You can shop ’til you drop in Tokyo – just watch the Japanese. Here, people shop as they work – long and hard – and while many of the items are taken home and eventually worn or indulged in by the buyer, an equal amount is used as gifts to impress those in complex social and business relationships. Above all, the craving for new products – shinhatsubai – is insatiable, enough to fuel a chain specialising in the most popular new goods. The central dispensers of most goods are depāto (department stores), many of which are owned by the companies that also operate the train lines – hence the sprawling retail clusters around the busiest train stations. Of course, Tokyo has an abundance of smaller, more eccentric shops. Many are found on the backstreets of Harajuku, Shibuya and Ebisu and display items that are lovingly designed and crafted. Trendy Shibuya, a haven for teenagers always surfing the latest trends, has innumerable original storefronts tucked between chain stores.
If you are in Tokyo for only a few days, head for Omote-sandō or Harajuku, which has some of the city’s most interesting high- and low-fashion boutiques. For status shopping, go straight to Ginza glam or the southern reaches of Omote-sandō and Minami-Aoyama. If you’ve got more time, roam through Ebisu, Shibuya and the odd little old-timey craft shops on the side streets and in the alleys of Asakusa. Foreign otaku (geeks) should definitely hit Akihabara and Shinjuku for manga and electronics. And a stroll down one of Tokyo’s shopping streets can reveal unexpected finds.
Lastly, though bargaining is the norm in most of Asia, in Japan it’s simply not done – except at flea markets and the occasional electronics store. Just politely ask ‘chotto, motto yasuku dekimasuka?’ (Can you make it a bit cheaper?)
Ginza is the affluent shopping district in Tokyo – one look around Mitsukoshi will testify to this. But tucked in between some of the more imposing façades are simpler pleasures like fine papers and shelves full of ingenious toys. Shopping options here truly reflect the breadth and depth of the city’s consumer culture, which is equal parts high fashion glitz and down-to-earth dedication to craft.
Now decidedly relaxed, Asakusa was once the heart of Edo’s low city, home to artisans, merchants and prostitutes. Its small lanes and winding alleyways are still full of surprises, from venerable doll shops to virtuosic drum makers such as Taiko-kan. For straight gift shopping, Nakamise-dōri is not bad for souvenir trinkets – try the back streets for better-quality stuff. The long stretch of Kappabashi-dōri also yields uniquely Japanese curiosities in its little culinary-supply shops.
A few stops east of Shinjuku, the height of buildings descend to a more human scale. A stroll up the Kagurazaka slope from Iidabashi Station will turn up several shops selling geta (traditional wooden sandals) and drawstring purses made from lavish kimono fabric. Elsewhere in the area, wedged in unexpected places between pharmacies, groceries and pachinko (vertical pinball-game) parlours, are shops carrying goods like Czech puppets and hand-painted kites. Jimbōchō is the place to go for rare books, both Japanese and English.
Though Roppongi is best known for wild bars and pick-up joints, it’s also home to a few of the city’s most interesting and idiosyncratic shops and showrooms and its new shopping megamalls, Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown. Of special interest in Roppongi are the Axis showroom, showcasing contemporary design, and Japan Sword, which displays and sells the exquisite weaponry of the samurai.
Ebisu is often overlooked, though its shops, like its restaurants, are some of the most forward-thinking and interesting in the city. Yebisu Garden Place, an open-air mall connected to the Ebisu JR Station by moving walkways, is a good place to start. If you’re more interested in one-of-a-kind wares hotfoot it up the hill toward Daikanyama and Hachiman-dōri.
Shibuya is the fountain of teen trendiness in Japan. If you’re over 30 you might feel way too old, but just cruise and amuse yourself in the madness. Music shops and cheap, outrageous apparel are everywhere, as are the hip kids who come to primp and pose. At weekends, the street in front of the 109 Building closes to all but foot traffic.
7. Harajuku & Aoyama
Home to the famed Harajuku girls, Takeshita-dōri and the alleys packed with small, independent designers’ shops and secondhand stores, Omote-sandō is the most eclectic, experimental neighbourhood in Tokyo. High fashion rules the Aoyama end of Omote-sandō, where ‘fashionable’ has an entirely different meaning than it has for the hipsters of Harajuku layering haute couture with second-hand finds. Creatively active but solidly established, Aoyama is grownup, refined yet innovative. It’s no wonder artistic designers and high fashion flagship stores have made this section of Tokyo their creative home.
Shopping in Shinjuku can be a little overwhelming. From the moment you step out of the train station (ringed by malls and department stores), the lights and noise make the whole place seem like the interior of a bustling casino. But there are some great shops amid all the chaos, and you can find just about anything your heart desires here. Two branches of the Kinokuniya bookstore are here, as is stately Isetan, one of Tokyo’s most revered department stores, which caters to the young set. It is also a great place to come to shop for electronics if you’re not motivated to trek all the way to Akihabara.
Prices on everyday commodities like eyeglasses may be slightly cheaper in Ikebukuro – come here to buy no-frills stuff, not Prada. Ikebukuro has big department stores, but it’s never quite taken off as a shopping destination. What it is good for is bargains on wares you’ll find in other parts of the city. If you’re an anime or manga fan, check out the shops along Otome Rd by the Sunshine City complex.
Odaiba was designed as an entertainment and shopping mecca, so it should come as no surprise that two of its main attractions are malls with views over the water. You’ll find both big-name designers and small shops here. Venus Fort is worth a peek to take in its timed sunrise and sunset (artificial, of course).