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Introducing Hokkaido's answer to Kumamon mascot: Melon Bear

Melon Kuma is pictured in Yubari, Hokkaido, on May 1, 2017. (Mainichi)

YUBARI, Hokkaido -- With Kumamoto Prefecture's "Kumamon" mascot becoming a household name across Japan, it is also worth mentioning "Melon Kuma" -- a bear-themed mascot originating in this northern city.

    With most of its face resembling a melon, Melon Kuma is supposed to have transmogrified from a regular bear into a fierce-looking bear with a largely green face.

    "Melon Kuma suddenly changed into the fantastical creature that he is after eating some locally-grown melon," explains 35-year-old Ousai Wakasa, a local souvenir shop proprietor and the creator of the bear mascot. The city of Yubari is renowned for its eponymous melons, a pair of which recently sold for 1.5 million yen at auction.

    The part-melon, part-bear mascot became a life-sized character in 2010, after Melon Kuma related souvenirs were first put on sale in 2009. By 2011, Melon Kuma had gained notice at a nationwide event. Wakasa was invited to sell related goods across the country after the character became popular at an event in 2011, but he declined the offer.

    Like "Funasshi" -- the pear-themed character that represents the city of Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture -- "Melon Kuma" is not an official mascot. As Wakasa explains, "Melon Kuma" is not for the city. Nevertheless, its distinctive presence continues to bring joy to local residents of this city, which is trying to recover from a financial crisis.

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