What less obvious things worth buying in Japan? [Hyperspecific Nerd Ed.]
May 9, 2023 1:18 PM   Subscribe

ATTENTION NICHE NERDS: WE NEED YOUR HELP. We're headed to Japan soon. There are lots of articles about things to buy in Japan: unusual Kit Kats, traditional handmade items, Matcha products, skin care, knives, etc. We don't need broad info like that. We've also read/watched all about the various shopping districts. We know that stuff. What we would like to know is: pursuant to your own weird, niche interests, what is an item a person can buy in Japan that you would be hard-pressed to buy anywhere else?

I put the things we didn't want above the fold, in the interest of fending off people constitutionally unable to read the More Inside. BLESS YOUR HEARTS.

I'd be glad to hear from people with any niche interests, even if they're not mine. I could be swayed, after all. And I know nerds of every stripe, so your suggestion might give me an awesome gift idea.

Tell us about rare editions of movies only sold in Japan (not limited by region code), awesome Nintendo Switch games that are Japan-only (as I understand the Switch is not region-locked), card games we might not have in the US, hobby stuff you can get in Tokyo/Osaka that isn't sold in the US, etc.

Again: we do not need any general recommendations of categories of things or stores/areas. We want weird, specific items. I don't even mind if you have no idea where to get it. Our kid will be trying to find a vintage Omnichord. That's a good example of the kind of thing we're after.

Honestly, just say to yourself: I am a nerd. I like [subject]. Were I in Japan, I would totally make sure I picked up [item].

That would be the very best kind of answer.
posted by DirtyOldTown to Shopping (65 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a sewing/craft nerd. Somewhere in Japan, tucked behind another shop in one of the fabric districts is a shop that specializes in hand-sewing needles. If I were going to Japan, that's what I'd look up.
posted by sarajane at 1:26 PM on May 9 [6 favorites]

There's some kind of Danganronpa "werewolf"-style game I saw pictures of from someone's recent Tokyo visit. I've never seen it elsewhere.

I also understand there's way more Gudetama merch than is generally exported.
posted by praemunire at 1:28 PM on May 9 [1 favorite]

I would be keeping an eye out for ancient TV repair shops, and asking if they had any spare parts or test discs for LaserDisc players.
posted by offog at 1:31 PM on May 9 [4 favorites]

The second hand film camera market in Japan is larger and better than almost any other country, you can get cameras, and cameras in better condition, that simply aren’t available anywhere else. There are stores and markets for film cameras outside Japan, but they just don’t compare to the size of Japanese one.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 1:34 PM on May 9 [6 favorites]

Im fascinated by all of the vending machines, so would do some research on the weirdest ones and hit those up.
posted by Ftsqg at 1:43 PM on May 9 [2 favorites]

I went to a tea ceremony demonstration recently. Yes, I know, but I went anyway because I don't rule things out just because they are cliché! At least not anymore!

So: candy is part of this. They served some kind of tiny 1 cm-ish, round, pressed/embossed pastel sugar candy that came in a beautiful little box -- printed in Japanese -- and the different colors (white, pink, etc.) were slightly different flavors. It reminded me of the best sort of cotton candy, but it was a solid pressed item that melted quickly in the mouth.

This wasn't a "traditional" sweet in the strict sense of the word, because sugar didn't come to Japan until comparatively recently.

I tried searching online to find it, but could not; all I can find is very traditional old-fashioned items that are not in fact made of sugar. Even if I could, it would doubtless be way too expensive for something I'd probably eat immediately and not share :)

BUT I'd definitely look for those. Maybe in some kind of kitschy, touristy tea place that isn't above Tex-Mex versions of tea ceremony items that cater to unrefined palates.

Or maybe some kind of restaurant supply place that would sell me enough to *actually* share.

On edit: it might have been rice powder higashi like this.

Or something like this, but less elaborate and probably smaller.
posted by amtho at 1:45 PM on May 9

I am not REALLY a pen nerd, but if I were in Japan and had 34,000 yen, I would buy one of the Sailor / Bungubox collaborations, especially if they were purple and sparkly.

What I really want to buy in Japan right now is a hato hatto toy or keychain. Is it because I'm into puns? Is it because I'm into birds? Am I simply delighted by birds wearing hats? I don't know.
posted by Jeanne at 1:46 PM on May 9 [9 favorites]

I would go to Sanrio Puroland and get my picture taken with Hello Kitty, and then visit some giant Sanrio store and see what kind of ridiculous things I could find there.
posted by jabes at 1:48 PM on May 9 [4 favorites]

The next time I'm able to go back to Japan, I'll be looking to buy Go supplies, crafted using traditional materials (pine for the board, clamshell and slate for the stones, real wooden bowls). Examples here: https://kurokigoishiten.com/en
posted by Axle at 1:52 PM on May 9 [3 favorites]

Also you can't easily bring one of these back with you, but my husband loves Toyota Vans (the old spaceship-looking ones from the 80s) and you can still purchase their descendant in Japan so..... maybe a van???
posted by jabes at 1:54 PM on May 9 [1 favorite]

Nthng the second hand film cameras (for me I'd be looking for any of the Olympus Maitani designed cameras and their accessories) and they also have 35mm film that is difficult to find here in Canada.

As for Switch games, there's many but a particularly obscure one for the Ultra fan is Nari Kids Park: Ultraman R/B which is an Ultraman Switch game unavailable over here.

Food wise, regional fermented foods, dried goods that are hard to find in my part of Canada (like 100% buckwheat noodles).
posted by Ashwagandha at 1:56 PM on May 9 [1 favorite]

I'm fascinated by all of the vending machines

A very Japanese experience for me is hitting up one of these machines early on a cold morning and drinking a can of hot, sweetened coffee. (The hot cans have red buttons, the cold drinks' are blue.) Boss (the label with the Stalin logo) or UCC.
posted by Rash at 1:59 PM on May 9

hobby stuff you can get in Tokyo/Osaka that isn't sold in the US

For this you must visit a Tokyu Hands. Allocate several hours, at least for the one in Shibuya.
posted by Rash at 2:03 PM on May 9 [12 favorites]

All of mine are toy related:
Licca is like the Japanese Barbie. There is a boutique shop called Licca Castle Small Shop that I would go to.
Sylvanian Families (Calico Critters in the US) are from
Japan. Most sets you can get in the US, but they do sell some exclusive figures at special stores like the one in the Sylvanian Village.
Disney has a set of characters called Duffy and Friends that are mostly only available in the Asian theme parks. I believe you can only buy the merch inside the Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea parks (not any Disney Stores). There is a lot of other Tokyo exclusive theme park merch as well.
I would probably also go to some Mandarake stores to look for vintage collectibles of any of the above!
posted by wsquared at 2:12 PM on May 9 [3 favorites]

Something this nerd's been buying, most recent trips, are fabrics printed with traditional Japanese patterns, like the karakusa ivy and the hemp-leaf-inspired asanoha. And if I was there right now I'd be canvassing the second-hand shops, in search of minidiscs and (working!) portable players.
posted by Rash at 2:16 PM on May 9 [4 favorites]

seconding you must go to Hands-- i also found that the selection at the Hands store in Shibuya is different then the hands store in Kyoto. Stuff i picked up there- stationary stuff, kitchen stuff, travel stuff... definitely worth alloting a solid 90 mins+ to this store- it's the best!
posted by wowenthusiast at 2:18 PM on May 9 [6 favorites]

I'd want to see if different varieties of chalk are available.
posted by Dashy at 2:19 PM on May 9 [1 favorite]

Axle already beat me to the goban & stones recommendation, but aside from Go sets themselves, I think Nihon Kiin has a gift shop. I'd also be looking for shogi stuff

fixed gear equipment is kinda globalized these days, and used NJS stuff used to show up on ebay all the time (haven't been looking in a while, maybe still does) so it's hardly difficult to find online, but I'd still poke around for some fixie bike shops and or keirin souvenirs
posted by okonomichiyaki at 2:21 PM on May 9 [2 favorites]

It barely matters what, but if you were to bring me anything from the Studio Ghibli Museum I would be absolutely thrilled.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:33 PM on May 9 [3 favorites]

I'm a food nerd and came back with small batch, high quality artisanal versions of shichimi togarashi, a few types of pickles, ponzu sauce, esoteric wasabi flavored things (not peas), several teas that are difficult to source in the US (gyokuro, soba, high grade sencha), and a pile of snack cakes. If I was smart, I would have brought back some of the scallop butter potato chips that I loved and mistakenly assumed would be easy to find at my local Japanese grocery.

(amtho, you might want to take a spin through Bokksu's website and see if they have what you're looking for)
posted by A Blue Moon at 2:39 PM on May 9 [1 favorite]

There is a Japanese-only version of the classic card game Circus Flohcati that is just beautiful and very hard to find outside of Japan. It's called なつのたからもの. If you aren't already going to a toy/game store I wouldn't go out of your way, but if you're already going to be in Ginza you can try Hakuhankin Toy Park or Role and Roll in Akihibara.
posted by ApathyGirl at 2:45 PM on May 9 [3 favorites]

I’m a sumo fan and I would be off to the Kokugikan gift shop.

That aside, hands down the best thing I ever brought back from Japan was a hot water bottle from Muji. It doesn’t seem to be sold anywhere else but Japan, it’s a hard plastic disc shaped bottle with a fleece cover, and it stays warm all night. I love it so much.

The second best thing was my rice kit: a Zojirushi rice cooker, rice storage box, rice washer bowl with built in drainer, and whisk.
posted by corvine at 2:57 PM on May 9 [6 favorites]

Makita makes a fan jacket that seems to be impossible to actually buy in Canada.
posted by Mitheral at 3:00 PM on May 9

While Nobuyoshi Nagahara is dead, there is still a certain level of handmade excellence in Japanese fountain pens, so I'd see if I could track down someone similar and get a nib made for my specific writing style and hand.

There are also still people specializing in handmade umbrellas, which can get quite expensive; Tokyo Noble has two locations in Tokyo and is fairly accessible without having to spend time tracking down individual artisans. If you're going near Kyoto, then definitely check out Hiyoshiya (again, we're talking $200+ per umbrella before shipping). You can get some of these online, but you're going to pay quite a lot in shipping, and the selection is generally more limited than if you visit in person -- plus if you go in person you can get customizations done.

If you're going to be anywhere near Shodoshima-cho, I have been told that you would be extremely remiss if you didn't try to visit Yamaroku (makers of stupendous soy sauce). You can buy it online but I'm told the visit (and newly-made product; I have to buy it from abroad and have not personally visited) was remarkable.
posted by aramaic at 3:01 PM on May 9 [2 favorites]

For general life/stationary needs, I love Loft. They have a huge variety of stationary supplies and branded merchandise - as a specific pick, I would buy some of the Frixion erasable stamps that are harder to find outside of Japan--there are 53 sold in Japan, but Jet Pens only has 36 of them!

Hobonichi Techo (planners) are available at Loft, but if you're in Tokyo you can also visit the Tobichi store for them specifically. They have the planners as well as notebooks, bags, and organizers. Look at these fun Japan-only washi tapes.

On the art supplies side of thing, I recommend Seikaido in Shinjuku (near Shinjuku Gyouenmae station). Specifically, I used to love the tri-art pens, but I can't see if those are still made. If you want something that is very Japan, you should be able to the paper that's used for drawing manga (and likely still screentones). They also have a nice selection of greeting cards.

If you have anyone who would be interested in untranslated manga, check out a Book-Off (there are many locations). It's so cheap to buy used that you really just need to watch out for the weight of your suitcase. To be hyper specific, if I were at a Book-Off now, I'd buy the lightnovels for Ascendance of a Bookworm. Mandarake (Shibuya and Osaka) is somewhere that you can buy doujinshi (fan comics), though know that some of that has very cute covers with very explicit content inside.

On the character merchandise side, I'd go to the Kiddyland in Harajuku and wander, probably buying some kind of Hello Kitty merch. I can't suggest a specific item there because it's so seasonal, but pretty much anything you see there is not available internationally.

Card games we might not have in the US: A hanafuda deck would be a beautiful gift.
posted by past unusual at 3:08 PM on May 9 [6 favorites]

Also, if you want to be convinced of how much you need a very specific reproduction bomber jacket and specific eyeglass frames, both of which are only available in Japan, I recommend watching Action Button's 6th video in a review of Cyberpunk 2077. The whole thing is mesmerizing, but the part with the jacket starts at 1:34 (yes, an hour and a half) into the video.
posted by past unusual at 3:22 PM on May 9 [1 favorite]

I do printmaking, so high quality mulberry/rice paper
posted by wellifyouinsist at 3:22 PM on May 9 [3 favorites]

Bathtub cover to keep the heat in. That's it.
posted by cobaltnine at 3:23 PM on May 9 [1 favorite]

On the character merchandise side

I like trains, so I'd probably look for some Shinkansen stuff (not much of it makes its way to the States).

Also as many of DJ Muro's "King of Diggin'" mixtapes as I could find.
posted by box at 3:25 PM on May 9 [2 favorites]

Oh and magic the gathering cards printed in japan are known for being higher quality. I'm not an MTG person, it's just what I overhear from the MTG people that are all around me.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 3:30 PM on May 9 [2 favorites]

In Tokyo (Aoyama) there is a shop that sells puzzle boxes. The boxes are from Hakone but I didn't have the time to go there but I was visiting Tokyo so it worked out. The owner of the shop is quite friendly and was totally OK with me and my kids getting all handsy with various boxes to see how they worked.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:45 PM on May 9 [2 favorites]

Yakushima Cedar Incense Sticks, in the green box. The epitome of incense. Not too strong, not too light, not too cloying. You can buy it on the linked website or on the island of Yakushima itself.

Otamahan sauce for a fantastic Japanese breakfast. Stir this sauce and a raw egg into a cup of steaming hot rice—the rice will cook the egg. I don't know where to buy it in stores* so I have it shipped to my hotel. SO GOOD

Japan has a large range of nylon scrubbing washcloths so you can pick the scrubbiness level that works for you. The ones I find in the US tend to be too rough. Find them at Loft, and as noted above, don't miss Loft's stationery floor—it's the best.

* you can also make your own with soy sauce and mirin and a little dashi but it is such a pain to get the flavor just right.
posted by homodachi at 3:45 PM on May 9 [5 favorites]

The store sarajane is talking about - a needle store tucked into an alley - is in Kyoto and it's called Misuyabari. (Also a sewing/craft nerd here.) Highly recommend. The most niche thing they sell is tiny art pins to decorate your pincushion and tiny sewing boxes to put your hand sewing needles into.

On the tiny things front - I'm not much for the anime/characters/action figures side of the gachapon machines but THE TINY FOOD! And the tiny household objects! I took home a tiny steak dinner and tiny Red Wing boots and tiny vintage audio equipment and am very sad that I did not take the time to dig up enough coins for the tiny Hario coffee brewing items.

In Kyoto, would also recommend two locations of the same fabric store. The smaller one (Nomura Tailor House) has a curated selection of non-sewing craft stuff as well as a lot of Liberty of London fabric including Japan-only color/pattern releases (yes, this is a thing). The larger location (Nomura Tailor) has an absolutely mind-boggling array of iron-on embellishments plus lovely small scrap remnants of (mostly traditional) fabrics in bins to sort through, plus so much more...

Also thirding the recommendation of Tokyu Hands for hobby stuff. We're all saying "go to Tokyu Hands" and not being more specific because it's an entire department store-sized place full of items for about 17 niche hobbies.

Speaking for my partner's hobbies, we had a lovely time perusing 1) gorgeously well-organized small electronics tool/parts/kit stores in Akihabara and 2) obscure vintage + insanely high-end modern guitars and effects pedals in various places.

And ... this is neither of our hobbies but the model train stores were clutch.
posted by sparkling at 3:54 PM on May 9 [6 favorites]

Waterfront Umbrellas, particularly their "pocket flat" model are the tiniest, lightest umbrellas I've ever used, and they've lasted longer than any "portable" umbrella I've bought in the US. Also: cute patterns and colors!
posted by homodachi at 3:55 PM on May 9 [7 favorites]

You can get some really good ponzu in Japan. Even there most people I know just use the Mizkan ponzu but my in-laws are friends with a family who are more into gourmet stuff and they gave us a bottle of some fancy ponzu and it was amazing.

I'll also second the shichimi. The normal stuff from the supermarket is the same as what you can get here (albeit much cheaper) but you'll be able to find stores that make their own. For sure in Kyoto in the Nishikikoji / Teramachi area.

Montbell has heavy-weight winter socks that have become my go-to when I'm spending a lot of time outdoors in the cold.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:59 PM on May 9

The nicest sketchbooks I saw in art school were all japanese. So I'd be looking for sketchbooks. Also a very thin sort of drawing charcoal I have never seen again.

There's a type of japanese print that is made by inking a real fish - very cool.

Lots of nice japanese embroidery flosses and sashiko stuff. There are lots of interesting yarns, too.

I really like mochi and there are several types that are more of a street food.

My brother and wife spend a fair bit of time in japan (mostly eating) but she always comes back with beautiful tiny china bowls, and my brother has two turned wooden lidded bowls for Go Stones that are made of some-kind-of-wood-that-smells-like-but-isn't-eucalyptus and they are fragrant and gorgeous. So, bowls in general.

A cold sake set with a little pitcher and a cup on a tray where you fill up the little pitcher and it pours into a little cup situated beside it, everything in little spots on the tray. I've seen a couple in shows and at one restaurant in my life, but it's a very unusual style and I think I'd be able to find it in japan.
posted by euphoria066 at 4:30 PM on May 9 [3 favorites]

One item on my souvenir shopping list when I went to Japan was a salt shaker, just because mine had broken shortly before we went. There's a standard salt shaker that you'll see all over the place and I planned on buying one in a grocery store before we left. Then I was in the Tobacco & Salt museum and they had the HELLO KITTY VERSION and the people in the gift shop cracked up at how my whole family was ecstatic over it. You can see them in the photo on the website: they have red tops, on the front right corner of the display table.

More conventionally: Mr. Corpse hunted down the perfect tanuki statues for our yard.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:32 PM on May 9 [1 favorite]

I really like Moomins, and they're popular in Japan. Most of the items I saw for sale were expensive just like in the US, where I live, but I found a wall calendar that was a good price.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:35 PM on May 9

Okay. I import a lot of stuff from Japan. A lot of stuff. Both direct from stores and occasionally through proxy and forwarding services. Here's my recommendations for things to get which are best bought in person:

- Regional snacks: Everywhere in the country has these. You'll see them for sale at train stations and in department stores. Momiji manju, a maple leaf shaped cake with various flavored fillings, is one of my favorites and is typically found in Hiroshima. There are also regional variants of Kit Kats which are well worth looking out for.

- Traditional Japanese sweets: Related to the above. Look out for the stores that make their own. One traditional sweet which travels well is konpeito, which is similar to rock candy.

- Small exclusive items: Tokyo in particular is rich with themed cafes and shops for just about any geeky interest you can imagine. The Kotobukiya shops were personal faves for figures and small goods like clear files and pins. I have a friend who is a big fan of the manga Yotsuba&!, and I got her some decorative tape there featuring characters from the series, which I haven't seen anywhere else. Themed cafes often run for a limited time and goods from them can be very hard to get afterwards, though there are also permanent cafes. Museum gift shops, such as the Ghibli Museum mentioned above, are also great places to get items you can't easily find elsewhere.

- Anything heavy: This is not so much because of rarity so much as they can be expensive as hell to have shipped overseas. I'm still kicking myself for getting into Japanese jigsaw puzzles after my trip to Japan.

- Magazines: Not just because they fit in the "heavy to ship" category, but also because there's a handful that we just don't see much of elsewhere. Fashion magazines often come with bonus items too, some of which can be quite nice for what they are.

- Doujinshi (Japanese Fanzines): For these, you'd have to go to a specialty store like Toranoana or K-Books, or otherwise go to a dedicated event. Doujinshi can be easily bought online, but it is so much fun to browse in-person, and you may end up picking something up that you wouldn't otherwise.

- Mascot souvenirs: Mascots are everywhere in Japan, and you'll probably come away from your trip with a new favorite or two. An easy one to get souvenirs for is the Suica penguin, the mascot of Japan Rail. Two very popular mascots which you may have seen are Domo-kun, the mascot of NHK, and Kumamon, a black bear who represents Kumamoto Prefecture, but there are hundreds of others.

- Shrine souvenirs: Shinto shrines typically have small shops where you can buy ema, good luck charms, and other items. Ema in particular tend to have designs which are specific to whatever shrine they're from, and can make for attractive display pieces.

Here's pretty much all the stuff I bought on my trip. It wouldn't surprise me if I have forgotten something; Japan is a lot. And yes, go to Tokyu Hands in Shibuya; it is a very fun store to browse.
posted by May Kasahara at 4:45 PM on May 9 [8 favorites]

Oh and magic the gathering cards printed in japan are known for being higher quality.

Very true. The CCG market in Japan is crazy, they have so many more games that are never exported, and they're all printed on great stock and look cool.

My hobby thing would be Pokémon or MtG card sleeves and boxes. I've been looking for some and there's Japanese exclusive designs from a past set that are so cool.
posted by fiercekitten at 4:57 PM on May 9

Nth-ing all the Tokyu Hands recommendations, but for a specific craft thing that can be hard to find outside of Japan, Trikotri’s pom pom animal kits are amazing.
posted by firefleet at 5:17 PM on May 9 [4 favorites]

People have bought me Moomin stationery and mugs from Japan.
posted by matildaben at 5:28 PM on May 9

My kids love Moomins and Miffy and Tomy trains, and we went pretty nuts on Character Street. You can also spend full days just hitting up various Pokemon centers and stores which all have slightly different subsets of available merch.
posted by potrzebie at 5:40 PM on May 9

I am trying to get a very particular Japanese-translated craft book of an old swedish craft book called a Christmas Calendar in Cross Stitch which I have yet to successfully order from a Japanese online shop, but if I were there - the craft magazines mentioned above YES, so very good and fun with the bonus items, and also so many of their craft books. Japanese craft books use diagrams a lot, so they are relatively easy to work from even if you don't read Japanese, and with google translate now, definitely. I would skip Japanese yarn (nice but overpriced) but absolutely get needles and floss, and I dream of going to a haberdashery that has the full range of Clover tools - we only get a limited range outside of Japan, and they are my favourites for just about everything, well-made and thoughtfully designed.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:56 PM on May 9 [1 favorite]

My nerdery goes in a different direction. I spend my life searching for the perfect bag. (Backpack, satchel, suitcase, handbag, etc.) I have in the past spent two years searching for a suitable bag. There is NO ONE that makes a better bag than Porter Yoshida. Impossible to get in the USA and some of the ones on eBay are counterfeit. Anello is good too. Both companies REALLY think out how a person would use a bag and build the bags around that. My daily handbag is the one I bought there in 2014, which shows that they are durable too. If I were going to Japan now, I would buy one of their bags to suit every niche in my life, and then never shop for a bag again.
posted by rednikki at 6:06 PM on May 9 [6 favorites]

If you are near Hakone, have one of the black eggs if hard-cooked eggs are on your menu! If they are not, I picked up a Hello Kitty hand towel with a black egg theme -it makes me smile 15 years later, as I was traveling with a 6 month old, so kid’s’ entertainment was top of mind. I got some anpanman swag because who doesn’t want a hero that’s a bean? We also picked up some Shinkansen toys because maglev train cartoons are pretty rare in the US. My good friend nerds out on Disney, and the Japanese version of Mickey/Minnie et al are soft brown around the ears, not black. We did pick up some Japanese baseball swag, however the Hiroshima team mascot is a replica of the Philly fanatic. Didn’t actually make it to a game which I regret to this day. YMMV. Was ok with missing sumo because my back would not tolerate the backless seating option especially while managing an infant. It’s been a minute, so use this to ask questions if it overlaps with your interests.
posted by childofTethys at 7:23 PM on May 9

I recommend watching Action Button's 6th video in a review of Cyberpunk 2077
Good lord.

I watched like fifteen minutes of that. I think I’m in a trance.
posted by Songdog at 7:36 PM on May 9

Definitely Disney stuff. The Disney stores have totally different products than we have here, and there are even more exclusive items at the theme parks. As for my specific nerd interests, I personally I have been coveting a Gelatoni backpack as well as a bunch of the theme park food inspired products, including the giant pillows shaped like a Mickey glove bun.

(For anyone not actually traveling, I have no clue if this shopping/shipping site is good—just sharing as an illustration.)
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 7:54 PM on May 9

I am a textile nerd and also a person who wears and washes clothes. Japan excels at compact and well-designed contraptions for air drying large amounts of laundry. Seriously.
posted by janell at 8:12 PM on May 9 [1 favorite]

Umbrella counter holder! I got mine at the aforementioned Shibuya Tokyo Hands. It's a little rubbery gizmo you put around the shank of your umbrella with a nubbin. When you're out and about, you balance the nubbin on a counter or table and voila! Your umbrella is nicely hanging off the counter. Much better than flopping around on the floor with a wet umbrella
posted by foodmapper at 8:15 PM on May 9 [1 favorite]

Nintendo Switch games/merch (especially Animal Crossing merch) and anything Totoro. Also, unusual small kitchen gadgets or office supplies and handmade or especially beautiful plates or glasses.
posted by lemonwheel at 8:20 PM on May 9

"Mrs. Stylebook" magazine, which has instructions for drafting clothing patterns by making changes to a basic pattern made from your measurements. For a non-japanese speaker, it's a lot of fun to puzzle out the diagrams. And any other Bunka school pattern making information.
100¥ stores have (or did when I visited) an amazing variety of cool stuff, including small ceramic bowls and chopstick rests.
posted by SandiBeech at 8:44 PM on May 9

Inkstand in Tokyo will make pigment based inks of any colour in the world.

And personally I head for musical theatre second hand shops - Taka-An in Yurakucho is a favourite because of their Takarazuka Revue focus. Japanese productions make fantastic theatre merchandise and while DVDs can be economical to order from abroad, the programmes can be giant coffee table books, the memorial publications are just gorgeous, multiple thick magazines come out every month chock full of photos, and second hand shops have all the limited run stuff including fan club merchandise. Even if you don't speak Japanese, they do Western musicals too, and game and anime based productions. You don't have to know the language well to be swept up in a performance of a story you know already, so the most unique experience would be seeing a show live. Alas, Casino Royale currently playing in Tokyo is sold out but the DVD comes out on June 3rd if you want one of your souvenirs to be James Bond as played by very talented women.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 2:18 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]

Japanese ceramics are out of this world. Their vases are so gorgeous I can't even stand it, and come in all shapes and sizes. A handful of dandelions take on unearthly elegance in a little Japanese vase. And the teapots! Argh.

Also, if you go to a temple fleamarket, there are old kimonos and other fabulous textiles sold cheap (but even the beer-stained tatty ones are great for cutting up and making stuff). Fleamarkets are the best for all sorts of stuff.

And have you ever seen broken pottery fixed with what looks like gold? It looks amazing, and you can get kits for doing that. It's called kintsugi. Tokyu Hands is bound to have them.

Even at the airport, there will be keyrings featuring pop-culture figurines made with amazing skill, wit and attention to detail.

My goodness you are going to LOVE Japan.
posted by Grunyon at 2:37 AM on May 10 [3 favorites]

My local second hand record store imports all their best quality stuff from Japan, so I’d be looking to go crate digging. I’d also look for vintage audio gear like boom boxes and Walkmans, which are apparently much easier to source and generally better preserved over there. Oh, and cassettes. In conclusion: all the music things!
posted by threecheesetrees at 6:27 AM on May 10

One-cup sake - there's a huge variety of one-cup sake (example) with fun designs, like regional mascots. Empty the cup in Japan (I wouldn't trust the lids to survive being in checked luggage), wash out the glass and take it home. They are fantastic drinking glasses that last for years, and some even come with a reusable plastic top that is ideal for storing small items. Plus it gives you an excuse to drink a lot of sake.
posted by Gortuk at 7:46 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

I lived in Japan for a while, and I've been back on vacation a lot. I can tell you what I've bought there that I couldn't have got anywhere else, other than things people have already mentioned.

One of my hobbies is origami, and I spent a lot of time in the crafts section of Tokyu Hands. I probably bought enough origami paper to keep me going for the rest of my life. I also found my way to the origami section of various bookshops, and bought a lot of books - origami diagrams need no translation, even if the actual instructions that accompany them are lost on me.

I was there for long enough to encounter plenty of nature, so I found and bought flower, insect, butterfly and bird guides. Now that I'm back in the UK, they're nice souvenirs.

I bought a magnetic kitchen timer with a ten-digit keypad for ease of use. No faffing about with a dial or ten-minute increment buttons.

I bought tiny index cards to use for learning vocab, and lots of 0.5mm ballpoint pens.

I bought woodblock prints from Hara Shobo, a little shop in Jimbocho.

I collect lapel pins. I found lots in the various Ghibli shops. I also found plenty of capsule machines, typically at stations or tourist locations, selling pins as cheap souvenirs.

I have long hair. I bought lots of ponytail clips made from kimono fabric.

Bags! I bought a really excellent laptop backpack, with lots of little compartments, and the laptop itself hidden in a side-zipped pocket on the very back of the bag, where the straps are. I'm still using it, fifteen years later. I'm not sure if it's actually still available, but it's the FARVIS 2-601 WIDE Vertical 2way EX. Found a very smart little day pack too. And a well-made leather wallet, with plenty of room for coins and notes as well as cards; it's still going strong after fifteen years.

I was delighted by the jingles played at stations when a train is about to leave. As with the laptop bag, I haven't managed to work out whether they're still available, but I bought melody keychains that played some of my favourites.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 8:13 AM on May 10 [4 favorites]

Typing of the dead on Dreamcast at a retro game store. Spell words to kill zombies
posted by eastboundanddown at 8:46 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

I would personally grab Star Trek doujinshi from the shops in Ikebukuro. I can't say a specific one I would pick up because they aren't well-distributed here in the US and I don't know what they all are, but one of my friends recently went and found herself in fanwork heaven, kept sending me all sorts of wonderful things.
posted by branca at 10:00 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

If you drink alcohol,

Tantakatan is a delicious shiso-flavored spirit that is very difficult to get in the US. I come home with a couple of bottles on each trip. You can try it at just about any bar/izakaya, just ask for tan-taka-tan and they'll ask you if you want it neat, on the rocks, with soda, with water, etc. If you're not familiar with shiso I like to describe the flavor as "Japanese basil."

If the sound of Tantakatan appeals to you, I also recommend trying Beni-Otome while you're at the bar. It's a toasted-sesame-flavored shochu, and while it's slightly more available in the US via mail-order, you may as well try it while you're in Japan to decide if you want to order a whole bottle later.

Chu-hi cocktails in a can are at every convenience store in a panoply of fruit flavors, rotating seasonally. They're like alcoholic fruit sodas. I'm not sure if I would bring them home bc they take up a lot of space, but I recommend sampling them while you're there—they're also nigh-impossible to get in the US.
posted by homodachi at 1:36 PM on May 10 [6 favorites]

I can't stay away from this Ask MeFi!

You mentioned Switch games in your post. Not only are they region-free, but many of them come with English translations. Such games are released digitally international, but are not always available physically, though sometimes they are in Japan.

The caveat is that Switch (and other console) games are typically very easy to import via mail order. CDJapan is my top go-to for games and other media items, and AmiAmi is a good backup. Like many other major shops in Japan which sell media (Amazon.co.jp, Tsutaya, HMV, etc.), both offer exclusive first-release bonuses for some new releases, similar to preorder bonuses in the US, and AmiAmi has a physical location as well.

A few Switch games I've imported physical copies of:
- RPG Time: The Legend of Wright (RPGタイム!~ライトの伝説~) - IGF Award-winning hand-drawn RPG about a young kid designing his own game
- Klonoa Phantasy Reverie Series (風のクロノア 1&2アンコール) - Remasters of the PS1 and PS2 Klonoa puzzle-platformers
- The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story (春ゆきてレトロチカ) - A well-regarded FMV visual novel by Square Enix(!!!)

If you must buy something video game-related while on your trip, my number one recommendation is handheld hardware. There are restrictions on shipping items containing lithium batteries, which can make buying, say, a Nintendo DS somewhat troublesome. Some Japanese online shops will straight up not ship such items outside of the country.

P.S. - A different media item that I highly recommend you check out when you're there, provided you're a fan of old school anime, is this Bubblegum Crisis box set. The included Blu-rays do not include English subs, but the important part is that it comes with all eight fabulously 80s soundtracks, all remastered. (There are new vinyl pressings of the soundtracks as well, if you prefer that.) This box set is out of print now, though it's recent enough that you may still be able to find it in stores.
posted by May Kasahara at 2:37 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

I'm a comfortable minimal/barefoot shoe nerd. I'd love to try on tabi (toe split) shoes in Japan, especially utilitarian (not fashion) kinds that are hard/expensive to buy outside of Japan. As well as lightweight portable rain boots.
posted by mirileh at 3:23 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]

I am not really a fountain pen nerd, I just have an unfortunate addiction to pretty inks, but I'd want to go to the Ancora store in Ginza. They have kitty ink bottle stamps and an ink that is sold only on rainy days, all of which you can only buy in person (although it appears that the rainy day ink is currently sold out)
posted by sailoreagle at 8:12 AM on May 11

I'm a big Yuzu nerd. So If I were going to Japan I would fill up on all kinds of Yuzu stuff (Yuzukosho, Yuzu soda, Dried Yuzu peels, Freeze dried Yuzu, ....). Yuzu is so damn rare and expensive over in the West Coast of the US.

A local Bay-Area Japanese grocery store used to sell these karinto manjus that were out of this world delicious. Unfortunately they stopped stocking them and I have never been able to find them anywhere. I hear that you could get fresh ones in some parts of Japan.
posted by thaths at 11:26 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

Board game geek here, and Japan has been really hot lately on unique and innovative trick-taking card games. Here's an example list.
posted by soonertbone at 5:59 PM on May 14 [2 favorites]

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