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Storied family-run toy shop ‘sells dreams’ to Tokyo tourists

by Michael Kleindl

“Continuing a small toy shop for five generations is a kind of miracle,” says Masaki Terao, 58, proprietor and purse-string holder at Toys Terao, which his family has been running on Nakamise-dori in front of Asakusa’s Sensoji Temple for nearly 130 years.

Terao and his wife, Mayumi, 53, put the family’s sticking power down to a combination of canny business sense, relentless penny-pinching, and a belief that what they are doing is important. Plus, there’s the good fortune to be on the right side of the old three-rule proverb: location, location, location.

The Terao shop is one of about 80 tiny establishments that line the 250-meter-long shopping street that starts inside the great red Kaminarimon entrance gate and ends just short of the second, grander Hozomon gate.

Sensoji is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Tokyo, and according to the temple’s website, some 30 million people visit annually. Yet that staggering number doesn’t guarantee sales.

During New Year’s holidays, when millions visit the temple, explains Terao, Nakamise is so crowded with visitors moving en masse toward the temple that individuals can’t peel off to enter the shop.

“Sales are not good during o-shōgatsu,” he adds. “For the last 10 years, the restrictions by police to keep people moving have become stricter, and sales have suffered.”

“I thought the three days of New Year’s should be our days off,” says Terao with a laugh, “but my wife wouldn’t allow it.”

About 15 years ago, Terao and his spouse, a former JAL flight attendant, took over the business from his mother, who had run the shop for 50 years.

“My mother often said that thanks to our ancestors, we could have this location,” he says.

Toys Terao occupies one of the best positions on the street.

“People don’t buy anything before praying, but after finishing their prayers, when people turn around and are heading back down the street toward the exit, they see our shop,” Mayumi explains. “People in Japan walk on the left, and our shop is on the left side at the first big intersection. It stands out.”

Terao’s father had been a university math teacher, but he also did the kanekanjō, or money counting, behind the scenes. “It’s the same situation now,” says Terao, who has retired from a career as a banker.

His wife, with a few other long-term employees, manage the day-to-day business of the shop, making all the decisions about which toys to sell and how to display them, while he stays in the background, looking after the finances.

People in the front tend to want to expand, Terao explains, while those in the back must work to protect the business.

“My wife functions as the accelerator,” he adds, with a smile. “My function is the brake. Together we drive safely.”

Terao was born and grew up in Asakusa. He didn’t learn much about his great-great grandfather’s toy shop, but he reckons it sold menko, a card-tossing game popular since the Edo Period (1601-1867), kendama, the wooden-handled toy with a red ball attached by a string, and wooden spinning tops. Similar toys are still sold in the shop today, but the tops are now souped-up models called BeyBlades, metal and customizable, and the playing cards are Pokemon-themed.

Mayumi estimates they stock between 500 and 600 different types of toys in their small shop — toys designed to appeal to boys and girls, children and grown-ups. Arrayed on shelves are tin wind-up locomotives, spaceships, police cars and platoons of multicolored robots crowded against Transformers, Atom Boy, Doraemon, Godzilla and Mr. Potato Head action figures and Hello Kitty goods.

Above these are Barbies and other fashion-collection dolls, including Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina, the eponymous heroine of the 1954 film, and Anya, the princess from “Roman Holiday.” Below those dolls are crowds of TV anime character toys, from Chibi Maruko to Domo-kun, interspersed with games, puzzles, key-chain ornaments and assorted other items jam-packed into a vivid, riotously colorful display.

Outside the shop, lined up in a precise row so as to not intrude even a centimeter onto the sidewalk, are the “catchy goods,” as Mayumi calls them — toys that move, such as a battery-operated “pesky pup” that barks and jumps and sits up, begging for the attention of curious passing children and adults.

About half of their customers are foreigners, says Mayumi, and most of these are Chinese. She speaks fluent English and is currently learning Mandarin so that she can speak to those customers directly.

“Our best season is Chinese New Year’s,” adds her husband. “Now, we rely on Chinese tourists. Not only for us, but it’s a good season for all of Asakusa.”

And during those holiday weeks, which this year end on Feb. 15, “we focus on the adult customers,” says Mayumi. “I think about what kind of toys they might like, then I order.”

When toys don’t sell, it is difficult, she confides. “I choose toys I think will be popular, but sometimes they don’t sell as much as I expected.”

Sometimes the customers ask Mayumi whether she has a certain toy, showing her a photo of it on their smartphone. “Then I decide to stock it,” she says. “Chinese are very interested in Gundam action figures.”

“Generally speaking, Chinese customers like goods that are made in Japan,” says Terao, “but when they check the anime-related toys, they see some of them are made in China.” He laughs. “Some customers are disappointed. But if the toys were made in Japan, the prices would be higher.”

Terao says the number of Chinese tourists appears to have dropped a bit, amid disputes between the two countries, but not so much as to affect sales.

Many adult Chinese come to buy Monchhichi dolls, a cute monkey-like creature with the plump cuddliness of a teddy bear. A lot of department stores in Tokyo sell a handful of Monchhichi products, but Terao operates the city’s largest specialist Monchhichi shop a few hundred meters from his Nakamise location.

Terao’s mother and Mayumi have over the years designed some original costumes for the character, such as happi coats, and Mayumi hopes to add some original 2020 Tokyo Olympic-themed clothing to the Monchhichi line.

“Even middle-aged Chinese customers are interested in Monchhichi goods,” she says. “They research our shop on the Internet before they arrive here.”

There seem to be an endless number of style variations filling Terao’s Monchhichi shelves: kabuki, ninja, princess, robot, Santa, strawberry, fairy, pirate — even bride and groom Monchhichi. The doll, produced by Sekiguchi Co., celebrated its 40th birthday last month.

“Every day, Chinese people visit our shop,” says Mayumi, “but French people visit as well.” Even Jacques Chirac, when he was president, came in once and bought a wind-up toy for the bathtub, a black bass fish, for his granddaughter.. “And the next day his bodyguard came back to buy the same thing for his own child,” she adds. “He couldn’t buy it while he was guarding Chirac.

“Japanese toys have leadership among the world’s toys,” adds Mayumi. “It makes me happy when people from many countries play with Japanese toys.”

Asked what he likes about selling toys, Terao says, “Toys are part of children’s dreams.” But to keep the shop a going concern takes hard work. Many toy wholesalers have gone bankrupt, he adds. It’s very tough for them now, because the toy business has shifted to electronics companies. “But a few wholesalers still come around with new products,” he says.

“At the bottom, though, our policy is that we do not try to expand,” he states emphatically. “We will not borrow money from the bank to increase inventory. I really dislike borrowing,” says the former banker. “We stay small, and continue on as we have.” His wife looks at him and smiles.

In April, the sales tax will go up, but Terao is not sure if it will be a problem because “we don’t sell big, expensive things.”

“But changing the price labels of hundreds of toys will be a problem,” says Mayumi.

They both look forward to the tourist influx and sales boost the Tokyo Olympics will bring.

“Speaking of our shop’s business, the Olympics will be a good opportunity,” says Terao, “but, as a Japanese citizen, I worry about the national budget. The deficit is increasing,” he adds, again showing his inner banker.

As a young man, Terao says he felt no pressure from his parents to eventually take over the shop. The couple have three children, one son and two daughters, the youngest of which is still in university. The parents insist they have exerted no pressure on any of their children to become the sixth-generation proprietor.

“Of course, we’ve spoken about it, though,” admits Terao.

When the eldest son, Soichi, who is now 28, was younger, he seemed uninterested in the toy business. Recently, however, “My son is now saying that it is worthwhile to continue the shop,” Terao says with a smile.

Toys Terao (www.toysterao.com) can be found at 1-37-1 Asakusa, Taito Ward. Phone 03-3841-0147. Open daily 9 a.m.- 7 p.m. Send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.