafe with Cat offers some of the best foods to be had at a theme-venue, but for all I know they had four hour trains home to catch. Maybe they felt as if DVD purchase demanded an obligatory visit to the cafe, if only to drop 500 more yen on a disappointment. No one in our seating won the legendary rare items.

Overall, Cafe with Wolf was a very nice and refreshing twist to the always enjoyable Cafe with Cat, though the abundance of staff seemed to be mulling in confusion due to the lack of work. Oddly, none of them cared to speak with us at length, which seemed unusual conpared previous visits. I decided to make a point card which is actually a “Secret Contract” with the resident magical cats to try to remedy this is in the future.