© Jeff Greenberg / Alamy
July 23, 2015

Upon visiting Tokyo this spring, I was expecting Harajuku dreams, one-of-a kind wonders, and Kawaii cuteness every step I turned. Only, in reality, there was little of it to be found. Tokyo’s current obsession with Brooklyn made the shopping selection surprisingly American, and finding those special splurges for loved ones and cute souvenirs for friends was more difficult than expected. And, let’s face it: no one really wants a chopstick rest, so traditional gifts weren’t quite right, either.

This list of stores, market stalls, and shopping meccas actually worth dropping by will help you conquer your gift list without stressing about how mind-bogglingly difficult it is to find those odd-flavored KitKats Japan is known for. Here’s how to stock up on thoughtful gifts, bizarre goodies, and the wildest cotton swabs you’ve ever seen:

Matsumoto Kiyoshi

Though Tokyo’s most ubiquitous drugstore (above) is a mecca for beauty obsessives, the prices for cult favorites are on par with cosmetics back home, making them more of an indulgence. Pop in for one of Japan’s legendary mascaras—Dolly Wink, Heroine Make, Fairy Drops—or famed skincare products, like Cure AquaGel or DHC Deep Cleansing Oil. For low-cost gifts, don’t miss Japan’s intriguing take on bathroom staples, like black cotton swabs and cotton balls in pastel hues, as well as the mountains of matcha KitKat bars near the register. (It’s the cheapest and easiest place to find them!)

Tokyo Station

Already well known for being a sneakily good spot to get ramen, this massive train station (below) is also packed with the best kawaii toy selection in town. Each of the 21 icon-specific stores on Tokyo Character Street (located in the First Avenue Tokyo Station basement level) sells more cute tchotchkes than one could possibly bring home, ranging from the familiar—Snoopy, Hello Kitty—to the truly foreign, like Nameko, a smiling stuffed mushroom. While there, don’t miss Shokoku Gotochi Plaza (http://metropolis.co.jp/dining/local-flavors/foodie-gifts/), a souvenir candy shop a Tokyo food expert (thankfully!) tipped me off to. Though the prices are frustratingly high for what’s essentially drugstore candy, it’s the most reliable place in town to grab KitKats in whimsical flavors like rum raisin, strawberry cheesecake, and wasabi.

© Sean Pavone / Alamy

Muji

Sure, we have Muji (below) back in the states, but comparing the two is like equating a gas station with a WalMart. There are an abundance of goodies available at the Japan-based store that will never make it stateside, and are ideal souvenirs for your most minimalist friends. Stock up on small home goods for organization-obsessed relatives, travel-sized everything for any jetsetters in your life, and grab a couple bags of their pillowy matcha marshmallows with red bean centers.

© jeremy sutton-hibbert / Alamy

Tokyu Hands

This multi-level Shibuya wonderland truly does live up to the hype. Allot at least an hour or two to make it through all 24 sub-levels—you’ll have to dig to find some goodies to take home, but it’s completely worth it. Short on time? Be sure to check out 2A’s massive selection of stickers and washi tape, the uniquely Japanese self-care interventions on 3A, and 3C for kitchen goods like panda-shaped sandwich slicers and kitty cat onigiri kits.

Streetside Umbrella Stands

Sounds banal, but isn’t at all. At around 550 Yen, these tiny Waterfront umbrellas cost only a few dollars, but make remarkable souvenirs you’ll look forward to using when the weather back home turns sour. The rounder models typically offer fun designs for children and affable adults, and the flat-sized ones are small enough to fit in your back pocket. They are brilliant, simple, and—shockingly—not available online or in the states.

Loft

Though the whimsical gift selection at Loft is worth checking out, the store’s paper offerings are next-level. The greeting card selection is insane and very well-priced, so consider stocking up on a year’s worth and gifting a set to a friend. The basement holds enough professional stationery, whimsical notepads, and desktop accessories to make all of your co-workers happy.

Fine Dining and Classic Bars

If you stumble across a lovely, timeless cocktail joint or find yourself having an extravagant dinner, always check to see if the location offers any books or items for sale. During a trip to Tokyo’s famed Bar Radio I discovered their limited-edition cocktail anthology, which was available on the spot but not online. Sukiyabashi Jiro’s dinner (below) will set you back hundreds of dollars, but their petite-sized book, Jiro Gastronomy, costs just $10. 

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