Skip to main content

Godzilla meets Hello Kitty: Ultra toy story hits SFO Airport

By Evie Liu, for CNN
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 2223 GMT (0623 HKT)
<a href='http://www.flysfo.com/museum/exhibitions/japanese-toys-kokeshi-kaiju' target='_blank'>Japanese Toys! From Kokeshi to Kaiju</a> is the the most popular exhibit ever at San Francisco International Airport's in-house museum. Its run has recently been extended through mid-May. Japanese Toys! From Kokeshi to Kaiju is the the most popular exhibit ever at San Francisco International Airport's in-house museum. Its run has recently been extended through mid-May.
HIDE CAPTION
Japanese toy story at SFO Museum
Tin man
Recognize this soothing gent?
Speed demon
Karuta cards
Prêt-à-porter Kitty
Ultraman suit
Red King
Kamen Rider
SFO Museum
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Current exhibition at the SFO Museum at San Francisco International Airport features Japanese toys
  • "Seen through the lens of social media, this exhibit is our most popular to date," says museum
  • SFO Museum is the only airport museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums

(CNN) -- What's the best thing you could stumble upon when transiting through a major international airport?

A Cinnabon passing out free samples?

A security checkpoint with no line?

Not bad choices, but for unexpected pleasure they hardly measure up to a dress made entirely of Hello Kitty dolls or a Kamen Rider escorting your humdrum slog to the departure gate.

Those last two items are part of Japanese Toys! From Kokeshi to Kaiju, the current exhibition at the SFO Museum inside Terminal 3 at San Francisco International Airport.

MORE: Cinnabon, MOS Burger and other best franchises for travelers

Debuting in November 2013, the exhibit has become such a success -- the most popular exhibit ever for the museum -- that its run has recently been extended through mid-May.

"Travelers love it. Many people have really been caught by surprise as they walk through the terminal and see the colorful kaleidoscope of Japanese toys," says Nicole Mullen, curator of exhibitions at SFO Museum.

Kokeshi dolls are characterized by lack of arms and legs and brightly painted floral or geometric designs.
Kokeshi dolls are characterized by lack of arms and legs and brightly painted floral or geometric designs.

Atomic dragon meets world-conquering cat

With dozens of colorful items, the exhibit presents the evolution of Japanese toys, from kokeshi (wooden dolls dating at least to the 1800s) to Godzilla to everyone's favorite mouthless cat.

Popular items also include vinyl kaiju (monster) figures and novelties from the futuristic TV series "Ultraman," which premiered in 1966.

"For a show such as this one, some people will have a memory of a particular character from their childhood, such as Hello Kitty or Godzilla, that they get particularly excited about," says Mullen.

MORE: Inside Toyota Kaikan, world's most fascinating factory tour

The toys supply a window into Japanese customs, legends and history.

Early Japanese folk toys were made by local craftsmen.

After Japan opened to the West, however, toys that emulated their German and American counterparts began to emerge, such as classic wind-up and battery-operated toys.

The thriving Japanese movie, television and manga industries that followed World War II spawned a legion of iconic characters.

According to Megan Callan, assistant curator of museum affairs for SFO Museum, more than 4.6 million passengers have walked through SFO Terminal 3 since the exhibit premiered.

"Seen through the lens of social media, this exhibit is our most popular to date, with daily references through sites like Twitter and Instagram," says Callan.

The museum has created the hashtag #JapaneseToys.

MORE: America's 11 new sandwich heroes

From the mid-1940s to 1960s, nearly 90% of the world\'s battery-operated toys were produced in Japan.
From the mid-1940s to 1960s, nearly 90% of the world's battery-operated toys were produced in Japan.

Airport museums thriving

Exhibits of art and cultural pieces are becoming the norm at many U.S. airports, with some 20 or more airports regularly hosting exhibits.

San Diego International Airport, Philadelphia International Airport and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport are noteworthy among airport exhibit aficionados.

But SFO Museum is the only one accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.

Since opening in 1980, SFO Museum has grown from one gallery space to more than 20 galleries hosting 40 exhibits each year.

Dewey Blanton of the American Alliance of Museums calls SFO Museum the "most ambitious one" among all airports with exhibition programs.

"The great works of art the San Francisco Airport museum showcases send the message to visitors and travelers that San Francisco is a center of culture, they value culture and art," says Blanton. "This is a very educated and sophisticated city you are coming to."

MORE: 13 scary but awesome viewing platforms

For non-travelers, one chance to see it

For those not traveling through SFO before the Japanese toys exhibit closes in mid-May, the Japan Society of Northern California is organizing a panel discussion and guided tour on April 22.

Registration is open to anyone -- for non-travelers, the tour is the only chance see the toys in person.

Among other speakers, toy collector Mark Nagata will talk about the history of Japanese toys and their influence on contemporary culture.

Japanese Toys! From Kokeshi to Kaiju; on display in SFO Terminal 3 until mid-May.

Exhibition tour registration here; April 22; 6-9 p.m.; registration deadline 11:59 p.m., April 14; advance registration required, no walk-ins permitted due to security restrictions.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
The guidebook asked staff, contributors and authors for well-known and lesser-known recommendations.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT)
An airport in Asia has stolen the crown from Manila's Ninoy Aquino, voted 'world's worst' three years in a row.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
It's time for a beef break, veal vacation, hog holiday or sinew sabbatical in a T-bone a-fide U.S. meatopolis.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
With so many awesome new attractions on the way, the next few years are going to be a roller coaster ride.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 0107 GMT (0907 HKT)
Scientists are busy surveying Southeast Asia's Coral Triangle, home to 75 percent of all known coral species.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1350 GMT (2150 HKT)
Bounce Below in Wales
Bounce Below transforms an abandoned slate mine into a surreal, springy world of fear and fun,
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2316 GMT (0716 HKT)
With chopsticks or fingers? Wasabi or no? A double Michelin-starred Tokyo chef sets the record straight and shows us the sushi way.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT)
Markthal Rotterdam foodhall in the Netherlands.
It may look like a gateway across time and space crafted with alien technology, but in reality it's a fruit and vegetable market.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 0925 GMT (1725 HKT)
Based on the votes of over 330 industry experts, the 2014 winners include bars from 27 cities in 14 countries.
October 12, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Careening down an active volcano at 95 kph on a thin board? It happens only at Cerro Negro in Nicaragua.
ADVERTISEMENT