I'm almost a little embarrassed to admit that this past Saturday was my first visit to the iconic Japanese toy store, Kimono My House.
It is definitely not a trip to be lightly undertaken- the drive is fairly nerve-wracking even on the weekends. The store itself is located in a desolate industrial area, and is surprisingly difficult to find.
But I knew that we had truly arrived upon stepping out on to the sun-baked rooftop pathway to the toy mecca of yesteryear. A giant Ultraman greeted us, along with a fairly new Carranger statue. All of the legendary jumbos are now entirely gone- either moved inside for safety or stolen.
A sign tells you that Yuki would like someone to take care of his similarly giant cat, Monster. We seriously considered the offer.
Passing by the sound of a serious discussion of Ultraman, our eyes adjusted for a minute as we entered KMH. If you happen to visit KMH, your first impression will undoubtedly be that it is much smaller than you expected. The square footage of the store area cannot be much more than the two bedrooms of our modest apartment. With the ambient sunlight filtering through the dusty air of the warehouse-like space, it seems more like someone's personal collection on display than a retail venue.
There is the usual assortment of newer anime and toy products on the shelf fronts. The two or three glass display cases near the register hold carefully preserved vintage items. There are some real treasures in there to be certain- I think I even saw a boxed Ark Zinclon King Kong in one corner.
I think the true magic of KMH cannot be fully discerned unless you spend a half hour or more looking carefully up and down each shelf. Above the main shelves, jumbos, monster sentai toys and more out-of-production items from years past fill up the walls to the ceiling high above. A 3-foot orange Godzilla crouches in one corner of the rafters, behind a couple of giant Tetsujin 28s and adjacent to a row of boxed Jumbo Machinders. I think those were newer, but I don't know enough to say for certain, and I would not be surprised either way. Behind the register, a veritable army of Medicom RAHs and Henshin Cyborg toys stands watchful. A tree of bagged kaiju (including those amazing Marusan original reissues) stands quietly in another corner, perhaps humbled by the massive Godzilla looming above. And as you look at each shelf, there is more and more and more piled far into the back, in the crevice beneath the shelf, and buried beneath other items. I was encouraged to dig through the mass of items behind the register as well.
I did not have a chance to speak with the mystical proprietor of the shop, Yuki, but I did have a long and interesting talk with Brian (webmaster/assistant shopkeeper). The topics ranged from current anime, to paleontology, to Kamen Riders, and other topics that I cannot recall. I can get stuck 'talking shop' to toy store guys for hours. I probably would have spent the rest of the afternoon there if my girlfriend had not reminded me that we still had to drive out to SF.
As I reluctantly emerged from imbibing the toy-infused air of the shop, it felt like waking up from one of those dreams where you have found that tiny store that still has its original stock of 1980s toys. Except this was real, and I was clutching a toy of Servo from the American adaptation of Gridman. (Don't worry, I paid for it.) There was so much more that I could have picked up, but I didn't feel like hauling a rucksack full of kaiju and sentai robots through Ghiradelli Square.
After years of collecting, Internet shopping and bidding on Japanese auctions, I feel almost too cynical to admit that a mortar-and-brick toy store can still have something that cannot be boxed and shipped over the Internet. But KMH has an undeniable magic; it is like stepping back in time to when toy stores were a treasured destination for kids, rather than the big-box, sterilized nightmares that they are today. I can think of only two stores that have a similar effect on me, and both of those are in Japan.
But beneath the obvious love that has gone into building and operating KMH for the past 35 years, there is a bittersweet note. To put it somewhat poetically, KMH is a flower that has passed the point of full bloom. While you can still see the color of its petals and smell its fading perfume, you cannot help but imagine how beautiful or fragrant it must have been at its peak. I believe that KMH was truly an incredible store in the late 90s when Japanese toy stores were a rarity and the Internet economy still in its infancy.
If you have never made the trip out to Emeryville, I would do so, and soon. There is something fundamental to the nature of toy collecting in small stores like KMH. But it is fading fast, and once gone, I think we will never see it again.
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