Quietly we sit in the lobby of the Takefue Ryokan. Concentration at its peak. It’s hot. Across from us, next to a woodstove, sits one of our hosts. We look at her intensely. Trying to understand the sign language we ‘speak’. Slowly we start to get the picture. We should pick a yukata and our dinner time, then all will fine. Suddenly another host appears. English? ‘No, no, sumimasen, sumimasen.’

We smile, enjoying the feeling we have indeed wandered off the beaten track. Enjoying that the world is not one giant village yet. Cherishing the cultural differences and language barriers. We wonder if our hosts agree? There is no way of asking this. Not only because of that language barrier, but also due to the fact host number two is about to complicate the situation. She is carrying a basket which she puts in front of us saying ‘KUMAMON’, very loud. We stare at her with big blank eyes, our cheeks rosy thanks to heat and circumstances. ‘KUMANON’ she says again, now pointing at the basket. ‘Fo’ you!’

Inside the basket lays a bear. A black one with – like us – rosy cheeks and big blank eyes. ‘Kumamon?’ we ask? Two big smiles stare right back at us. ‘Kumamon, hai!’ Ten minutes later we sit on the floor of our beautiful Japanese room. No longer just the two of us, but being the happy owners of a black teddy bear. Kumamon we whisper to each other, smiling at the sight and sound of our new travel companion and his-her-its name.

Gaijin (foreigners) who have been in Japan most likely noticed several peculiarities of the Japanese. Apart from the divine food, the courtesy of the Japanese, the way everything looks spic and span, the timeliness of public transport and the picture perfect fashion of Tokyo’s youth. The Japanese fetish for vending machines, concrete and animation stands out as well. Kumamon is an outstanding example of the latter; the fascination and talent for graphic art (see also article Toontown Japan). No matter what (dangerous) situation, brand or institution (the police for instance); the Japanese succeed in getting the message across using a cuddly cartoon figure or mascot. Like Kumamon indeed.

Bush bear near Mt. Aso

Bush bear near Mt. Aso

Kumamon was born in 2010 from the womb of Kumamoto, a Prefecture on the Southern island Kyushu. His initial purpose was promoting the opening of a new Shinkansen line. At first no one seemed to tale an interest in this black bear with its loony toon eyes. But on his first birthday things changed, big time, when Kumamon won the national Mascot Championships with an overwhelming 280 thousand votes. His competitors, a cake colored, egg-shaped chick and a grayish circle in tights did not stand a chance. Kumamon was totally veni, vidi, vici. There’s not stopping the black pear ever since.

With over US $200 million in merchandising revenues in 2012 and an expected increase of over 50% for 2013, Kumamon has ‘transspecied’ from bear into cash cow. And these are not the only sky high numbers Kumamon generates. How about:

– 322.000 followers on Twitter
– 400 new product & service deals a month
– a meet and greet with the imperial family
– a Harvard lecture & appearance at the Boston Red Sox
– close to 500.000 views of the Kumamon-mon-mon song on You Tube

Oh yes, Kumamon has met with royals and danced his little bear dance at an American Ivy League school. To this cuddly character it is all the same, a lifestyle that has turned him into Japan’s most loved bear. A pantsless cousin of Mickey Mouse. A bear who is ready to conquer the world. It’s not bad, not bad at all for a yurukyara who frightened little kids and left in tears just 4 years ago, in his year of birth, 2010.

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