We invented a game shortly after arriving in Tokyo, and we’re calling it Kawaii Quest. The challenge: Be the first to spot an adorable cartoon animal, be it cat, bear, owl or undefined with ears. Call out Kawaii! * and punch the other players on the arm (Punch Buggy, No Punch Backs–style). Dear reader, don’t initiate this game if you’re busy navigating the subway system or deciphering soba noodle menus – your arm will be sore.
An adventurous mom and her manga–loving son discover why Tokyo is made for kids.
At the entrance to the Ghibli Museum, a whimsical theme park on the west side of the city, I spot a massive Totoro behind the ticket counter. We expected to see fantastical creatures on this trip to the homeland of Pokémon – it’s a big reason my nine–year–old son Hank and I have come to Japan – but the apex is this mystical forest spirit created by Studio Ghibli. Director Hayao Miyazaki, whose supernatural tales offer eye–level environmentalism for kids and adults, is a hero of Japanese anime. He’s also a hero for many overseas parents obsessed with cult classics like My Neighbor Totoro and the Academy Award–winning Spirited Away. Riding a steampunk elevator to the second floor, we get a peek at his creative process in a recreation of his office, where watercolours of Japanese landscapes are tacked up with push–pins above the ashtray on his desk. Downstairs, 3–D scenes come to life at the push of a button to reveal the secrets of film magic.
This city of more than 13 million is kid–friendly in the extreme, safe and fascinating, in part due to omotenashi, the Japanese word for hospitality, which is more than a warm welcome, it’s an anticipation of another person’s needs. Like other junior global citizens who have grown up eating ramen and reading manga (one of the fastest–growing book categories in North America), Hank is more interested in visiting the real world than Disney World. Other cultural forces, like a national obsession with animals (many residents can’t have pets due to tiny apartments and strict rental policies, so furry creatures are publicly adored) and a deep connection to nature even in the most urban of settings, give a visit here cross–generational appeal. Totoro is just one example. Cartoon characters are widely used as public signage for everything from the instructions for our in–room appliances to streetside cautions about local fauna, making it hard to tell if information is aimed at adults or children. (Do: Feed one cute cat in your garden with a handy little dustpan and a neighbour watching happily. Don’t: feed multiple cute cats in a park, leaving passersby horrified.)
In a week’s worth of Tokyo subway stations, there isn’t a stop that doesn’t intrigue or amaze us. “We’re in the future,” Hank says, as we alight at Shibuya, with its famously enormous intersection surrounded by sky–high LED screens and elevated walkways. At the Hachiko exit there’s a statue of a dog named Hachi, who waited here every day for his owner – now people wait to take selfies with him. We’re carried diagonally across the street with other molecules of humanity and deposited closer to some awesome shopping in Harajuku, a long–time hub for super–colourful street fashion and teenagers in cosplay outfits. We go from Kiddy Land, a six–storey toy store jam–packed with next–level origami and miniature models of noodle shops, to Tokyu Hands, with its crazy stationery section and rows of gachapon machines, named for the sound of the coin mechanism turning and plonking out a plastic–bubble prize that contains, perhaps, a cat shaped like sushi? Best rainy–day activity ever.
If the universe were run by kids, there would be more places like Kawaii Monster Cafe. The neon–rainbow interior is like the inside of a unicorn brain, or maybe a unicorn latte. This popular psychedelic hangout is the brainchild of artist Sebastian Masuda, an architect of Harajuku’s cute–as–cool style whose time–capsule project is currently travelling the world before returning to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics. Under a mirrored ceiling hung with giant baby bottles, Hank gets busy with his order of candy fondue, dunking gummy bears into melted chocolate with a world–owning look on his face. The purpose of the carousel in the middle of the room becomes obvious at noon, when pink–wigged waitresses in crinolines and platform shoes start a song–and–dance routine to a soundtrack that knows only treble. “That was…” I say to Hank, gulping in the fresh air on the way out. No words. “The best!” he finishes my sentence.
On my first trip to Japan, back when Hank was just a gleam in his father’s eye, it was the countryside that really struck me. Japanese folklore is full of supernatural beings called yōkai that originate in rural places across the country – such as the froglike Kappa seen near rivers – and occupy a space somewhere between civilized and wild, spooky and cute. To get a feel for where they came from, we ride the train an hour and a half northwest of the city to spend a couple of days in the mountains.
It’s pure fairy tale at Hoshinoya Karuizawa, a posh resort in the form of a reimagined ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. The accommodations, including two hot springs and a dining hall (where the multi–course rice–fish–vegetable Japanese breakfast changed the way Hank and I think about our morning meal), are built into a landscaped hillside on the edge of a bird sanctuary forested with evergreens and larches. From our riverside villa, we can see candle–lit lanterns bobbing on the water while we eat pork shabu–shabu, a DIY hotpot named for the swishing sound of chopsticks in the bubbling broth.
Soon we’re wandering around in the cool alpine air wearing cushy robes and geta (wooden flip–flops). In a grey mist, we toddle over cobblestones and bridges to the humid tranquillity of the onsen. The volcanoes that shaped Japan’s islands also shaped its bathing rituals: We wash, slip into the naturally hot mineral water and try our inaugural mother–son meditation session. It goes down with some giggles, and some serene moments of just us, the light on the water and the silence of the air we breathe. There’s even a dark passageway at one end of the baths, fading to pitch–black, where, like a fairy–tale character, you overcome your fears. Spoiler alert: Almost!
At Picchio Wildlife Research Center, our guides Makoto and Yoshi are waiting in spotless hiking boots to introduce us to the musasabi, or Japanese giant flying squirrel. They explain that the wings are extensions of the cartilage from the paws. It’s basically a miniature superhero, complete with cape. “The OG of cute,” Hank whispers. Then they lead us into the woods with barely suppressed glee, as though they have a secret. Which they do: Infrared cameras in the nesting boxes allow us to watch the musasabi sleeping, waking up, peeking outside, grooming and… “sleeping again,” says Makoto. Finally, they’re scampering up tree trunks and gliding through the dusky sky like furry kites.
Back in Tokyo, I notice that Hank is placing his shoes by the door of our hotel room at the Peninsula, perfectly aligned, something I’ve done maybe twice in my life. We’ve abandoned Kawaii Quest by this point, having adapted to a life of constant cuteness, and my arm is recovering nicely. However, there is one last stop on the cat continuum, and it takes us to the older residential neighbourhood of Setagaya. The ward is home to almost a million people, but this quiet Sunday afternoon you’d never know it – on a sun–warmed street along the way, the takoyaki guy takes his time doling out hot, griddled balls of creamy octopus for us.
At Gōtokuji Temple, we wander past maple trees, pagodas and tombstones to see maneki–neko, the beckoning cat. Reading its origin story from a handout, we learn that back in the Edo period, some 400 years ago, a poor Buddhist monk and his cat were struggling to get by. One day, a feudal lord passed the temple during a thunderstorm and the cat motioned for him to take shelter inside, whereupon he saw the light and ensured the site became prosperous. Behind the gates, the grounds are swarming with cats, from teeny–tiny ones no bigger than a fingertip to foot–high figures. A canopy of white, pink and red. Seeing hundreds of them at once is a weirdly powerful experience: cuteness as a source of irrepressible hopefulness. As we’re leaving, a whole kawaii army of cats seems to be waving goodbye – which is when Hank remembers the game. “Kawaii a hundred times!” he shouts. And reader, I took it like a mom.