Shopping is without a doubt one of the most enjoyable things about a trip to Japan. The best-known shopping experiences are shopping for brand-name articles in Tokyo’s Ginza or electronics in Akihabara. But there are many other kinds of really cool places or stores to shop at, some of which are described below. Make your trip to Japan more exciting and memorable by being adventurous and going off the beaten track.
Tokyo: Jimbocho—the World’s Largest Used Book District
Jimbocho, in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, is a district that is home to nearly 180 stores dealing in used, old and rare books. In particular, the stores stand shoulder to shoulder along a 500-meter stretch of Yasukuni-dori, the main street in the district. This high concentration of specialized bookstores makes Jimbocho one of the biggest and best-known areas for old books in the world.
Most of the books sold in Jimbocho are in Japanese, but some stores specialize in English-language publications. You might even be able to track down books that have gone out of print in your country. Stores in Jimbocho deal not only in books but also in ukiyoe woodblock prints, calligraphy scrolls and other antiquities, so you may stumble across an unexpected treasure.
This area is also home to many universities and vocational schools, so there’s a profusion of inexpensive eateries catering to students, not to mention the numerous stores that sell sports or mountaineering equipment, or musical instruments. One of the enjoyments of Jimbocho is walking around and seeing how the area presents a different face from block to block.
You may have noticed that many of the bookstores of Jimbocho are clustered on the same side of the street. The reason, it seems, is to avoid exposing the books to the afternoon sun, to prevent fading and other damage.
Tokyo: Ameyoko—Where You Can Find Everything, and at Great Prices Too!
Between Okachimachi and Ueno stations in Taito Ward, on the west side of the elevated JR Yamanote Line tracks, lies a 400-meter long shopping street called Ameyoko. It’s a dense cluster of nearly 400 shops, with a lively air filled with the cries of shopkeepers encouraging people to stop and examine their wares.
It seems like almost everything is sold here—food items (mainly seafood and dried products), clothing, jewelry and miscellaneous bric-a-brac. Ameyoko is always thronged with shoppers, but the huge crowds that flock here in search of food bargains and other necessities for New Year’s are a regular news item in the waning days of the year.
The Tsukiji Market is well known for its many shops selling seafood and other perishables, but it’s mainly for the wholesale trade, and there’s no bargaining or discounts at stores that sell to retail customers. But Ameyoko is primarily for ordinary customers, and salespeople are willing to bargain. Try your luck at bargaining; you’ll most likely get a discount, and you might even walk away with all kinds of extras thrown in. That’s what makes shopping at Ameyoko so much fun.
Throughout Japan: Fun, Reasonably Priced Shopping at 100-yen Stores
When you sightsee in Japan, you will probably see 100-yen stores everywhere. Like “dollar shops” in the U.S., all the items in these stores sell for 100 yen (plus five percent tax), although some also carry merchandise that costs a bit more.
The great appeal of 100-yen stores is, naturally, the low price, but they’re also popular among singles and small households because they sell products in small-size, just-right quantities.
Similar kinds of shops can be found worldwide, but Japan’s 100-yen stores are noteworthy for the dazzling range of merchandise they carry. At these stores, shoppers can find everything from miscellaneous household gadgets and interior décor items to stationery, daily necessities, cosmetics and apparel. Large outlets of Daiso, the leading 100-yen store chain here, carry tens of thousands of different items. At a 100-yen store, you’re likely to stumble upon many things it’s hard to believe cost so little.
These shops are also great places for the thrifty-minded to stock up on Christmas decorations and special New Year foods for enjoying the holidays. And you’ll be able to wow the folks back home not just with the latest expensive high-tech products from Japan but your finds at 100-yen stores too.
Throughout Japan: Morning Markets—a Glimpse of Everyday Japanese Life
One recommended experience, if you have time, is a visit to a morning market. These markets, held throughout Japan early in the morning, consist of stalls set up to sell locally caught fish, local fruits and vegetables, hand-processed foods and so on. Targeting mainly Japanese who are sightseeing locally, the markets range from small affairs where farmers, fishermen and other producers sell their wares direct to customers, to markets in permanent facilities open daily and run by retailers specializing in this trade. There are probably around one thousand such markets in all parts of Japan. Large morning markets sell not only perishables but also clothing, souvenirs, crafts, tableware, daily miscellaneous wares and so forth.
The “Big Three” morning markets—in Takayama (Gifu Prefecture), Wajima (Ishikawa Prefecture) and Katsuura (Chiba Prefecture)—are widely known throughout the country. One of these, the Katsuura morning market, is held daily in Katsuura, just an hour and a half by express train from Tokyo Station. This market sells local produce and marine products, as well as dried, salted fish and other processed foods, all provisions used in ordinary daily life. This market certainly isn’t fancy or sophisticated, but everything sold here is sure to be fresh, tasty and safe.
The merchants here are friendly local people. Even if you can’t speak Japanese, a little body language goes a long way, and your communication experience is bound to make your trip to Japan more memorable than run-of-the-mill sightseeing.
Shopping at lively permanent markets is also a good way of getting an idea of the local food culture. If you have a chance, you might want to visit the outer market of the Sapporo Wholesale Market or the Nijo Market in Sapporo (Hokkaido), or the Omi Market in Kanazawa (Ishikawa Prefecture) for seafood, or in Kansai, the Nishiki Market in Kyoto for takeout Kyoto-style cuisine and the Kuromon Market, which supplies the tables of Osaka residents.
Special New Year’s Fun—Lucky Bags
One special modern-day New Year custom is fukubukuro—the “lucky bags” sold by small merchants, department stores, brand-name shops or chain stores in the first few days of the new year. The bags, usually paper carrier bags, are filled with an assortment of products and sealed: the whole point of the lucky bag is that purchasers don’t know what they’re getting, although lately, the contents are sometimes revealed ahead of time. But since the assortment is always valued at more than the price charged, buyers enjoy the thrill of peeking inside the bag and rejoicing at the bargains they’ve gotten.
Lucky bags, where buyers don’t know what they’re getting, are also a way of testing one’s luck for the new year. The most sought-after lucky bags are the ones sold by popular department stores: long lines of people stretch in front of the stores on the morning on January 2, when the bags go on sale. Lucky bags are available in many different price ranges, but most are priced at 5,000 yen or 10,000 yen.