Writer Chris Pritchard finds Hello Kitty’s special kind of cute reveals the fun side of this fascinating culture.
Brief case of fascination
Sitting on a wooden stool in a tiny ten-seat restaurant facing an alleyway in Omoide Yokocho, on the edge of busy Shinjuku Station in Tokyo I am immersed in people-watching.
It’s early evening and crowds are everywhere. I’m so fascinated by the scene outside that despite the beauty of the elegantly arranged plate of tuna sashimi I just ordered, I can’t take my eyes off the commuters who squeeze past each other on their way to homeward-bound trains.
Many are salarymen, mid-tier white-collar office workers.
They rush past in well-cut business suits and ties – expressionless and almost all clutching briefcases.
These briefcases fascinate me.
I find myself wondering whether – wedged between business papers – there are quirky obento lunch boxes or other examples of a peculiar Japanese obsession: a love of kawaii, which means ‘cute’.
Kawaii brings a smile to the face of even the most serious-looking salaryman.
Kawaii is everywhere
On the window near where I’m sitting is a large decal of Hello Kitty, a twinkling-eyed white kitten.
Trains thunder by – but a picture of this ubiquitous cartoon character, the most widely seen Japanese cutie, grabs my attention.
The kawaii Hello Kitty is plastered everywhere – from beer bottles and Visa credit cards to vending machines and tourist buses.
She’s worn on clothing and handbags, appears on the logos of fast food outlets, on stationery, street signs and advertisements.
In fact, it’s hard to walk down a street in a Japanese city and not see Hello Kitty’s friendly face.
Even here, in Omoide Yokocho, or ‘Memory Lane’, famous for its 60 bars and eateries, among the speciality dishes and the seemingly endless serves of draft beer, sake (rice wine) and green tea, there’s still a place for the Queen of Cute.
So how, I have to wonder, does this cute white kitten fit into this very grown-up environment?
With her particularly Japanese sense of kawaii, Hello Kitty enjoys global celebrity status.
Products with Hello Kitty’s image are sold internationally.
Purses, pens and sweaters are particularly popular.
A Hello Kitty-themed café thrives in the London suburb of Soho.
In Taiwan, EVA Airlines has a specially commissioned Hello Kitty plane, there are Hello Kitty theme parks in Johor, Malaysia; Zhejiang Province in China; as well as in Tama, a city west of Tokyo.
Hello Kitty also stars in themed restaurants across Asia: a yum cha restaurant in Hong Kong, a café in Changi Airport in Singapore and in downtown Seoul, South Korea.
More predictably, there’s also a Hello Kitty teahouse in Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto.
Good morning, kitty
The reason I’m sampling the tastes of this part of Shinjuku is that it’s only five minutes walk from where I’m staying: the Keio Plaza Hotel, a 47-storey, five-star hotel that was Tokyo’s tallest building and Japan’s first high-rise hotel when it opened back in 1971.
Today, I discovered, the hotel offers a unique experience: among its 1450 rooms are eight Hello Kitty-themed rooms. Checking them out is one reason I picked this hotel.
So, the next morning, I meet Sunaho Nakatani, the hotel’s public relations manager, and together we take the lift to the 23rd floor. The doors open to reveal a pastel-coloured corridor, with mostly plain brown doors on both sides.
It could be a hotel corridor anywhere, I start to think, until Nakatani stops in front of a door with a small pink bow sitting neatly above the peephole. Here is the first clue of what lies inside.
We then step inside the room and into a scene of a high-energy cartoon strip. Wallpaper screams of cheerful images of Hello Kitty and her similarly kawaii friends and family.
While the bed and side tables are reminiscent of what you find in ‘normal’ hotel rooms, the giant hot-pink plush stiletto shoe that doubles as a chair takes me by surprise.
From the huge pink roses embellished on the carpet, to the enormous pink bow cushion on the window seat, this is a room in which any 12-year-old girl would feel right at home.
In this 25-square-metre room, Hello Kitty’s favourite pink bows, roses and love hearts abound.
Even complimentary water bottles are graced with her joyful face.