||Kimono My House
t's raining. Somehow, it's always raining on the day I make my yearly holiday visit to Yuki and Kimono My House, Emeryville, California's long-time source of Japanese toys, trinkets and other import goods.
Even at 3:45pm, the dark has already descended with a sentimental finality. I make the drive down San Pablo Avenue. There's a 'quicker' way to get there, but the thought of holiday traffic dissuades me from taking that route. San Pablo Avenue is dark, rainy, and economically stagnant for long stretches. Then, right in the middle, a huge gentrified shop/live/work area appears. Home Depot, Comp USA, Toys R Us, and numerous other outlets splay out. A large, modern condominium of (no doubt) loft-like spaces fills a few blocks. On the western end of this oasis, IKEA, it's catalog dutifully memorized, causes my inner yuppie-compass to twitch, but I travel onward. The revitalized shopping area disappears as soon as it appeared, and I am back on track to the warehouse district.
Even on the warehouse side of town, revitalization has affixed its affluent stamp of approval. It rains, it glooms, much the same as it did on the first time I ever made this trip, except that time I was coming from the opposite direction, from U.C. Berkeley, some 15 years ago, and there was no revitalization, no new Amtrak station, no 16-screen cinema, no international food court, no public market, no Borders Books.
In all I like how the area has developed. It is far better than other such projects I've seen, and though revitalized, it's still alive and pretty diverse. Well done, Emeryville city council. Yet my destination has all the exterior flash of, well, a musty little storefront in some other country.
That first trip hardly introduced me to Japanese culture, robots, or anime. But it represented my first experience with full-on saturation of toy robot culture. I saw things that day that both inspired and scarred me for life. Things I never knew existed. Shiny alien surfaces, yet familiar and tactile. What appeared to be product malfunctions and mutilations boldly advertised as features on boxes that strained my inept language training.
I round Hollis, finding the usually impossible left turn to be oddly easy this time. The work lofts have filled quickly, and parking is all permit-only now, the one major change from a year ago. I struggle to find unregulated space and park.
I've come to the temple to pay respect on the anniversary of my baptism.
Up the stairs to the roof, Kimono My House exists in a series of small semi-connected rooms built atop a converted warehouse. The toy shop used to be housed in a largish free-standing shed with an extra large entry. But in the worst of wet weather, gust of rain and wind would actually sweep in and wreck the place good. Now the toy shop is in the far left room, where other imports used to be. Toys are the main commodity now.
The place is fully shackled down. Any hope of illegitimate access should be abandoned as gates, fencing, wire, and alarm systems are all in place. I miss the uncluttered nearly 360 panoramic view of the Bay Area, but a past robbery cruelly limits the panorama to a mere 270.
I walk in from the wet, and am greeted by Yuki himself. I have only seen Susan Horn, the owner, maybe twice, not counting the one time I caught her on TV. You see, KMH has become the official Bay Area sound-bite outlet when anything of note enters the media eye regarding Japanese pop culture. The release of America's Godzilla movie was one such occasion, putting KMH on TV, in newspapers, and on the radio numerous times.
I'd expected to see August Ragone, if he still works there, but no one else is working in the main shop, and I never go into the other side, where there appears to be the most administrative activity.
Yuki greets me warmly and promptly rebukes me for not coming in all year. The truth is, since leaving my job in the city proper, KMH is so far out of my roaming range that this visit is honestly the first I've been able to manage. I remind him that I'm getting to be an old man. I first walked in here a young college kid with no wife, house, job, kids, or brains. He points laughingly to his own few strands of gray and I stand again rebuked. Since I'm here to spend money, I've obviously not developed much in the brains area.
We chat up a bit. I finally get to see the Miracle House Arcadia. This is the heaviest diecast toy for its size that I have ever held. The density is unbelievable. It must be solid metal. It hurts to fly it around. It is actually, how can I possibly say this...too heavy. If only Bandai had had the guts with the Yamato...
I walk around looking for particular items. Things are thin to eyes that have seen it all. My mind plays tricks on me, reminding me of what *used* to sit on particular shelves, causing the full shelves to look empty as I mentally filter out numerous items.
During my visit, a few others customers happen in. A tall guy with a leather jacket and ponytail. Two guys, one rabid toy fiend, the other along for the visit. A young Asian couple, the girl occasionally calling out to the guy to confirm or question the identity of a character. These are almost comically typical of every visitor I've ever seen to this place.
Then a mother with her son walk in. The son, maybe 9 or 10, is agape. I've seen this format of visitation many times, too. He is explaining to her, in breathless hurried wonder, the meaning of the few items in the shop that he recognizes. Other things he barely notices. He is quoting the rarity of certain Zoids, how they originally are from Japan, how some toys from the show may never see Toys R Us. The mother is nodding, not really hearing, barely following, and constantly mentioning spending limits, money from grandma, and loans in advance of chores.
Yuki abandons me. The boy is not timid, but appears to go almost reverent in this place. Almost afraid to ask, he manages "Do you have any Red Horns?" Yuki frowns "That is very hard to get, many people want that. Did you call ahead?" "Yes, Wednesday," comes the unsure answer. "Ah! I remember you." He turns his attention to the mother. "He sounded so excited on the phone, I would hate for him to come in and be disappointed, so I set one aside for him." The boy is reduced to a bystander, as his own good news is delivered to his caretaker. Good thing, too, because he looks ready to erupt with joy. Soon he is holding a toy that can't be found in any US toy store. He is completely unaware of the fact that in all likelihood, neither he nor any of his friends will ever see this toy again.
That's how it works. You see it once. If you are thinking clearly, you manage a way to get it. Everything seems so attainable. But later in life, his mind will turn back to this strange little store. He'll remember that beloved toy. He'll remember shelves full of wonderful things: what were they all? If only he had stopped to look at them! He will remember Zoids that were never there. He will wish he hadn't moved to the east coast to go to college. He will most likely return years later to a long-closed emporium, perhaps with a son of his own, driven mad by what its shelves might have once held, and fleeting images in his mind of fantastical toys that may or may not be.
For now, however, his wish is fulfilled. Parent-child promises are made, and assurances are given of repaid favor and future good behavior.
Yuki leads the boy to the counter, only to pull back a tall curtain revealing his personal collection of the older type of assembled Zoids, some of his favorite toys ever. The boy is duly impressed, especially by the Brontosaurus, but the colors are drab, and they aren't on the TV show. He doesn't examine them much further. This tiny bit of education, which also will no doubt haunt him later in life, takes no longer than 60 seconds.
As the bag is being presented, Yuki displays a themed t-shirt. "I would like you to have this," he says, awaiting the boy's approval before placing it in the bag.
Hmmm...the toy karma is strong with this one.
But Yuki's fun is not over yet. He holds up a tiny candy cane saying "I'm giving these out to my good customers." As the boy's hand reaches for it, he naughtily pulls it away and holds up a much larger one: "This I give my *best* customers."
Many thanks are exchanged, and the mother and son exit into the wet gloom, his Christmas achingly days away. Yuki is revived by this transaction. He gains some life force from this, I'm convinced. I am reminded of the power he once held over me, being my one gateway of knowledge to the world of Japanese toys. A jaded adult, raising kids, working, and with easy access to HobbyLink Japan, he no longer has that power over me. Even though collecting got easier, inside I wish he did.
We start talking about Zoids, one of his all-time favorite toy lines. Every year it's something different, and Zoids is the big seller this holiday. He has no idea there is a new TV show. I try explaining how they used CG models with traditional cell-shading to create a very nice look. He mentions that a show was planned for the original Zoids, but was never produced. Disappearing for a moment he comes back with a video tape. What follows is 15 of the most entertaining minutes I've ever seen. It's a promo tape designed to sell the toys and the idea of a show. Shot with live action actors in a built-up control center, actual Zoids toys are stop-motion animated and motorized to fight one another! Missiles flying, explosions, toys being ripped apart by each other, everything! It is very, very cool!
As he switches off the tape, the new Zoids show just happens to be on TV! He likes the show, agreeing that the CG, though often out of place in cartoons, really works in this case.
He mentions a few items he knows I'd like. The Unifive Atom. I explain how wonderful I think this toy is, trying to easily relay the fact that I already own it. Another great toy, the Soft Garage T28, which I again praise in my most obvious way. Iíve bought it elsewhere at discount. He talks about the Phoenix, of which I am awaiting delivery. He too is awaiting delivery. He is afraid his customers may go elsewhere since his Phoenix's might not arrive before Christmas day. His are likely sharing a crate with mine.
I know he can buy wholesale, but it's obvious that small shops no longer have exclusive access to the new goods, and new goods are what the game is about today. He doesn't seem to want to offer me any more items, instead asking what's on my list. I pull out the Palm Pilot and he laughs hard.
Like all other American businesses, this hasnít been the greatest year. He and Susan took one trip each to Japan this year, but only by using frequent flyer miles. They may not make any trips in 2002. Only time will tell.
I do have a list, mainly items I'd put off buying this year. Chief among them is the Marmit T28. He doesn't have one, which only surprises me a little. Since I have the Phoenix on order, I look at a set of Unifive Gatchaman figures - that might make a nice shelf display with the ship. I ask about the SOP Kamen Rider. It's quite a bit more than I'd want to pay for that piece. He mentions a few other items, but I'm not really interested. One is a set of Furuta Yokohama statuettes, surprise boxes. One customer, he says, bought many multiples just to get all the T28 ones. They are very nicely painted, but again I pass.
After a while he mentions he'd like to close up, maybe leave a little early tonight, and reaches to put away the things I've been looking at. "No, no, I'll take all of these," I say. He looks genuinely surprised...yeah, like a snake is surprised to find a mouse in it's jaws. He rings up, taking his time.
Then he reaches for a couple of items, a cute, small, fuzzy bear tree ornament, and one of the Furuta surprise boxes. "I want you to have these," he says. I thank him profusely. Yes, the karma is strong with this one. The temple priest has approved of my homage. My soul is lightened, and I bless this place. I want it to be here forever.
Before I leave, he holds up a tiny candy cane, the same one, and says "This is for my good customers..."