Japan is known for its upscale department stores (デパート depāto), the nicest of which feature beautiful interior architectural ornamentation and still employ uniformed women to operate the elevators while informing customers where to find items. Depāto typically have a food court and groceries in the basement, while the roof often has a garden (which doubles as a beer garden during the summer) and some affordable eateries. While the clothes and cosmetics may not hold much interest for the average traveller, you might look for a coin purse or handkerchief that will get frequent use while you’re in Japan, or some nice tableware to use or display at home.
Despite the saying that Japanese cities never sleep, retail hours are surprisingly limited. Opening hours of most shops are typically 10:00-20:00, though most shops are open on weekends and public holidays except New Year, and close on one day a week. Restaurants typically stay open until late at night, though smoking would usually be allowed after 20:00 so those who can’t stand cigarette smoke should have your meals before then.
However, you will always find something you could need to buy at any time of day. Japan is crawling with 24/7 convenience stores (コンビニ konbini), such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, Circle K, and Sunkus. They often offer a much wider range of products than convenience stores in the US or Europe, sometimes have a small ATM and are often open all day all week! Many convenience stores also offer services such as fax, takkyubin luggage delivery, a limited range of postal services, payment services for bills (including topping up international phone cards such as Brastel) and some on-line retailers (e.g. Amazon.jp), and ticket sales for events, concerts and cinemas.
Of course, establishments related to nightlife such as karaoke lounges and bars stay open well into the night. Even in small towns it is easy to find an izakaya open until 05:00. Pachinko parlours are obliged to close at 23:00.
Taxes and tax-free shopping
Most items sold in Japan are subject to an 8% sales tax, which may be refunded to foreign tourists provided you bring the items out of Japan with you when you leave. At many department stores like Isetan, Seibu and Matsuzakaya, you typically pay the full cost at the cashier and go to a tax refund (税金還付 zeikin kanpu or 税金戻し zeikin modoshi) counter, usually located at one of the higher floors, and present your receipt and passport to the counter to get reimbursed. In some other stores advertising “duty free” (免税 menzei), you just present your passport to the cashier when making payment and the tax is deducted on the spot.
Japan has a growing number of tax-free stores where foreign tourists can receive refunds of the 8% consumption tax. Refunds are given for purchases over ¥5,000 on any combination of consumable products (food, beverages, alcohol, tobacco) and non-consumables (clothing, electronics, jewelry, etc.) purchased on one receipt. To qualify, you must visit a store with a “Tax Free” sign displayed. Any consumables that receive a tax refund cannot be consumed in Japan, and must be taken out of Japan within 30 days.
When making tax-free purchases or tax refund claims, counter staff will staple a piece of paper in your passport, which you should keep with you until you leave Japan. This piece of paper is to be surrendered to the customs counter at your point of departure just before you pass through immigration.
Anime and manga
To many Westerners, anime (animation) and manga (comics) are the most popular icons of modern Japan. Manga are popular with both kids and adults, and cover all genres; it’s not uncommon to see businessmen on the subway or in a busy lunch restaurant reading manga. Most manga are serialized in disposable magazines like Weekly Shōnen Jump and Ribon, and later republished in volumes, which is what you’ll find at bookstores; a few manga take the form of graphic novels. Although anime was regarded as childish before, today, many Japanese adults as well as children find it so exciting that they are proud of it as their culture. Most adults in Japan do not regularly watch anime, except for otaku, nerds whose interest often borders on the obsessive, but some titles do find mass appeal. Many of highest-grossing films in Japan are animated films, including 5 from industry giant Hayao Miyazaki.
Many visitors come to Japan in search of merchandise relating to their favorite anime and manga titles. One of the best places to shop is Akihabara in Tokyo. Widely known as an otaku mecca, the stores and booths there peddle anime, manga, and merchandise, of course, but also video games, household electronics, vintage film cameras and lenses, and many more obscure goods.
For rare or vintage items, stores like Mandarake house multiple floors of anime/manga collectibles. There are also stores filled with showcases; each one hosting a cast from an anime or manga. Besides these stores, all throughout Akihabara you will find little shops selling figures from various anime and manga. Another option in Tokyo is Ikebukuro. The original Animate store is located near Ikebukuro East exit, and nearby are cosplay stores and another Mandarake store.
A well known shopping spot to locals are the Book-Off chain stores. They specialize in second-hand books, manga, anime, video games, and DVDs. The quality of the products can range from almost brand new (read once) to more well loved. Be sure to check out the ¥105 area where the quality of the books may be more well-loved, but there are many great finds. There is a small range of English translated manga but the majority are in Japanese.
Anime is available in DVDs and/or Blu-rays, depending on the title. Unless you find bootleg copies, DVDs are all region 2 NTSC. This makes them unplayable in most DVD players in the U.S. and Canada (which are region 1) and Europe and Australia (which use PAL or SECAM). Blu-rays are region A, which includes North and South America, and East Asia except mainland China. Except for the biggest studios (such as Studio Ghibli’s Blu-rays), most releases do not have English subtitles.
Anime DVDs and Blu-rays are quite expensive in Japan (the history of why is interesting). Most releases cost anywhere from ¥4000-8000 per disc, and usually only have 2-4 episodes per disc. Even “discount” editions, when they exist at all, are rarely less than ¥3000 per disc, and still rarely have more than 4 episodes per disc.
Video and PC games
Video games are a huge business in Japan, and both new and old games can be found in electronics and gaming stores throughout Japan. Modern consoles and televisions have few, if any, compatibility issues, but older consoles only support Japan’s NTSC-J display standard (nearly identical to the other NTSC standards), and older televisions from non-NTSC regions may not be compatible with it. Do your research before investing in a Japanese console or game.
The latest generation of consoles — the Sony PlayStation 4 and handheld PS Vita, Nintendo Switch, and Microsoft XBox One — do not have any region locking, so any console can play any game regardless of region or language. But most older systems, as well as the still-current Nintendo 3DS, are region-locked, which will prevent you from playing a Japanese game on a non-Japanese system or vice versa. Even if the game will run, not all games have multilingual options. Again, do your research before spending significant money.
PC games will work fine just as long as you understand enough Japanese to install and play them. Only-in-Japan genres include the visual novel (ビジュアルノベル), which are interactive games with anime style art, somewhat similar to dating sims, and its subset the erotic game (エロゲー eroge), which is just what the name says.
Generally the best places for Video Game shopping are Akihabara in Tokyo, and Den Den Town in Osaka (in terms of deals, you can purchase video games from almost anywhere in Japan).
Electronics and cameras
Electronics stalls in Akihabara
Battery-powered small electronics and still cameras made for sale in Japan will work anywhere in the world, though you might have to deal with an owner’s manual in Japanese. (Some of the larger stores will provide you with an English manual (英語の説明書 eigo no setsumeisho) on request.) There are no great bargains to be found, but the selection is unparalleled. However, if you are buying other electronics to take home, it’s best to shop at stores that specialize in “overseas” configurations, many of which can be found in Tokyo’s Akihabara. You can get PAL/NTSC region-free DVD players, for example. Also, keep in mind that Japanese AC runs at 100 volts, so using “native” Japanese electronics outside Japan without a step-down transformer can be dangerous. Even the US standard 120 V voltage is too much for some devices. Conversely, some are being built as 100–120 V devices to account for this possibility. Always check before buying. Probably the best deal is not electronics per se, but blank media. In particular, Blu-ray optical media for video and data is much, much cheaper than anywhere else.
Prices are lowest and shopping is the easiest at giant discount stores like Bic Camera, Yodobashi Camera, Sofmap and Yamada Denki. They usually have English-speaking staff on duty and accept foreign credit cards. For common products the prices at any are virtually identical, so don’t waste time comparison shopping. Bargaining is possible in smaller shops, and even the larger chains will usually match their competitors’ prices.
Most of the big chains have a “point card” that gets you points that can be used as a discount on your next purchase, even just a few minutes later. Purchases tend to earn points between 5% and even 20% of the purchase price, and 1 point is worth ¥1. Some stores (the biggest being Yodobashi Camera)) require you to wait overnight before being able to redeem points. The cards are handed out on the spot and no local address is needed. However, some stores may not allow you to earn points and receive a tax refund on the same purchase.
Also, major stores tend to deduct 2% from points earned if paid using a credit card (if using a UnionPay credit card, Bic and Yodobashi will disallow you from earning points entirely, though you get an instant 5% discount as compensation). With the consumption tax now raised to 8%, whether you choose to get the tax waived or to earn points will depend on how you pay and whether you plan on returning; if you plan on paying with cash or e-money and plan on returning, it may still be worth it to earn points. If paying by credit card, it becomes a wash with 8% advantage either way, and the tax refund may be more useful.
iPhones and other smartphones sold in Japan have a camera shutter sound which cannot be muted and is always played at full volume due to legal requirements.
While you may be better off heading for France or Italy for high end fashion, when it comes to casual fashion, Japan is hard to beat. Tokyo and Osaka in particular are home to many shopping districts, and there is an abundance of stores selling the latest fashion, particularly those catering to youths. Shibuya and Harajuku in Tokyo and Shinsaibashi in Osaka are known throughout Japan as centers of youth fashion. The main problem is that Japanese shops cater to Japanese-sized customers, and finding larger or curvier sizes can be a real challenge.
Japan is also famous for its beauty products such as facial cream and masks, including many for men. While these are available in almost every supermarket, the Ginza district of Tokyo is where many of the most expensive brands have their own shops.
Japan’s main contribution to jewelry is the cultured pearl, invented by Mikimoto Kōkichi in 1893. The main pearl growing operation to this day is in the small town of Toba near Ise, but the pearls themselves are widely available — although there is little if any price difference to buying them outside Japan. For those who insist on getting their hands on the “authentic” stuff, Mikimoto’s flagship store is in the Ginza district of Tokyo.
Then of course there is kimono, the classic Japanese garment. While very expensive new, second hand kimono can be had at a fraction of the price, or you can opt for a much cheaper and easier to wear casual yukata robe. See purchasing a kimono for buying your own.
Smoking cigarettes remains popular in Japan, especially among men. While cigarettes are sold at some of the many vending machines dotting Japan, visitors to Japan who wish to purchase them must do so at a convenience store or duty-free. As a result of the Japanese tobacco industry cracking down on minors (the legal age is 20), you now need a special age-verifying IC card, called a TASPO card, to purchase cigarettes from a vending machine. TASPO cards are issued only to residents of Japan.
Cigarettes generally come in 20-cigarette king-size hard packs and are fairly cheap, around ¥300-400. Japan has few domestic brands: Seven Stars and Mild Seven are the most common local brands. American brands such as Marlboro, Camel and Lucky Strike are extremely popular although the Japanese-produced versions have a much lighter taste than their western counterparts. Also, look out for unusual flavored cigarettes, light cigarettes with flavor-enhancing filter technology although they taste very artificial and have little effect, mostly popular with female smokers.