On the Hunt for Tokyo’s Strangest Souvenirs

How the city’s wackiest discount store turned one avowed anticustomer into a voracious shopper.

On the Hunt for Tokyo’s Strangest Souvenirs

Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson/Flickr

By nature, I’m not a shopper. I can’t stand the crowds, the confined spaces, the overconsumption, and most important, spending money. Artisanal craft markets and design-forward boutiques? I’ll pass. When I do shop while abroad, I typically end up at grocery stores bargaining with myself over whether I can squeeze another bottle of olive oil into my suitcase. I gravitate toward food; that’s the type of traveler I am. But something about Tokyo draws out my inner shopper. And shopping here—by turns practical and wild—offers more insight into Japan’s modern culture than 100 precious tea ceremonies and hanami cherry blossom picnics ever could.

I visit Japan at least once a year, sometimes for months at a time. I usually arrive at Narita clutching a shopping list of things I “need,” such as yuzu soy sauce, sesame dressing, brown rice vinegar pills, and vitamin Aspiked eye drops. Like most Tokyoites, I hit the usual suspects: Muji, Uniqlo, Tokyu Hands, and the gloriously well-stocked depachika, a gourmet market located in the basements of high-end department stores like Daimaru and Takashimaya. It’s here that I suss out the best piece of tempura and ogle the white strawberries and eye the Hokkaido melons for 10,000¥ (about $90) before loading up on endemic items like seaweed salt, pickled plums, and bonito. Occasionally I make a pilgrimage to Tokyo’s Kappabashi Street, aka Kitchen Town, for ceramic knives or sake cups. I’ve even lost a few hours at a 100 Yen Store (Japan’s dollar store equivalent), because when in Japan, I evidently have no shame.

But it wasn’t until my most recent two-month stay in Tokyo’s Nakameguro neighborhood that my husband and I noticed a cavernous space flanked with eel aquariums as we were stumbling home from a boozy night at our favorite izakaya. Like many businesses outside of Tokyo’s most touristed drags, it had no English sign; I didn’t know the name of the place. It looked and sounded more like an arcade, blasting high-energy jingles and blinking lights while drunk Tokyoites ran up and down the stairs, each step playing a piano’s note. “It’s a store,” I said aloud while moving through the sea of fluorescence, as cautiously as one might on a shark-viewing snorkel expedition. It was midnight. I looked back toward the dark street, where my husband frowned with disapproval, but even he eventually gave in to the gleaming light. Our lives haven’t been the same since.

Like someone experiencing their first high, I spent that first hour at Don Quijote exploring the unknown: five floors of Japanese whiskey, teeth wipes, matcha Oreos, dried squid, melon-flavored Pocky sticks, sliced pork belly, and cat-shaped room humidifiers with steam vents in the cats’ ears. Shelves were stacked high and densely. “As Seen On TV” products such as hot dog toasters and ramen-cooling fans that clip onto chopsticks graced the endcap of every aisle. Breathless from the alien discoveries, I discreetly tiptoed back to the entrance to grab a basket, hoping my husband wouldn’t notice. But then I spotted him eyeballing a package of soft-baked Country Ma’am Vegetable Chowder cookies, and I knew I was safe. Before long, we’d filled up the basket and were humming along to the store’s famous jingle, “Miracle Shopping,” which we’d later learn was written and sung by former Don Quijote employee Maimi Tanaka.

What we didn’t know then about “Donki,” as locals call it, is that it has 160 locations across Japan, including 23 in Tokyo. It was founded in 1980 by Takao Yasuda, the 26th-richest man in Japan. Most are open 24 hours and hawk an endless variety of cosmetics, food, furniture, booze, medicine, and bikes. Donki doesn’t just have a few things you need—it makes you need things.

From that first outing, I brought home a sharkskin wasabi grater, wax ear plugs, and a luggage scale. I also scored a portable phone charger and a bottle of chestnut shochu at half the cost I’d seen them sell for elsewhere. The Nakameguro store became my grocery staple during the next two months, providing fresh produce, butter from Hokkaido, slices of marbled Japanese beef, and Bull-Dog brand katsu sauce. Late-night visits brought me face to face with the wacky and wildly varied world of Japanese snacks, and netted such junk food finds as Apple Pie KitKats, scallop-butter-flavored pretzels, and Camembert Cheeza crackers. As an antidote, I picked up some “Trumpet Brand” pills, gastrointestinal medicine made with beechwood creosote that’s a must for adventure eaters and a common sight in medicine cabinets across the country.

But the most interesting part is what the packed shelves tell you about what Japanese people want. Browsing is both consumptive and ethnographic. Many cosmetics revealed some of Japan’s complicated race and identity politics: Suspect skin-whitening creams, hot pink face-slimming masks, a nose straightener, and eyelid clips to enlarge eyes to manga-esque proportions were aimed at an adolescent market. But who was I to judge, with my basketful of men’s Bioré strips, tooth-whitening charcoal toothpaste, and a toothbrush made with high-grade human vellus hair?

Donki was one of the few Japanese stores that didn’t struggle after Japan’s economic bubble burst in 1992. And it’s easy to see why. The superstore’s rise coincided with Japan’s economic fall, because so many Japanese were suddenly forced to become thrifty. For many, life’s little luxuries became a salve for greater economic woes. And they continue to salve both locals and visitors today. Miracle shopping indeed!

>>Next: The Tokyo Neighborhood You Need to Know

Adam H. Graham is an American journalist and travel writer based in Zürich. He has written for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, BBC and more. Assignments have taken him to over 100 countries to report on travel, sustainability, food, architecture, design, and nature.
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