What interesting unique items should I buy in Japan?
July 5, 2013 10:14 AM   Subscribe

I'm travelling to Japan for the first time. I'll be there for about a week, and want to buy some interesting, unique, useful items. What can I buy in Japan that I can't get anywhere else, or that is better than what I can get elsewhere? I'm a utilitarian minimalist who doesn't like owning stuff for the sake of stuff. I like things that are useful, well-designed, beautiful and high-quality. I also like small things. What should I buy in Japan, and what kind of stores should I be looking for?

Things I'm thinking about: tabi boots, which I think look interesting and might be practical. Wrapping cloths. I'm interested in unusual Japanese personal grooming items like the tiny straight razors Japanese women use to trim their eyebrows, and the massage tools that I see sometimes in Japanese stores in the United States. I'm interested in housewares, kitchenware, personal grooming items, clothing, and small productivity tools. I don't want tchotkes, jokey things, or things that are beautiful but not useful. Help me figure out how to use my shopping time in Japan to buy things that will improve my quality-of-life back home :-)
posted by Susan PG to Shopping (32 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Stationery. (Examples here and here.)
posted by holgate at 10:21 AM on July 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Teeny tiny screwtop jars for cosmetics. Over the knee socks (they're getting more popular in the US, but often don't fit my cyclist calves; the Japanese ones are stretchier). I also love those eyebrow razors, they sell them here sometimes but the Shisheido ones are way sharper.
posted by Juliet Banana at 10:23 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've never been to Japan, but I've wanted to go to Tokyu Hands ever since reading this description (from an essay by William Gibson):
When I first visited the Shibuya branch of Tokyu Hands, I was looking for a particular kind of Japanese sink-stopper: a perfectly plain black sphere of rubber, slightly larger than a golf ball and quite a bit heavier, on a length of heavy-duty stainless-steel ball-chain.

A Vancouver architect had shown me one. He admired the design for its simplicity and functionality: it found the drain on its own, seating itself. I was going to Tokyo for the first time, so he drew a map to enable me to find Tokyu Hands, a store he said he couldn’t quite describe, except that they had these stoppers and much more.

At first I misunderstood the name as Tokyo Hands, but once there I learned that the store was a branch of the Tokyu department store chain. There’s a faux-archaic Deco Asian spire atop the Shibuya store, with a trademark green hand, and I learned to navigate by that, finding my way from Shibuya station.

As the Abercrombie & Fitch of my father’s day was to the well-heeled sport fisherman or hunter of game, Tokyu Hands is to the amateur carpenter, or to people who take exceptionally good care of their shoes, or to those who construct working brass models of Victorian steam tractors.

Tokyu Hands assumes that the customers is very serious about something. If that happens to be shining a pair of shoes, and the customer is sufficiently serious about it, he or she may need the very best German edge-enamel available for the museum-grade weekly restoration of the sides of the soles.

My own delight at this place, an entire department store radiating obsessive-compulsive desire, was immediate and intense. I had stumbled, I felt, upon some core aspect of Japanese culture, and everything I’ve learned since has only confirmed this.

America or England might someday produce a specialist department store combining DIY home-repair with less practical crafts, but it wouldn’t be Tokyu Hands.
It sounds right up your alley.
posted by theodolite at 10:23 AM on July 5, 2013 [32 favorites]

If you do outsidey stuff, Montbell has some neat stuff in their Japan stores that cannot be had in the US (though it mostly overlaps).

I also found MUJI to be cool but it looks like there is one in SF, so, shrug.
posted by ftm at 10:27 AM on July 5, 2013

Go to Muji (the full name means, more or less, Good Generic Items). They have all kinds of stuff. Uniqlo has escaped Japan, but the stores there might be of interest. And Tokyu Hands. Loft.

If you go to Osaka, you might also enjoy a stroll through one of the big traditional department stores, like Hankyu, near the main train station. Especially check out the deli-like stores in the basement. Yum!
posted by spacewrench at 10:27 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I bought one excellent chef's knife in Osaka, which I think qualifies as beautiful, high quality and useful.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:36 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Theodolite is right. I've been to a Tokyu Hands - it's got exactly what you are looking for, even if you don't know what it is yet.

Also look out for rubber stamps (Tokyu Hands has lots, but there are also tiny shops selling nothing but thousands of stamps with every symbol imaginable on them) and paper craft shops that sell amazing packaging made from paper.
posted by BinaryApe at 10:41 AM on July 5, 2013

Response by poster: These are awesome answers, exactly why I was hoping for. Thank you. And more, please :-)
posted by Susan PG at 10:42 AM on July 5, 2013

Sesame seed grinder. Regretting not getting one while I was there and now I'm forced to eat my gyoza with entire sesame seeds on them...like a caveman :[
posted by sexyrobot at 10:42 AM on July 5, 2013 [10 favorites]

Kit kat. Wonderful flavors you are not likely to find outside Japan. There's a souvenir store in Tokyo station near the "Ramen street" strip where you can find boxes of Kit Kat in different flavors. And you get to eat great ramen too :-)

Seconding Tokyu Hands. Uniqlo has a cheaper cousin called g.u. that's not over here yet.
posted by viramamunivar at 10:56 AM on July 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

In Tokyo, Kitchenware: Kappabashi
Fabric: Nippori. I like the place called Tomato for remnants.

Japan (and Tokyo) is incredible because there are entire districts for different things. I have bought a lot of lacquerware, bento trays, chopsticks, kitchen stuff (sexyrobot: sesame seed dispenser, yes! Also salad shaker from Daiso), tea cups, sake sets etc.

If I could, I would decorate my whole house from the Muji x Idee catalogue.
posted by wingless_angel at 11:13 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I collected a single small tea cup from every province I visited. Each province has ceramics that are made with local earths that are specific colors, gray, terracotta, white with special designs. I love them and use them every day.
posted by effluvia at 11:23 AM on July 5, 2013 [8 favorites]

The 100 yen shops are wonderful. Go into a few and see if they've got anything that looks great. They have 300 yen and 1,000 yen shops as well, but you would be amazed at what you can find at a 100 yen shop.

Otherwise, Loft tends to have neat stuff.

You can get a pair of Nikkabokka for about 2,000 yen (There was a FPP about them sometime last year) but you'll have to go to a construction worker shop to get them.

My mom received a Kaikado tea canister as a gift. It is pretty much the epitome of useful, well-designed, beautiful and high-quality.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:51 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Find yourself the nearest Daiso, and browse. It's their mega dollar store. Yes there are Daiso stores outside of Japan now but so much more expensive for the same things. Surprisingly decent quality in a lot of their items. I liked their pretty sets of cellophane gift bags for sweets, their fireworks (can't bring 'em back tho), the inexpensive but decent cooking tools like long chopsticks for stir-frying, best price on a matcha whisk I saw anywhere. Lots of great dishware, enamelware, and plasticware (like bento boxes). Tons of massage tools and bathing items. Pretty awesome to go on a shopping spree there and spend only $30.

There are also 300 yen accessory/trinket stores around to keep an eye out for. They have gorgeous hair clips, hair ties, lacy socks & umbrellas, etc.
posted by lizbunny at 11:54 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Apparently the sheer variety of pens available in Japan (even from brands common in the U.S.) rivals anything here. I would definitely visit stationery stores and see what you can find.
posted by limeonaire at 1:31 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thirding Tokyu Hands, Muji and Loft. In Tokyo, there are huge Loft and Muji shops near the Yurakucho station. The Yurakucho's Muji cafeteria is pretty good.

I bought a lot of furoshiki (wrapping cloths) and Tenugui (these are multi-purpose cloths). You can also buy handles to make purses out of furoshiki.

I really like Sou Sou's clothing, tabi boots and socks. They are more expensive than the regular kind (those, you can find in Asakusa, Tokyo), but the prints are beautiful. They also have Furoshiki and purses made out of them. The brand is originally from Kyoto, but there are shops in Odaiba's Pallete Town and in Minami Aoyama.
posted by clearlydemon at 2:09 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I first got my favorite pen in Japan- a beautiful jetstream 4 color+pencil gizmo made by Uni. You can find these pens online now but mostly shipped from Japan; in the US I've only found them at Japanese stationary stores. I would have bought twelve if I'd known they'd be this hard to get. (Well, except now it's not so hard, but still).

I think I got the first one at Kinokuniya, see here for locations.
posted by nat at 3:31 PM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Japan has the best pens and office supplies I've ever seen. Visit a good dept store and visit the office supplies dept - if it's anything like when I was there 15 years ago, their supplies were about 5 years ahead of what we have in the US.

Mini dipping bowls

Definitely visit Tokyu Hands - best store ever. Definitely allow an hour or two for your visit. They have a huge office supply section there.
posted by kdern at 4:07 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Okay, the most random thing I ever bought at one of the big Japanese supermarkets in LA, and that I use every day and thank God I picked it up.

Salux Beauty Towel.

Or any of those nylon shower towels. Which gives you a glowing beautiful scrub while you shower and finally gets that spot in the middle of your back that has been driving you insane.
posted by Katemonkey at 4:26 PM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I first went in 1997 And bought myself a yukata ... many years and moves later its still in perfect condition, and I wear it nearly everyday as a bathrobe. The department stores should have a good range.
posted by Admira at 4:47 PM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I went to Tokyu Hands expecting to want to buy everything there, but I really only ended up buying pens. But my goodness, the pens. I bought gel pens that I love so much I continue to order them online from Japan and I'm afraid I will exhaust my ability to get them soon and be forced to return to Japan to buy more.

I also got a yukata that I absolutely adore and wear constantly. I got mine at a ryokan.
posted by ch1x0r at 4:51 PM on July 5, 2013

I am a fan of boxwood (tsuge) combs with camelia oil thrown in. Make sure it is the hand carved ones with wood from Japan.

The stationary, lord, it was an overwhelming sense of desire seeing so may delightful things.
posted by jadepearl at 5:45 PM on July 5, 2013

Get a ginger grater. And some noren
posted by gnutron at 6:27 PM on July 5, 2013

Mont belle super-light garment bag. Have had one for 8ish years, and still in great shape. Wish I could buy one here!
posted by rdn at 6:37 PM on July 5, 2013

Lunch boxes. (Bento boxes). They have a huge range in a variety of styles, sizes, and materials. I like the little metal ones made of two or three different compartments that lock together. Most large shops have a wide range.

And personally I like egg molds, but they might be more of a novelty item than what you are looking for.

Good quality items I saw in Kyoto included boxwood combs, stamps, tabi socks (and socks in general), and furoshiki (or fabric in general, really).
posted by lollusc at 7:58 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I second knives, nth chopsticks, and add glasses, and Toray microfibre lens cloths (if you wear glasses).

I know you said small things, but, if you are at ALL interested in the following two classes of items, you MUST buy them in Japan, since the cost/quality ratio is incomparable to anywhere else (except maybe Korea): 1) Rice cooker 2) Washlet.
posted by birdsquared at 10:35 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Tokyu Hands has the personal grooming items you seek. I found a great nasal (and wherever) hair trimmer there that's like a tweezers except the ends are circles, one solid, that you could use to punch a little hole in a piece of paper (don't know how else to describe it).

I also found MUJI to be cool but it looks like there is one in SF, so, shrug.

The SF (and I assume the new SJ, but haven't been there yet, although friends confirm) Muji has only a fraction of what the big ones in Japan stock, and everything costs up to twice as much! (Which you can conform as the original ¥prices are on most items.)
posted by Rash at 8:36 AM on July 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Things I bought in Japan that I use often - most of which came from Tokyu Hands:

- microwave single-serving rice cooker (most rice cookers are too big for rice for one person)
- chopsticks and chopstick rests
- magnetic digital kitchen timer with separate buttons for 0-9 - no tedious "up, up, up, up, damn! down..." fiddling or imprecise dial timers for me!
- kitchen knives
- cookery books (try Kinokuniya, next door to the Shinjuku Tokyu Hands)
- hair clips
- jewellery
- origami paper and books
- 0.5mm biros (they write very smoothly and the narrow tip is great for someone with small handwriting)
- notebooks (the paper is of very high quality)
- tiny index cards
- wallet with an outside pocket to hold a Suica card / Oyster card / ov-chipkaart without having to take it out at the ticket gates
- small backpack
- compact umbrella (they're cheaper there, or were in 2008, and there's a huge range)
- yukata (bought at the Oriental Bazaar on Omotesando)
- AA-battery-powered portable iPhone charger (got this in Bic Camera)
- folding fan (OK, England only has a few hot days a year, but we don't have air con!)
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 5:16 PM on July 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I love Japan. I've been twice-- once in 99 and once two years ago, and you'll be spoiled for cool things to buy while you're there.

I like their (only slightly) gimmicky cooking items and the grooming stuff a lot, too. For things like this, Daiso and 100 yen shops are your friend. They are not as gimmicky as they seem. I still have some of the stuff I nabbed from shops like that. Otherwise, Tokyu Hands is good too.

Things I've accumulated that I recommend:

- Microwave Potato Chip Maker (it has the best cutting blade ever, so I use it to slice onions and such)
- Slicers of any kind for the same reason
- Microwave Rice Cooker (doubles as a steamer)
- Gift Bags (they're adorable and cheap and are sold in packs of 10 or more and are great for storing and giving souvenirs in)
- Samurai letter opener
-Tabi Socks (better than boots because I'm a sock junkie, but keep in mind they run small. I wear US 8 womens and I needed mens Tabi socks, because the womens are a little too tight.)
- Cute mugs and teacups (they're the best quality, and also beautiful. Also I find they're a much better size than the gigantic mugs I get in Australia or the US)

Beauty Items:
I've been an asian beauty item junkie for years so...

- Microfibre Turban (for wrapping hair in out of the shower. It's softer than a towel so less damaging to the hair).
- Nexcare Facial Cleansing Cloth (best thing I've used ever on my face. Ever. I have four of these.)
- Silicone Pore Pad (it's a small round silicone pad used for face washing, also good at minimizing pores)
- Salux Nylon Body Wash Towel (I actually haven't tried this but people swear by them, so if you find one while there, it's probably worth getting).
- Hair cutting scissors (make sure it's made in Japan-- they much sharper than any others I've tried.)
- Ear 'pick' (for cleaning out ears)
- 'Toilet' Drops (Maybe a little gimmicky but I like it. It's called One Drop and it's a deodorizer you drop in before you do... stinky stuff. It works well, but you may need more than one drop depending. I find it useful for when I'm out and about and don't want to offend)
- Koji Curving Eyelash Curler (Haven't tried it but it's apparently one of the best curlers because of angle, radius, etc-- I've been meaning to get it for a long time.)
- Paper Soap (cannot stress this enough-- it's super clean over there but a lot of train station bathrooms and temple bathrooms lack soap. This is a pocket-sized cardboard wallet full of wafer-thin soap, that when you wet, it suds. It was so useful over there. Also useful was having a small hand towel with me).
- Lotte's No-Time Gum (for when you have no time to brush your teeth)
- Kerassy Hair Removal Puff (it's basically sandpaper, which I use anyway)
- Heat Pads and Cooling Pads (pocket sized items that heat up or cool down when activated, but they're disposable. They're good if you need warm hands in a hurry or such).

Beauty Products I Really Enjoy:

I personally find the beauty products over there to be really great quality and a good price. Japanese toners is what got me into toners, and Japanese face washes are the best and least reactive for my sensitive skin.

- Charcoal Face Washes (There is charcoal everything over there. This is good for oily skin)
- Kose Softymo Face Washes (They're all good. I'm partial to the HA one. They're for dry Skin)
- Haruhada Cleansing Water (Great makeup remover)
- Juju Aquamoist Toner (is amazing, any type, really. Pink I'd recommend for drier skin, white one for oilier)
- Cure Natural Aqua Gel (really good gel like rubbing exfoliant)
- SK-II Items (namely Facial Treatment Essence)

Things I Wouldn't Bother With:
Facial Massager Rollers and Tools - (they don't seem to work for me)
Hair Removal Razors (they're really just the same as their counterparts, but the razors do have really good blades over there)

Memail me if you want to talk specific beauty products at all or if anything piques your interest. Also, if you want to know about makeup specifically-- (I am really into Japanese and Korean beauty products) or if you want a picture of anything to help you identify them. The Muse's site will help you with that too (it's linked above to the eyelash curler review).

Phew. I think that's it! I didn't nab all of these in Japan at the same time, I accumulated over 10 years, but they're all from there.

Have a great trip!
posted by Dimes at 12:11 AM on July 7, 2013 [12 favorites]

tabi boots, which I think look interesting and might be practical

I have a pair, not sure if practical is the word I'd use to describe them. They are comfortable as long as you are on smoother surfaces. They look much less casual than the five-fingers type shoes. Get some socks to wear with them.
posted by yohko at 12:05 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just realized I couldn't access my mail, and I couldn't understand why-- and then I noticed I must have accidentally clicked to opt out. Sorry about that, if anyone tried to contact me. It works now.

Also, the Nexcare Face Washer is from Taiwan; I found the empty packaging for the latest one I bought, today. My bad. It is still worth getting if you can find it or something like it-- there should be a bunch of microfiber facial cleansing cloths available at drugstores in Japan, some with charcoal too. I really recommend them.

Also, if you do shop at Daiso Japan, be aware that not everything they carry is made in Japan -- like all places, really. However, it will really give you a good idea of the more unusual and practical grooming goods they carry.
posted by Dimes at 11:00 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Tons of great answers here, thank you! I'm not going to mark this resolved because I'd still love more ideas, but this is fabulous: thank you all so much :-)
posted by Susan PG at 1:56 PM on July 27, 2013

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