The Global Search for a Cat Bus

As my career at Westinghouse winds down, I tend to look back at some of the more memorable moments with people who have been like family to me.  Nearly 40 years ago, when I first started I was in a 3-man office with Jerry and Katsu.  Kats was a single dad with two boys.  A couple years later, a young lady right out of school joined our group and a romance budded, followed by marriage and a baby girl.  They are both retired now and are living very happy lives, but something happened when their daughter was about 4 years old that still amazes me.  The little girl’s favorite movie was a VHS copy of  My Neighbor Totoro.

My Neighbor Totoro is a Wonderful Movie

This is a wonderful story which I just watched again with my grandkids, which is why I decided to write this post.  The movie is Japanese animation about a couple of sisters who happen upon mythical creatures.  A minor character in the story is called Nekobasu, which I think must be Japanese for Cat Bus.  This was her favorite character.  The bus shows up when one of the girls needs to get somewhere fast.  It runs over fields and forests at great speeds because it has a whole bunch of legs.

Nekobasu – This would’ve scared me to death as a kid

So because it was her favorite movie, and her favorite character in the movie, they got her a stuffed Nekobasu that she took to bed every night, and carried around the house every day.  It came from Tokyo where Katsu’s family lived, because you’d never be able to find such a thing in the US, and the internet was in it’s infancy, so you couldn’t get it from Amazon.  All was well until cousins came to visit from Japan.  They had a little girl of their own a year or two younger than Katu’s daughter.  She fell in love with the cat bus, and when the time came to go back home, the little girl cried to leave it.  The cat bus owner then did a very brave thing and made it a gift to the littler cousin, who left happy indeed.

Then it was bedtime……….

The Japanese have cooler money than us

She had trouble sleeping without the toy.  They looked everywhere for a new one, but there were none to be had.  At this time, I was traveling to Japan a couple times a year for work and got a desperate call to see if I was going.  I was in about a week, so Katsu’s wife gave me 10,000 yen which was about $100 to buy a new one.  We stayed at the Imperial Hotel near the Ginza which has an enormous toy store called Hakuhinkan Toy Park.

Biggest Toy Store in Japan. Yet no Cat Bus to be Had

I was armed with the name of the toy in English and Japanese, ねこのバス, along with a narrative of how big it should be and other important details.  I figured I should be able to find one in this gigantic store.  I gave my instructions to a young lady clerk who told me very sorrowfully that “We haven’t had toys from this film in stock for several years.  It could not be found anywhere in the vastness of the Ginza.  I looked.

The Holy Grail 

When I got to Narita airport for the flight home, I stopped for one last look in an airport gift shop.  I did happen to find a Nekobasu refrigerator magnet, which I bought so as not to come back empty-handed.  Still, the thought of giving this to that young girl was depressing.  Upon returning home, I gave back the 10,000 yen, and handed over the sad little magnet.  Now that should be the end of this story, but it isn’t.

I went 12,000 miles and all I got was this tiny magnet

My family plays hockey.  At this time, in the mid 90s, my son was a 9-year old defenseman playing for the Mon Valley Thunder Squirt A team, at the Rostraver Ice Garden about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh.  As my daughter played on a girls team at the same rink, and I coached both teams, we practically lived there.

Mon Valley Thunder Mite A Team was the Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League Champs in 1995. My name is on a banner!!

One of the girls on my team had a brother that was a year or two older than my son.  Gary was a good hockey player, but had another skill that I have never seen matched.  He was master of the iron claw machine.  The one where you put in a quarter, aim this claw at the toy you want, and watch as the claw closes on air and you get nothing.  Well this kid could put in 4 quarters and get 3 toys.  I have never understood how he did it.  Anyway, after practice one day, I saw my son and others gathered around the machine to marvel at Gary’s skill.  I have to admit that I’d done so myself from time to time.  Then from across the room I hear, “What the heck is that thing?”  I looked over and saw him holding up a stuffed cat bus.  “NEKOBASU!!!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.  I ran over and offered him all the money I had on me.  Maybe $3.50, which he gladly took to keep playing the machine.

Gary was the master of the Iron Claw Machine – The Claw Chooses

On Monday I went back to work and went to see Katsu’s wife.  I handed her the toy and she looked amazed.  “I thought you said you couldn’t find it.”  I told her the story, but she didn’t believe me.  I wouldn’t believe it either except that I was there to witness it.  I guess that the people who stock the iron claw machines probably get toys that are out of date fairly cheaply.  It even had these little mice that were velcro-ed to the side of the bus who ride the bus in the movie  These had been lost over the years from her daughter’s toy.

I went back to the rink and looked.  There were no other cat buses in that machine.  And I never saw one again.  God played a hand in this it seems.  Or rather he guided Gary’s hand.


Daytripping with Rick

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