PART 3: THE FINAL DAYS OF TOKYO
The globe kept spinning and the days carried on. A few nights of sleep extinguished the brutal jet lag of my 13 hour flight. Now, I was deep into the city of Tokyo - exploring every facet of the urban ecosystem.
By the fourth day, I was drifting among the hordes of people who crowded a local street market in the Ueno ward.
I roved through, eying whole octopi and other bizarre snacks that were available for consumption. My mind had officially migrated to Japan, abandoning the desire to sniff out toys.
The narrow alley opened to a blur of cars on a busy street. As I waited at the crosswalk, something grabbed my attention...
Like popcorn in a microwave, little kernels of curiosity popped away. Why were the Turtles on the side of this building? What was inside? And did I really just see someone selling a whole octopus?! Suddenly, it hit me like a pizza to the face. The toy hunt urge had returned.
I entered Yamashiroya Toy Store. Like all things in Tokyo, the place was a madhouse. A buoyant stream of Japanese pop music accompanied the howls of energetic children. Toy birds and airplanes hung from the ceiling, whirling around in a continuous, circular pattern.
I scanned for toys, but everything catered to a younger crowd. Were the giant Turtles a ploy to lure me in? Defeat was looming over me, but then I noticed a secluded staircase hidden in the corner of the store. Guiding myself with a series of vague clues and symbols, I felt like I was reading a Japanese treasure map. A pursuit that would hopefully lead me to a haul of riches.
The tangled staircase spit me out on the second floor. The zany intensity from the first floor eased. The toys here were for older collectors. My Japanese treasure map was bringing me closer to the prize.
A familiar noise echoed in the distance. Another clue? I followed it. With each step, it grew louder. The sound would ramp up, suddenly stop, and then start again. When it could grow no louder, I rounded a corner and came face to face with Turtle Power.
A mini TV screen was playing a TMNT toy commercial on a continuous loop. Surrounding it, a full display of Ninja Turtles toys. X marks the spot, dudes.
Figures from the Nickelodeon series surrounded the small screen. Dozens of toys, identical in appearance to their American counterparts, but the packaging had undergone a Japanese mutation.
The foreign language and alternate design instantly made this toy a must-have. I would have purchased a few more, but like any crazed collector, I already have 2 sets of the American releases (1 opened, 1 unopened).
Naturally, I chose my favorite Ninja. I hope you have a passport, Raphael.
As I scrutinized the condition of the unfamiliar packaging, a strong presence stirred near my feet, like a cat in need of attention.
I looked down to find a set of Hello Kitty-themed TMNT toys lingering by my ankles.
Hello Kitty, hello happiness.
Their cute battle-ready bows radiated through the display. The Sewer Den is stuffed with endless collectibles, but nothing is this precious. I never knew a ninja could be so adorable.
Hello Kitty is everywhere in Japan. She is the country's national flag - waved proudly from a cultural flagpole. From baseball games to the gift shops on Mount Fuji, her lovable image is omnipresent. This was the quintessential souvenir from Japan.
Sure, I had seen these charming figures back in the States while scouring the internet. But, that was online, not in person - before I knew the power of this pop culture cat.
Purchasing the entire set was enticing. The figures were cheaper than the prices I saw online, but these friendly felines were still a premium. I opted for my favorite Turtle, Raphael, once again.
The Japanese are the friendliest people on the planet. Everyone is gracious, in every situation. The polite etiquette continued with the courteous clerk at the toy store. He saw my TMNT items and a lively grin spread across his face. Reaching behind the register, he presented me with a few goodies.
A retro-style folder was the first item. Perfect for my travel itinerary.
Next, he handed me a massive gift bag covered in TMNT logos. I swear, this thing was bigger than my apartment. Even though I didn't speak a lick of Japanese, and the clerk didn't know English, we were using universal hand signals and loud gasps to poke fun at the bag's size. Our inability to speak the same language only added to the amusement. Our international banter had us laughing uncontrollably.
Together, we stuffed my new TMNT riches inside the gigantic paper treasure chest. Would this exceed my carry-on limit?
Following my Japanese collecting code was proving successful. My Tokyo toy finds had sent a shot of adrenaline through me. I was itching to celebrate. What's the best way to do that in Japan?
My suggestion? Go snack on Yakatori along Tokyo's tiniest backstreet, Piss Alley. Squashed establishments along this narrow row serve grilled meat skewers along with cold beer. A perfect environment to let your hair down, meet a friend, or revel in the reward of a toy haul.
Mutate your night from excellent to completely awesome by following it up with a Japanese baseball game.
Peanuts and Cracker Jacks are nonexistent here, but fried octopus balls and squid skewers knock it out of the park.
Need something to wash down the wild snacks? Have no fear! Women with beer kegs on their backs rove the stands, never leaving you thirsty.
With each hit of the bat, sip of beer, and bite of an octopus ball, my enthusiasm escalated. I passionately rooted for the home team (the Swallows!) with thunderous chants of encouragement. Little did anyone in the stadium know, I was also rejoicing for my toy discoveries.
NEXT: The voyage continues! In PART 4, I say goodbye to Tokyo and venture to the serene city of Kyoto. Can I scrounge up more Japanese Turtle toys?