If you're into Japanese toys and live in the Bay Area or are just visiting, it would be well worth your while to drop by Kimono My House. Located on the roof of a warehouse in Emeryville, California, finding Kimono My House is half the fun. Open since 1980, Kimono My House is the oldest Japanese Toy Store still in business in the United States. They are also the first retailer in the United States to exclusively import Japanese anime and toys.
I have known about Kimono My House for many, many years, but since I purchase most of my Japanese toys online, I didn't visit the actual retail store that often. I recently decided to re-visit the store and it's proprietor Yuki. When you decide to visit the store, use Yahoo! Maps for directions because Kimono My House is in an unlikely location. It was the very first retail store in Emeryville- back when Emeryville was just warehouses and train tracks. Yuki has incredible foresight as 25 years later, Emeryville is a mecca of retail shopping. However, Kimono My House is still located in a somewhat industrial part of town and you would never believe that there was a toy store anywhere nearby. The only indication is a wooden sign directing you to take the stairs to the top of the warehouse.
After taking the stairs to the top of the warehouse, you are treated to a somewhat surreal rooftop garden that contains Kimono My House. As you pass the five foot tall Voltron look-alike robot, you enter the store. What struck me when I first visited the store probably 10 years ago was how old-skool the store felt. It felt, looked and smelled exactly like the way the Japanese toys stores from my childhood in LA did. Funny thing is when I came back recently, it looked exactly the same as it did 10 years ago-including Yuki behind the counter!
Although Kimono My House has new toys, I would say their specialization is vintage vinyl and die-cast toys. If you want the old stuff, KMH is the place to go. I have been told by many collectors and Yuki himself that KMH had a lot more vintage toys than they do now. "Guys would come in from out of town and just grab up everything! They would leave here with 8 bags full of toys and spend thousands of dollars in one trip!" I believe it.
KMH has that musty, attic feel with Japanese toys crammed together on every shelf. I scolded myself for not visiting more often just to see all the toys up-close. I had a slightly awkward moment with Yuki when he asked me how long I have been collecting toys. I told him around 10 years and he looked at my sort of puzzled and said: "but i've never seen you here." Yuki's reaction was testament to his longevity in the Bay Area and even the west coast. If you collect Japanese toys, you know about Kimono My House. I felt a sudden pang of embarrassment and told him that I usually purchase my toys online. Yuki immediately rolled his eyes in disgust and turned his head away. He snapped back: "It's guys like you that make it hard for independent toy stores to make a living" He was right and this sentiment is something I have heard from other toy store owners like Robin Kwok over at Heroes Club.
It is, however, reality. Kimono My House has an online store, but I find it's navigation clumsy and it doesn't have pictures for all the toys, so I don't use it. Yuki doesn't really blame me or anyone else from buying off the web, but he is saddened that the glory days of collectors flying to San Francisco just to shop for toys are pretty much over. Why make the trip when you can find anything you want online for less, tax-free and delivered to your doorstep?
Still, there is something to be said for browsing around in an old-skool Japanese toy store like Kimono My House. I first did a quick pass through each of the crowded aisles to get a feel for what was where: action figures, die-cast, mini-figures, vinyl, anime, etc. I nodded my head to Yuki as I passed by him behind the counter watching tv. I then strolled by my areas of interests more deliberately and slowly, examining the vintage die-cast toys, action figures and selection of blind assortment mini-figures. By the time I was finished with this, an hour had gone by and my wife had made the climb up the stairs to retrieve me.
In one of the glass shelves, I noticed a die-cast vehicle that I owned as a child. It was the "Heavy Combat Blugar" Spaceship from the anime Raideen. I remember that it was a compromise toy that I recieved for Christmas because the larger die-cast transformable Raideen Robot was too expensive. Even back then, die-cast toys were still much more expensive than regular Mattel plastic toys. If my memory serves me correctly, the larger die-cast Raideen I wanted was like $33 (back in 1975). There was no way my parents were going to spend $33 on a toy for me! So the compromise was the Raideen support vehicle for like $13. It was still very cool. It had spring-loaded missiles of course and the front opened like a big-mouth bass to reveal another smaller vehicle inside. I asked Yuki how much it was and he looked at me and whispered $120. I replied: "how much??" Nostalgia aside, I couldn't justify spending $120 on a toy that I probably threw away as a kid.
Another small toy caught my eye. It was a mini-figure that was out of the box from the tv show Kikaider. It was Kikaider's doppelganger Hakaider on his awesome motorcyle. It's a mini-figure so its only a three inches tall, but very, very cool. I wanted it immediately. I asked Yuki if he would sell it to me. He said it was a sample and pointed me to a carton of blind mini-figure boxes. I protested that I hate purchasing blind assortment toys. Blind assortment is extremely popular in Japan. There are a series of different toys but you don't know which one you're going to get until you open it. I hate them because I always get the lame figure. This is by design of course. The really cool figures (like Hakaider and his motorcycle) are rare. In fact, in one full case of 12 figures, there will only be two (2) Hakaider and motorcycle-one white and one black.
Yuki surprised me by offering to weigh the boxes. In this particular series, the different figures each have a different weight. Since Hakaider has a motorcyle as well, this one is the heaviest. Yuki at one time even had a chart. So we went about weighing the small boxes and tried to determine which one was the heaviest with his little postage scale. He even went as far as getting a new case because he knew for certain there was two of the highly desired Hakaider's contained within. He then taught me a little trick passed down from a Japanese toy distributor: the rarest figures in a blind assortment are placed in specific locations within the case. In a box with an odd number of rows, it will be in the very front left. In a box with an even number of rows, it will be left of the center row in front. Sure enough, when Yuki opened the new case, he picked the one in front on the far left and weighed it. "This is it" he whispered in his deep, raspy Japanese accent.
Sure enough, I opened the box and there he was. Hakaider and his cool motorcycle- only it was the white motorcycle. ugh! I hate white. I wanted the matching black motorcycle. Yuki looked at me and said "I told you I would find it, but there is no way to determine the color". I wanted to buy the other heaviest box, but Yuki didn't permit me. He said it would be unfair to his other customers if I bought both. Disappointed as I was, I understood and thought it very considerate of him to think of his other customers. (although one with good money willing to spend more was standing right in front of him). I ended up buying a few more figures and then took a black marker to the white motorcycle so it would match. You can hardly tell.
So if you are in the Bay Area and want a nostalgic experience, I would highly recommend visiting Yuki at Kimono My House. Even if you are not a toy collector, anyone interested in Japanese pop culture will appreciate this old-skool store and it's quirky proprietor.
Kimono My House
Store hours: Wednesday-Saturday 11-6, Sunday 12-5.
1424 62nd St. Emeryville, CA 94608
(510) 654-4627 (510) 654-4621 fax
From Highway 80 take the Powell Street exit heading east. Make a left on Hollis and another left at 62nd. There's lots of street parking. We are located on the roof of the warehouse!