In Japan, Where to Find Gifts That Are Actually Good
Amid the kitsch, stores crafting memorable souvenirs can be found.
When you’re visiting Japan, it’s apparent the country loves western brands and kitsch, so between the Fendi and tschokes (like bobble head geisha dolls or sumo wrestlers), it’s a challenge to find singular mementos. Yet Japan is famous for beauty, and we've found several select stores high on craftsmanship and service, making for optimal souvenir and gift shopping.
Stationery. Washi, or traditional Japanese paper, reaches a zenith at Haibara. This small store, established in 1806, located in Nihonbashi and near Ginza, offers beautiful cards, envelopes, calendars, coasters, and decorative paper for reasonable prices. Perfect if you’re traveling light.
Green Tea. Yamamotoyama has been around since 1690, and at this store in Nihonbashi, tastings are provided by earnest salespeople who look like they moonlight as scientists.
Knives. Chefs from the U.S. often return with first-rate knives from Japan. They’re so well designed, a single one can cost thousands of dollars (think how perfectly sushi is cut). Pick up a blade at Aritsugu (pictured), which has a branch store, naturally enough, in Tsukiji, the famous fish market.
Prized Ingredients. Kozue is one of the best kaiseki restaurants in Tokyo: multiple courses of small dishes that orchestrate a panoply of delightful flavors. You can buy the soy and soba used at the restaurant exclusively in a shop called Delicatessen, located inside Park Hyatt Tokyo.
Sake. Great sake in the U.S. can cost well over $100 a bottle. In Japan, it’s two-thirds less. John Gaunter, “the sake guy” widely reputed to be the world’s leading expert on sake and the author of two books on the subject, recommends Hasegawa Saketan inside Tokyo station. “They are friendly, have great sake, and speak a bit of English too,” he says.
Clothing. Izawaya, located on the main drag in Gion, has been selling traditional clothing and accessories since 1865. The owner, Mikiko Ishii, and her mother both speak fluent English, and can guide you to choice cottons and silks that will transform you into a Japanese person of standing.
Woodblock Prints. On a small corner of the arcade known as Teramachi-kado, facing a giant crab “sculpture” above a restaurant, is tiny Nishiharu. Come in, kneel on tatami mats, and prepare to look through dozens of antique prints. (Have a price in mind as well as a subject, be it samurai, birds, boats, or similar; tel: 075-211- 2849.)
Tofu. Flat, delicious sheets of dried tofu can be found at Kinki, a hole-in-the-wall tofu “factory” on Goko Kiyamachi Street. It’s flat enough to fit in any suitcase, and a tasty reminder of where you have been (no address or telephone).
Rice Crackers. One of the oldest (1885) and best rice cracker stores in Japan, Funahashi-ya has a terrific variety. Wrapped in nori (seaweed) or sprinkled with sesame seeds, these savory treats are great with an apertif.
Home-spun Goods. This spa town is filled with tschokes, but inside Takinoya, an upscale ryokan, there’s a gift shop selling beautiful, colorful handkerchiefs and wooden clogs.
Department Stores. Japanese department stores are astonishing in their array of reasonably priced high-end goods. Pick up rice that is freshly milled after you buy it, shichimi (spice), cotton yukata (robes) for under $50, house slippers, pottery, and fancy chopsticks at Takashimaya, Isetan, and Matsuya. Credit cards accepted.