Japanese culture is notoriously difficult to navigate. I discovered the secrets to the country’s famous ritual and hierarchy through its shopping.
My shopping experience is extensive. I have haggled for Persian rugs over endless cups of mint tea in Moroccan souks. I have navigated heaving markets in New Delhi looking for the perfect silk pyjamas. And I have won over frosty Parisienne shop assistants in luxury designer stores. Some of my friends like to go to bars to embed themselves in the local culture. I shop.
There is a lot to be learnt from the way countries buy and sell their wares and this applies to Japan better than any other country I have visited. From the moment I burst out of the crammed metro carriage into Tokyo’s glittering Shibuya district I was struck by one lasting impression: this is a country that understands the perfect shopping experience.
The Japanese obsession with aesthetic and ritual is applied expertly to every consumer transaction. The first thing I bought in Tokyo was a pair of hand-painted porcelain cups, wrapped in tissue paper with origami precision and presented to me alongside a business card slotted seamlessly into the bag. Even my change was delivered on a silver tray.
From that purchase, I began collecting the beautiful business cards of my favourite stores and slotting them in my journal for future reference. Below is my selection of the six places that best encompass the Japanese shopping experience and will ensure your suitcase leaves slightly heavier than when you arrived.
For something to hang on your wall…
Allan West’s Studio, 〒110-0001 Tokyo, Taitō, Yanaka, 1 Chome−6−17.
After spending an hour or two at the National Museum, my friend and I wandered through the Nezu neighbourhood to visit American artist Allan West’s studio. We slipped off our shoes and entered to see the artist in action using traditional Japanese painting techniques behind a thing gauze screen. Allan’s wife invited us to watch a short documentary on his recent commission for one of Tokyo’s most exclusive restaurants. Understanding how much painstaking technique goes into his work makes the beautiful gold leaf print of bamboo I brought home even more special.
For something to wear…
Kimono Kabukis, Kimura building 1F, 4-28-26 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku,Tokyo, 150-0001
On a sunny day, Harajuku feels a lot like LA with its glossy designer boutiques and impossibly chic vintage stores. We spent a whole afternoon exploring the unique shops, all housed in a collage of impressive architectural designs. For the ultimate Japanese souvenir, we visited Kabukis, whose owner curates a small but beautiful selection of Kimonos, for men and women in an array of colours, patterns and styles.
For something to keep in your kitchen…
Ichifuji, 4-14-14, Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
We took advantage of our jetlag in Tokyo and headed to the famous Tsukiji fish market for an early breakfast of delicious fatty tuna and salmon sashimi. On our way out we spotted a young couple with three huge baskets filled to the brim with beautiful ceramics -the kind we had been drooling over in restaurants since we arrived. On further inspection, we found Ichifuji, a treasure-trove piled high with plates, bowls, teapots, cups, lacquer boxes and chopstick stands all for a few pounds each. The lovely owners wrap each piece in newspaper and bubble wrap so we didn’t need to worry about getting our own haul home in one piece.
For something to write home with…
Kamiji Kakimoto, 54 Tokiwagi-cho, Teramachi-dori, Nijo agaru, Nakagyo-ku
I have been obsessed with stationary for as long as I can remember so walking into this shop on Teramachi street in Kyoto was like coming home. I spent a good hour running my hands over the hand-printed papers and picking out piles of beautiful origami sheets for my scrapbook. My travel companion was not as enthused as I was, but luckily enough this street has some of the best Japanese antique stores around which kept her preoccupied.
For something to hook on your arm…
Tasaki, 〒600-8511 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto
When Japanese women wear kimono, for both formal occasions and for everyday wear, they match their silk creations with handbags made from glossy bamboo or intricate weave. This fits perfectly with the everlasting summer trend; the basket bag. I found one in a dark woven style, which will be an investment for many summers to come, at Tasaki, a charming shop in the busiest shopping area of Kyoto. While I waited for my purchases to be wrapped, I was transfixed by the in-house designer making geta, the traditional Japanese shoes that look like a hybrid between flip-flops and clogs.
For something to remind you of modern Japan…
Benesse House gift shop, 〒761-3110 Kagawa Prefecture, Kagawa-gun, Naoshima
Naoshima island is an ideal place to spend a couple of days exploring another side of Japan. The sleepy fishing village has been transformed into a modern art lover’s paradise with three major art museums dotted around the island as well as many outdoor installations to look out for as you cycle from place to place. The works of art aren’t for sale, but we bought large-scale prints of our favourite pieces as well as colourful acrylic keyrings, one of which I now have hanging on my current key bundle to remind me of my trip.
Fly direct from Amsterdam to Tokyo with KLM. We stayed at the Grand Hyatt in Tokyo for three nights.