Cat mascot amuses all day, every day

TANIA BUTTERFIELD TURNING JAPANESE
Last updated 09:30 12/02/2013
Hikonyan
Hikonyan, the mascot cat for the town of Hikone who has become a mega-celebrity in Japan.

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His name is Hikonyan.

He's about 165cm tall [5 foot 6 inches] and was born on April 16, 2006, according to the Shiga prefecture guide. He's released a single which echoes all day every day in his home town of Hikone.

I can hear it now.

"Hikonyan, Hikonyan, Hikon-yan-yan".

That is the only lyric and it repeats over and over and over.

So who or what is Hikonyan? Some sort of mega-Japanese celebrity? A singer? An actor?

He is a cat. His name originates from his home town, Hikone, combined with the onomatopoeic sound a cat makes - nyan. He is the town mascot for Hikone, which is about half an hour from where I live.

Hikonyan was created to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Hikone Castle and is probably an extreme case of how massive the Japanese mascot culture is.

Most companies, towns and prefectures have their own cute and cuddly mascot you can usually find wandering the streets during festivals or purchase some corresponding mascot merchandise sold on special occasions, or near town attractions such as temples or castles.

Not Hikonyan. He is an every day, all year, "we will worship him in all his glory" type mascot.

There is not a town in Shiga where you cannot buy Hikonyan merchandise, which includes toys, socks, food items, stationery. You name it, they have it in Hikonyan style.

He even has his own blog and his own "made for YouTube" movie. Check it out.

To be fair, Hikonyan has done his town proud - being voted the people's choice mascot on numerous occasions at the Hikone Mascot Festival (yuru kyara matsuri), and even at a Japanese showcase in France in 2010.

I have seen Hikonyan once in person, at the mascot festival last year. It was a brief sighting as my friends and I waited by a covered alleyway where the mascots rested away from the public. The crowds had gathered by the alleyway as news spread that Hikonyan was present.

Hemeji Castle's mascot came out first, followed by a couple of others. Then came Hikonyan's security guards. Yes, this samurai cat had security guards surrounding him.

Just like a Justin Bieber concert, girls young and old started screaming. Boyfriends rushed to get their cameras ready to get that one photo of the biggest celebrity in Shiga.

Hikonyan came out for a whole 30 seconds, before the screaming mob of girls chased him into a nearby store. We never saw him again after that.

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To be a fly on the wall to watch Japanese mascot creators come up with one of the 187 mascots who attended last year's festival would be an interesting experience. Who would have thought a vicious looking bear with a melon for a head would help promote tourism in an almost bankrupt town? Or create a superhero with a miso soup bowl for a head and steam as his hair?

Only in Japan.

Tania Butterfield is a former Express reporter teaching English at two schools in the Shiga prefecture of central Japan.

- The Marlborough Express

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