Photographs courtesy of the author
When world shows its teeth, I like to take pleasure in small things. And nobody does small things quite like Japan.
With this in mind, I recently took a pilgrimage to a cluster of Japanese-style vending machines at a Hong Kong mall. Normally collectables aren't my thing, but these cheery capsule dispensers were offering Neko Atsume toys—adorable medicine for a turbulent week.
Japanese vending machine toys are better quality than those in the US. They stay in line with the country's aesthetic traditions of simplicity and craftsmanship, with fine details and vibrant paint jobs. They're more display pieces than disposable novelties, and are priced to match at three to six dollars each.
According to Tomoyuki Sugiyama, author of Cool Japan, these toys aren't a modern phenomenon, but descended from netsuke, a type of carved bead people used to secure the wooden containers that served as wallets in the Edo period. Most Western museums keep collections of these tiny works of art, since they proved easy for foreigners to carry home as mementos or ethnographic artifacts.
Modern-day netsuke, by contrast, mostly hang from cell phones or exist as objet d' art for desks. They're for looking at rather than playing with, existing to be admired.
The Neko Atsume toys don't fall short of this standard. Each faithfully recreates a cat from the hugely popular kitty collecting mobile game, along with its favorite accessory. Manufacturers Bandai have put in the work, too: the kittens have a genuine sense of motion, and even sport little Xs on their butts, just like the game.
The toys that are posed mid-roll almost seem to move in the corner of your eye. Glimpse them and you immediately hear the game's delightful xylophone theme, which never leaves your consciousness no matter how hard you plead.
Though each cat has appeal, the star players are Conductor Whiskers and the cowboy-hatted Billy the Kitten. I can't speak for whether Billy is worth the buy-in—I cut myself off after burning $40 trying to score him—but Conductor Whiskers comes with an enormous train.
But what sets these toys apart is that you're free to mix and match the cats, rearranging your little desk-side feline village to suit your mood. There's endless satisfaction in placing one bread loaf-shaped kitten atop a train, shoving another's head into a cardboard box, and putting a third to sleep on a hamburger pillow.
And in times like these, a little kawaii is good for the soul.