Only in Tokyo: a shopping guide
Build your itinerary around these key retail spots and you'll be hauling back everything from hand-carved toothpicks to Tamagotchi
There are several reasons to go to Tokyo this year: To eat the food, to marvel at the culture and to stand in awe of one of the world's densest, cleanest, safest cities. But really, you should go for the shopping. Build your itinerary around these essential retail destinations and prepare to fill your luggage with a bunch of stuff you never knew you needed.
Japan's answer to IKEA, minus the furniture and meatballs, Found Muji specializes in things for around the home, but the products on display at its flagship store lean decidedly toward the rare and handmade. One visit turned up bolts of kimono cloth and an enviable assortment of Japanese stoneware pottery. A few months later, the store was full of cute, hand-carved wooden animals, fair-trade chocolate and German glassware. As its name suggests, this shop takes its inspiration from wherever it finds stuff, and the result is a lot of beautiful (and mostly suitcase-sized) things.
You're buying: Japanese textiles and pottery
Based on the conversations overheard between parents and children during a recent visit to Tokyo's favourite toy store, don't bring a kid to Kiddy Land unless you plan on dropping some serious cash. The shop is five storeys of brightly coloured anthropomorphism, the air a cacophony of high-pitched jingles and anime voices. The shelves here overflow with Star Wars, Lego, Hello Kitty and Studio Ghibli merchandise, and the sub-level is dubbed Snoopy Town. There are also regional gems, such as the kits for creating doll-sized pizzas, complete with tiny moulds and spatulas. The instructions, a sign warns, are in Japanese only.
You're buying: An original Tamagotchi (remember those?)
There are lots of places to buy socks at home, but none of them can stand alongside this hosiery emporium, whose products are proudly made in Japan. There is a staggering variety of socks on offer here – woven from luxurious combinations of silk, cotton, hemp, mohair and wool – in all sorts of styles, sizes and colours. Business socks, sport socks, fun socks, no-show socks, plus lots of those weird toe socks – if you're into that sort of thing.
You're buying: Solid-coloured socks, tie-dyed socks, socks with hula girls embroidered on them
One of the greatest things about Tokyo is the abundance of stores that sell one thing and one thing only. Among the best examples is Saruya, a shop specializing in custom-made toothpicks. Tucked away in a back alley, this tiny atelier packages its hand-carved toothpicks in beautiful wooden boxes, each hand-painted with Japanese iconography or, with a week's notice, your name.
You're buying: Hand-carved toothpicks
There are a lot of ¥100 stores (the equivalent of our dollar stores) in Tokyo, and it's hard to resist wandering into each of them to browse the aisles of wonderful, bargain-priced wares on offer. Save yourself some time and head straight for Daiso's Harajuku location, where four storeys offer a prime selection of food, stationery and housewares.
You're buying: Washi tape, cute cat stickers, hot dog-flavoured potato chips
Even if you're coming to Tokyo to shop – nay, especially if you are – proceed with caution through the doors of this, the epicentre of all things hip and expensive. Beams is a Japanese brand known primarily for clothing, but its Shinjuku flagship store incorporates Japanese-made crafts and an art gallery alongside a precisely curated assortment of clothes from coveted fashion brands. There's probably nowhere else in the world where you can buy an enamelled teapot, a North Face Purple Label windbreaker, an immaculately restored 1980s boombox and an Italian silk shirt all under one roof. If you do buy something (and good luck resisting), show your passport for a tax refund.
You're buying: Souvenir jackets, streetwear, weird Japanese art zines
Some stores are worth visiting for the merchandise, while others are worth a stop simply for a story to tell. Don Quijote, the 24-hour emporium hawking everything from single beers to Louis Vuitton bags, belongs in the latter category. A popular stop for tourists in search of something unique, Japanese and cheap, the narrow aisles of the ground floor contain an impressive selection of Harajuku girl costumes, while other levels house luggage, electronics, sex toys and Swiss watches. It's an assault on the senses – don't go if you're tired or claustrophobic.
You're buying: Wigs, sake-flavoured Kit Kat bars
Japan loves stationery, and nowhere are the depths of that love more apparent than this massive, multistorey department store devoted entirely to fancy pens, beautiful paper and other handsome desktop accoutrements. One level is redolent with the earthy smell of pencil crayons. On another the walls are lined with thousands of kinds of paper in every imaginable hue. The top floor is devoted mostly to globes of various sizes and languages. Gentle harp and flute music wafts through the air, while the shop's "in-house wrapping stylist" performs origami-like feats with your purchases. Stop at the café for a refreshing dry ginger lemonade on your way out.
You're buying: Pens, Baggu bags, wrapping paper
On the ground level of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, just off the atrium, is Tokyo's oldest fruit store, dating back to the early 1800s. That's not, however, the most noteworthy thing about Sembikiya, a grocer specializing in exorbitantly priced produce. The giving and receiving of fruit as gifts is a traditional practice in Japan and Sembikiya caters to those who want to go all out. On the lower end of the scale, a single cellophane-wrapped banana will set you back $4, while a box of cherries will run you $325 (or roughly $8 a cherry). It would be a shame to give up your $170 cantaloupe to a customs officer, so play it safe with a jar of their house-made marmalade. Also, please don't squeeze the fruit.
You're buying: Fruit sandwiches with the crusts cut off, jams, maybe a $10 satsuma orange
Along with portable WiFi and hot coffee in cans, luxury-food halls are one of the many things Japan has perfected far ahead of everyone one. Matsuya is one of the grande-dame department stores of Tokyo (its Asakusa location was built in the 1930s) and its food hall offers a truly spectacular array of edibles, from sweet-rice mochi balls to ready-to-eat noodles. On one side, a chef prepares sashimi bento boxes with the skill of a surgeon. Elsewhere, dozens of kinds of soy sauce are paired with just as many varieties of rice, each accompanied by a photo of the farmer who grew it. Hundreds of varieties of sake and whisky line another wall, backlit like museum pieces.
You're buying: Sake, sweets