I have never seen people shop as much as the Japanese do. Judging from the crowds that surge through Tokyo's department stores every day, I'm convinced it's the country's number-one pastime. Women, men, couples, and even whole families go on shopping expeditions in their free time, making Sunday the most crowded shopping day of the week -- though with today's economic climate, many of them may be just window-shopping.
The Shopping Scene
Best Buys -- Tokyo is the country's showcase for everything from the latest in camera, computer, or music equipment to original woodblock prints and designer fashions. Traditional Japanese crafts and souvenirs that make good buys include toys (both traditional and the latest in technical wizardry), kites, Japanese dolls, carp banners, swords, lacquerware, bamboo baskets, ikebana (flower arranging) accessories, ceramics, pottery, iron teakettles, chopsticks, fans, masks, knives, scissors, sake, incense, and silk and cotton kimono. And you don't have to spend a fortune: You can pick up handmade Japanese paper (washi) products, such as umbrellas, lanterns, boxes, stationery, and other souvenirs, for a fraction of what they would cost in import shops in the United States. In Harajuku, it's possible to buy a fully lined dress of the latest fashion craze for ¥8,000 or less, and I can't even count the number of pairs of fun, casual shoes I've bought in Tokyo for a mere ¥4,000. Used camera equipment can be picked up for a song, reproductions of famous woodblock prints make great inexpensive gifts, and many items -- from pearls to electronic video and audio equipment -- can be bought tax-free.
Japan is famous for its electronics, but if you're buying new you can probably find these products just as cheaply, or even more cheaply, in the United States. If you think you want to shop for electronic products while you're in Tokyo, it pays to do some comparison shopping before you leave home so that you can spot a deal when you see one. On the other hand, one of the joys of shopping for electronics in Japan is discovering new, advanced models; you might decide you want that new Sony HD camcorder simply because it's the coolest thing you've ever seen, no matter what the price.
Great Shopping Areas -- Another enjoyable aspect of shopping in Tokyo is that specific areas are often devoted to certain goods, sold wholesale but also available to the individual shopper. Kappabashi-dougugai Dori (station: Tawaramachi), for example, is where you'll find shops specializing in kitchenware, while Kanda (station: Jimbocho) is known for its bookstores. Akihabara (station: Akihabara) is packed with stores selling the latest in electronics, as well as anime-related items. Ginza (station: Ginza) is the chic address for high-end international designer brands as well as art galleries. Aoyama (station: Omotesando) boasts the city's largest concentration of Japanese designer-clothing stores and an ever-increasing number of international names, while nearby Harajuku (stations: Harajuku, Meiji-Jingu-mae, or Omotesando) and Shibuya (station: Shibuya) are the places to go for youthful, fun, and inexpensive fashions.
Sales -- Department stores have sales throughout the year, during which you can pick up bargains on everything from electronic goods and men's suits to golf clubs, toys, kitchenware, food, and lingerie; there are even sales for used wedding kimono. The most popular sales are for designer clothing, usually held twice a year, in July and December or January. Here you can pick up fantastic clothing at cut-rate prices -- but be prepared for the crowds. Sales are generally held on one of the top floors of the department store in what's usually labeled the "Exhibition Hall" or "Promotion Hall" in the store's English-language brochure. Stop by the department store's information desk, usually located near the main entrance, for the brochure as well as fliers listing current sales promotions.
Taxes -- A 5% consumption tax is included in the price of marked goods, but all major department stores in Tokyo will refund the tax to foreign visitors if total purchases amount to more than ¥10,001 on that day. Exemptions include food, beverages, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, film, and batteries. When you've completed your shopping, take the purchased goods and receipts to the tax refund counter in the store. There are forms to fill out (you will need your passport). Upon completion, a record of your purchase is placed on the visa page of your passport, and you are given the tax refund on the spot. When you leave Japan, make sure you have your purchases with you (pack them in your carry-on); you may be asked by Customs to show them.
Shipping It Home -- Many first-class hotels in Tokyo provide a packing and shipping service. In addition, most large department stores, tourist shops, such as the Oriental Bazaar, and antiques shops, will ship your purchases overseas, including antique furniture.
If you wish to ship packages yourself, the easiest method is to go to a post office and purchase an easy-to-assemble cardboard box, available in several sizes (along with the necessary tape). Keep in mind that packages mailed abroad cannot weigh more than 20kg (about 44 lb.), and that only the larger international post offices accept packages to be mailed overseas (ask your hotel concierge for the closest one). Remember, too, that mailing packages from Japan is expensive.
Ivory is popular in Japan, but it's banned for import into the United States. Beware, therefore, when shopping for antiques, hair ornaments, figurines, or other items that may contain ivory. You should also think twice before buying anything made with tortoise shell, crafted primarily from the shell of the endangered hawksbill sea turtle.