A Pokemon Pilgrimage

By Ryan Bobell

On a very dark and rainy June 23, I made one of the most important nerd pilgrimages of my life; I traveled to the Pokemon Center in Tokyo. Pokemon Centers, for those who may not know, are stores dedicated solely to selling merchandise from the Pokemon franchise. When we arrived I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; I had only heard of friends of friends who had made the trek before bringing back large quantities of Pokemon goods to the United States as presents and souvenirs.

As we ran up the rain slicked stairs from the metro station, the large Pikachu themed storefront came into view. Despite the depressing weather, I was stoked. After posing for a photo (see below), we charged on inside, where, sadly, we were not allowed to take any photos.

Inside the Pokemon Center, I quickly realized that it went far beyond simply being a Pokemon toy store. As I walked along the rows of merchandise, I found anything and everything Pokemon-themed. The shelves were stocked with everything from plushies to key-chains, and from cups to office supplies.

While most of our group made their way around the store casually perusing the goods, I methodically (and perhaps a bit maniacally) looked through every single item on every single shelf of every single isle of the store. I had brought with me a long list of my friends’ and siblings’ favorite Pokemon characters; I didn’t want to pass up a neat gift for anyone. Pokemon Centers are famous for their rare and exclusive Pokemon goods that you really can’t find anywhere else.

After I had searched the entire store (and filled my shopping basket a bit too full), I stopped and looked around. I was one of only three left of our group, the rest having left a long time ago for a cat cafe in Akihabara… I quickly made one last pass around the store and went to check out at the register designed after the Pokemon Centers found in the video games. My purchase totaled just under ¥10,000 (~$100) which was a bit expensive, but I had found plenty of cool gifts for my friends and family, so it was definitely worth it.

The last thing I did before leaving the store was get a special “Event Pokemon.” Every once in a while Pokemon Centers distribute what are called “Event Pokemon” to people who bring in their Nintendo 3DS and copy of the latest Pokemon video game. Event Pokemon is a neat way to reward dedicated players and attract people to the stores. The Gyrados that I got for my game came with special attacks that aren’t normally available in-game, and thus it was quite a rare item. To say the least, I was quite excited, despite the prospect of having to leave the Pokemon Center for the rainy streets of Tokyo…

I was so happy that I was able to make it to the Tokyo Pokemon Center because there hasn’t been a Pokemon Center in the United States since the New York Pokemon Center closed down in 2005. Since then, these Pokemon specialty shops recently have been exclusive to Japan and therefore a mecca for foreign gamers. In a way, the Pokemon Centers illuminate a difference between the Japanese and US consumer markets. In the United States, Pokemon and other game franchises are relegated to selling their merchandise in single isles inside of huge Walmart and Target stores. In Japan, on the other hand, while one can find some merchandise at similar larger stores, the consumer base is, for whatever reason, able to support all sorts of specialty stores designed around a single franchise such as Pokemon, Gundam, and others. Perhaps the collector/gamer consumer base is stronger here in Japan than it is in the US, or possibly the Japanese companies are underestimating their franchises’ appeal and marketability abroad.

Either way, the world needs more Pokemon Centers.

UPDATE: Since writing this blog post, Pokemon Company Int. has announced the opening of a new Pokemon Center in New York City. This store will be larger than any previous Pokemon Center, will feature a dedicated “Pokemon Museum,” and will be paired with an online web-store for the North American market.