At the Togoshi Ginza shopping district in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, where about 370 shops line a street about 1.3 kilometers long, a unique experience-based tour is becoming popular.
While on the tour, participants can communicate with local residents and other tourists - all while wearing the kigurumi mascot costume of Mike, the shopping district's mascot character modeled on a stray cat. Togoshi Ginjiro, another mascot character of the district who is like Mike's big brother, accompanies the tour participants.
Tokyo-based company Shigoto-Ryokou planned the tour two years ago, and it became popular among fans of local mascot characters as the tour participants can wear a kigurumi costume.
One Saturday in April, six people, including a 46-year-old mother and her 23-year-old daughter from Shimane Prefecture and a company employee from the Tokyo metropolitan area joined the tour, which started at 1 p.m. The tour costs ¥6,700 per person, including tax. Though most were meeting for the first time, many of them were fans of local mascot characters, and they soon had an animated conversation about the topic.
"It's surprising that I can become what I could only look at before. I couldn't help but apply for the tour," a 29-year-old female company employee said excitedly.
The tour participants learned the manners of communicating with pedestrians and how to move while wearing the kigurumi costume for about two hours, and then became Mike by wearing the mascot costume one by one, in turn. Voices saying things such as "I can't see ahead very well" and "It's hot ..." could be heard from inside the costume.
The event was held at the time when the street was kept free of vehicles.
Their vision became narrowed because of the head covering, so participants moved toward children and their parents or couples by relying on pedestrians' voices, and then shook hands with them or posed for pictures with them.
"I didn't feel embarrassed because my face was covered," said a 46-year-old homemaker who participated in the tour. "It was like I was pretending to be another person, which was fun."
A 34-year-old male company employee said: "I could communicate with strangers easily with the help of the kigurumi costume. It was the ultimate, extraordinary experience."
Choko.group, a Tokyo-based company that designs and creates kigurumi full-body costumes, also holds a similar tour that allows the general public to experience wearing the suits at a shopping centre in Fuchu, western Tokyo, once a month. The tour costs ¥6,000 per person, including tax. The company has nine kigurumi costumes, including a panda and a rabbit. "It's fully booked two months in advance," said President Choko Ohira.
Meanwhile, some local governments rent kigurumi costumes of their local mascot characters for groups of people as a way to vitalize their regions.
The Gunma prefectural government is one such local government. For the prefecture's mascot character Gunma-chan, which is modeled on a pony, the costume was rented 548 times in fiscal 2014, increasing about tenfold from fiscal 2009. The Ikoma municipal government in Nara Prefecture also rents out a kigurumi costume of its mascot character Takemaru-kun, modeled on the city's specialty chasen (tea whisk) and bamboo, free of charge. The government said it has received feedback from users such as "I was happy that I could become popular at an event."
Local mascot characters are now more familiar to people, as Funassyi, the pear mascot character that unofficially represents Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, has gained popularity on a level usually reserved for idols.
"You can't become an idol, but you can become a local mascot character by wearing their kigurumi costumes," said Akihiko Inuyama, a producer of local mascot characters who wrote a book on yurukyara mascot characters. "Such ease is one of the charms of the tours that let you experience kigurumi costumes."
People who have worn kigurumi costumes say when they joined an event at a local shopping district or other places while wearing the costume, strangers talked to them saying things like, "You're so cute." While they knew the words were for the kigurumi costume, they say they felt it was a marvel. Colorful and cute kigurumi costumes may lead people into an extraordinary world.
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