Gift-giving is an integral part of Japanese culture. Traditionally, gifts are sent in the summer and at the end of the year to business partners as well as close relatives and friends to express gratitude. As a result, the presentation, packaging, and gifts themselves are incredibly important—and all of these factors help make Tokyo a shoppers’ paradise.
For travelers, there’s even more incentive to shop local in Tokyo: Most shops offer complimentary gift-wrapping (which means your souvenirs look all the more artful when presented to a spouse, friend, or coworker), and many are duty free—all you have to do is bring your passport to save 10 percent. Here’s where to find some of the best things to bring home and where to buy them online if you can’t make it to the stores.
Clothing and textiles
Buy It: Silk pleated and tie-dyed scarf ($210)
Shibori is a traditional dyeing technique created by winding string onto cloth to create unique artistic patterns. Although it was historically applied to kimonos, its use has since expanded. Modern creations at Bunzaburo—which started in Kyoto in 1915—include scarves, bags, dresses, and accessories.
Buy It: Indigo dyed fluffy hoodie ($325)
Aizome, or indigo dyeing, was originally used to give color to clothes for samurai warriors; the hue—developed from dried and fermented indigo leaves—eventually became known as “Japan blue” due to its popularity. Today, Okura produces an array of blue shades for clothes such as jeans, jackets, dresses, and T-shirts using a technique that dates back more than 1,000 years.
Buy It: Classical straight denim ($248)
Fashion boutiques dot the streets of Daikanyama, and many artisans here show an exceptional attention to detail when it comes to Japanese jeans. UES is one of the better-known shops and for good reason: Its raw denim is designed to evolve to the shape of the customer’s body, so that each pair is marvelously, uniquely yours.
Eating, drinking, and dining
Buy It: Copper grater ($21)
There’s a reason lots of professional chefs travel to Japan to shop for knives—the blades made in Japan can last for decades, thanks the country’s rich history with sword-making. If you don’t want to spring for a knife, with prices starting at $100, try a turtle-shaped copper oroshigane (grater) with two sides: the rough side for grating daikon radish and onions, the fine side for ginger and citrus.
Buy It: Tsugaru lacquer chopsticks ($25)
The selection of chopsticks at Natsuno is dizzying, ranging from simple bamboo to colorful lacquerware. Sizes, too, vary from small for children to extra-large for sumo wrestlers, and the staff can help pick a size that is right for your hands. Don’t leave without a hashioki (chopstick rest), either in a traditional pattern or a whimsical design like edamame.
Buy It: Sugi cedar bento ($2o)
Bringing lunch to the office or to a picnic is more fun when presented in a bento box, which is designed to hold rice and several small dishes. At Loft, you can buy them in a variety of materials (sturdy plastic or elegant lacquerware) and sizes: Playful designs for kids include popular characters like Hello Kitty, while modern, thin metal boxes are constructed to fit into a briefcase.
Buy It: Hojicha roasted green tea ($13)
At Jugetsudo, Japanese tea aficionados can stock up on matcha powdered green tea for whisking or sencha green tea for steeping. Other tea styles that aren’t as commonly found outside of Japan are worth exploring: Toasted green tea, hojicha, is low in caffeine and has lightly smoky notes. Genmaicha, or roasted brown rice tea, is often blended with green tea and has a slightly nutty flavor. The shop also stocks everything from tetsubin iron teapots to loose-leaf tea bottles.
But It: Four-pack otsumami (snack) ($23)
Yamamoto Noriten, located in the heart of the historic Nihonbashi Muromachi district, has been selling nori since 1849. Known for its ajitsuke (toasted) nori, which is often served at traditional Japanese breakfasts, Yamamoto Noriten also serves snackable nori sticks in flavors including wasabi and sesame seed, uni, or spicy mentaiko roe. (Of course, it’s all packaged in kawaii—or cute—tins.) Home cooks who love to make sushi at home will want to stock their home pantry with the traditional yakinori.
Pens and paper
Buy It:Cloud blue notebook ($34)
On the main shopping street in Ginza, Ito-ya covers an impressive 12 floors, with each floor primarily devoted to one element or experience of writing: think pens (floor 1), office (3), and fine paper (7). On floor 8, visitors can learn about the traditional art of making washi, or Japanese paper, which is the base for beautiful stationery and notebooks. The selection here is expansive—and no wonder: The art of calligraphy and sending seasonal greetings to friends and colleagues is a traditional part of the culture.
Buy It: Hello Kitty! magnetic clips ($2 for pair)
Seria, Daiso, and Can Do are three popular 100-yen shop chains with branches throughout Tokyo. And while dollar stores in the United States may get a bad rap, 100-yen shops are perfect for finding only-in-Japan items that make fun small gifts or stocking stuffers—think sushi erasers, sumo stickers, traditional cloths, and stationery. Make sure to spend time in the food section, where you can find deals on tea, furikake rice sprinkles, and seaweed.
Health and beauty
Buy It: Air Kaol hyper-absorbent face towel ($16)
Japan is an island nation rich with natural hot springs, and soaking in an onsen to relax is a national pastime. Even though you may not be able to find a hot spring as readily at home, it’s fun to at least take home part of the experience: Visit the bath section at Tokyu Hands for super-absorbent towels, hot spring bath salts, body scrubbing towels, and brushes.
Buy It: Bioré Aquarich Sunscreen 50+ ($17)
Japanese pharmacies like Matsumoto Kiyoshi are renowned for their wide selection of face and body products, which are significantly more expensive in the United States. A few of the items on offer: face masks in cute animal shapes, sunscreen, foot peels, regenerative hand lotions, and smooth sunscreens.