Ohiogazimas, I am starting this blog post on a bullet train speeding from Tokyo to Kyoto. We just finished the first leg of our Japan trip (Tokyo) and before we hit the next cities, I wanted to get some details out of my head while they are still fresh.
The shopping scene in general in Tokyo (and Kyoto and Osaka) is NEXT LEVEL. There are malls on malls on malls (literally—endless floors after floors of everything you could imagine) and entire districts of cities carved out just for shopping. In Tokyo alone we explored Shinjuku (don’t skip Don Quijote or Tokyu Hands), Shibuya (Shibuya 109 is a must), Harajuku, and Shimokitazawa. Before I get into the specifics about the individual shops I loved (a post on this is coming shortly), I wanted to give you some tips on shopping and vintage shopping in Tokyo in general.
- Don’t stress about the language barrier. There are English signs and labels everywhere. And many many people speak English, or at least enough English to communicate. Prices are usually displayed in Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc) which makes it very easy to pay for things or calculate the exchange rate.
- Neighborhoods in Tokyo (and Osaka/Kyoto) are extremely pedestrian friendly. You may want to take the subway, bus, or Uber between districts, but once you get there, you’ll need/want to walk around. Many of the side streets are rather narrow and completely closed to cars. This makes the walking/wandering experience really fun—you don’t have to worry about getting run over by a car or scooter as you meander. But remember, the Japanese drive on the left, which means they also walk on the left (don’t try to swim upstream :o)
- Most small shops (even convenience stores like 7-11) prefer cash or are cash only. You won’t have trouble finding ATMs but you may want to pull out a lot of cash at once, or you’ll end up paying a ton of fees. We found that grabbing cash from a bank ATM had lower fees than ATMs found at convenience stores. Japanese money involves a lot of coins, so bring a small change purse to stay organized.
- Sizing is… challenging. If you are not straight sized (s/m/l) you will have a difficult time shopping in Japan. Hell, even if you are a size large, you’ll get frustrated. Additionally, many items from contemporary brands are “one size fits all,” which means for most people, the item is either too big or too small *rolls eyes*. Most of the vintage I found was generally size xs or small. However, I was really impressed with how much men’s vintage there was. So if you’re looking for larger sizes, I would check the men’s sections.
- Another tip on the vintage scene: most of the vintage I found was imported from the US or Europe. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I found the vintage shops in Tokyo do a superb job at curating their stores. However, you won’t necessarily find a ton of stuff that you couldn’t find back home (depending, of course, on where “home” is). If you’re looking for second hand Japanese brands, try the buy/sell stores rather than the vintage stores. (New York Joe Exchange, Kinji, DonDon Down on Wednesday, etc).
- Bring your passport (not a copy) with you when you shop because a lot of stores offer tax free checkout options for foreigners. Here are more details on how to shop tax free, and what you need to present at customs when you leave the country (it’s not complicated).
- Lastly, shopping in Japan is not cheaper than shopping in the states—this goes for contemporary brands as well as vintage. In many cases, shopping is more expensive in Japan than the US. And be on the lookout for cheaply made products (lots of synthetic/made in China) and knock-offs. It was difficult for me to figure out which stores sold legit brand names, and which stores were selling knock offs. When in doubt, just don’t buy any name brands that you can buy elsewhere (stick to vintage or local brands).
I’d love to hear any international shopping tips that you have picked up from traveling. Please share them with me in the comments!