In a city full of foreign language and customs, visiting Tokyo's Pokémon Centre is a strangely welcoming experience. It's hard not to feel a sense of familiarity when surrounded by some of Pokémon's most famous faces - even when they are staring down at you from endless shelves of action figures and plushies, cereal boxes and spaghetti tins, hats, backpacks and badges.
The shop is Nintendo's take on a Disney store - complete with uniformed greeter and wandering merchants who try to sell you Pikachu hats. Right at the front lies the latest merchandise to go on sale: plushies for Mega Gengar and its rarer "Shiny" variant. Due to be highlighted in a Halloween promotion for the UK next month, here in Japan you can already buy cuddly toys of both critters, or pick up a pack from the latest Pokémon card set that, naturally, they also both star in.
Nowhere is it more evident how slickly marketed the Pokémon franchise has become. No other Nintendo series has a such a range of supporting material to keep fans hooked between major game releases - such as the TV show and its annual event movies, the trading card game, or the various game spin-offs. All of these are represented in some way at the Pokémon Centre, of which there are now eight scattered across Japan.
With the recent introduction of Mega Evolutions in particular, Nintendo has found a way to reintroduce some of its original monsters that remain among the most-loved. The Pokémon Centre is full of Mega Charizard and Blastoise memorabilia, plus playsets featuring classic first-generation critters such as Meowth, Bulbasaur and Snorlax.
But there's an equal amount of space for the franchise's more recent heroes, too. The three new starters from last year's Pokémon X and Y - Chespin, Fennekin, Froakie - are everywhere, while Black and White's trio of options - Snivy, Tepig and Oshawott - are also still well represented.
Another area displays more seasonal offerings - special edition items in a "Pokémon Spooky Party" range for September which prominently feature the pumpkin-like Pumpkaboo and the gourd-like Gourgeist on an assortment of mugs and iPhone cases, keyrings, plushies and pencil tins.
The launch of these limited-time lines is greeted with excitement and a rush for the rarest new toys. Just a week after its release, we saw no sign of the latest Pikachu plush variant (the yellow rat now wearing a crown and holding a Gourgeist-shaped guitar). Stacks of Pokéball-emblazoned traffic cones still lie outside the store, presumably for managing queues when new items launch.
Seeing the store's aisles bustling with Pokéfans reminds me of when the franchise was really big back in the UK. I say 'when it was really big', but what I probably mean is 'when I remember it being big for me', back when I was a kid: when the cartoon was on during Saturday mornings on SM:TV Live and when anybody who was anybody at school would pay cold hard cash if you had a shiny Charizard card.
As someone who remembers all of that fondly, it's great to see Pokémon being enjoyed by a new, younger generation - children and even teens who weren't old enough (or, gasp, even born) when the original Pokémon Red and Blue games were released.
As I exit the store I cross the street and sit down to check my purchases and StreetPasses. I look up and I see a Dad come out surrounded by his three kids who come and sit down and do exactly the same.
There's something else familiar about the Pokémon Centre then, as well as those colourful characters all over its walls. It's the excitement in the faces of the store's young shoppers (as well as the resigned look of their parents as their shopping baskets slowly fill). Despite being far from home, I'm reminded of a boy who used to get up early on Saturdays and turn on the TV, then drag his own Dad with him to the shop to go buy Pokémon cards.
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