Where to shop

Where to eat: 246 Common

Tokyo really needs more places like this. Taking advantage of a lull in the Aoyama construction cycle, the open-air 246 Common squeezes a bundle of delights into the space once occupied by the LaPlace complex, just off the main Omotesando crossing. The assembled food stalls, shacks and caravans sell an eclectic mix of drinks and vittles – from coffee and cocktails to artisanal bread, burgers, takoyaki and chiffon cake – which you can munch in the communal seating area. There’s also a small selection of shops housed in the more permanent-looking buildings tucked in the far corner of the site, offering shoes, spectacles and – of all the things – old-school tobacco pipes.




3-13 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Transport Omotesando Station (Ginza, Hanzomon, Chiyoda lines), exit A4

Open Daily 11am-10pm

URL www.246common.jp

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What to buy: Essential Tokyo souvenirs

25 only-in-Japan gifts, from chopsticks to Be@rbricks

Essential Tokyo souvenirs

No trip to Tokyo would be complete without some souvenir shopping, but scoring the ultimate omiyage can be a real pain sometimes. We’ve made life easier by picking 25 great Tokyo souvenirs, ranging from the traditional (incense, combs, lucky charms) to the downright quirky (tooth-shaped jewellery, anyone?), and most of them are sold close to the city’s main sightseeing spots. Happy shopping, and remember: there’s more to souvenirs than Tokyo Banana.

Fake food keyring
Ganso Shokuhin Sample-ya, Asakusa
A fixture on the Kappabashi ‘Kitchen Town’ circuit since 1932, Ganso Shokuhin Sample-ya produces fake food for display in restaurant windows, but in recent years it’s branched out into keyrings, mobile phone straps and DIY ‘Sample’n Cooking’ kits. Address and map

Maneki-neko figurine
Imado Shrine, Asakusa
The maneki-neko ‘beckoning cat’ figurines beloved of Japanese shops and pachinko parlours are believed to have started life at this shrine to all things romantic. Imado’s distinctive conjoined cat statuettes would make a perfect gift for a lovestruck couple.Address and map

Boxwood comb
Yonoya Kushiho, Asakusa
Handmade combs may be a dying art, but the boxwood beauties on sale at this Asakusa shop (established all the way back in 1717) should last for a generation or two if taken care of properly. Prepare to be tempted by the elegant hairpins and keyrings on offer. Address and map

Made-to-order notebook
Kakimori, Asakusa
You might find yourself falling in love with the art of writing all over again after a visit to stationery shop Kakimori, where staff can craft you a custom-made notebook using a range of locally produced paper, covers and bindings. Address and map

‘Akari kokeshi’ doll
Tokyo Kitsch, Yanaka
Traditional Japanese motifs are given a modern twist at Tokyo Kitsch. Their ‘akari kokeshi’ wooden doll conceals an LED light that switches on automatically when it’s picked up or knocked over – a neat trick that might prove invaluable if (or when) the Big One hits. Address and map

Bamboo birdcage
Midoriya, Yanaka
Operating for over a century now, the family-run Midoriya offers bamboo products ranging from the everyday to the exquisite. Its traditionalmushikago cages come in a range of shapes and sizes, and you can even buy bamboo birds and insects to put inside. Address and map

Japanese-style Be@rbricks
Medicom Toy Solamachi, Oshiage
Housed in Tokyo Skytree’s onsite mall, the flagship shop for Medicom Toy shows an admirable respect for its ‘hood, with traditional-style Be@rbrick figures decorated to resemble kabuki actors, daruma dolls and more. Address and map

Lacquered chopsticks
Ginza Natsuno, Ginza
Small and portable, chopsticks make for ideal souvenirs. Mind you, some of the offerings at Natsuno – including lacquered pieces from various regions of Japan – look so gorgeous you might be reluctant to actually use them. Address and map

Japanese stickers
Ito-ya, Ginza
Huge and almost invariably busy, Ginza’s Ito-ya shop is the go-to place for Japanese stationery. Head down to the basement and you’ll find a selection of suitably Japan-style stickers, including images of Mt Fuji, sushi, maneki-neko cats and kabuki.Address and map

Incense pouche
Kyukyodo, Ginza
Established nearly 350 years ago, Kyukyodo supplied incense to the Imperial family during the Edo period, while also specialising in Japanese paper. We’re particularly fond of their palm-sized incense pouches, including the sandlewood-scentedkinran kinchakuAddress and map

Lacquered pencil
Gojuon, Ginza
Ballpoint pens and pencils must be some of the most humdrum stationery around – at least, that is, until you’ve seen the items sold at Gojuon. The gorgeous lacquered pencils here are crafted using traditional techniques, to produce a range of different finishes. Address and map

Edo-style broom
Shirokiya Denbe, Kyobashi
Floors, tabletops, clothes: if there’s something that needs sweeping, you’ll probably be able to find a broom for the task here. Shirokiya Denbe’s Edo-style brooms are also available in compact sizes that are ideal for getting dust off suits and jackets. Address and map

Fortune toothpicks
Saruya, Ningyocho
There are toothpicks, and then there are the hand-crafted little marvels sold at this three-century-old shop in Ningyocho. The kumadori box set comes adorned with a kabuki motif, and its toothpicks are wrapped in fortune slips carrying traditional love songs. Address and map

‘Chigibako’ charm
Shiba Daijingu Shrine, Shiba-Daimon
People have been buying these distinctive, three-tier lucky charms since the Edo era, when women bought them in the hope of finding a good husband. Decorated with wisteria flowers, the three boxes contain beans that rattle when shaken. Address and map

Origami paper
Souvenir From Tokyo, Nogizaka
With a name like that, it’d be rudenot to include Souvenir From Tokyo in this list. The NACT’s shop lives up to its billing with a well chosen array of Tokyo- and Japan-themed design products, including this nifty printed origami paper – also sold in postcard format. Address and map

Bonsai kit
Oriental Bazaar, Harajuku
Tokyo’s most famous souvenir shop is a no-brainer if you’re on the hunt for Japanese gifts. This DIY bonsai set comes complete with seeds, soil and a pot to put them in, meaning that all you’ll need is water – oh, and the patience of a Zen monk. Address and map

‘Tenugui’ towel
Kamawanu, Daikanyama
Tenugui – traditional hand towels made from dyed cloth – have been coming back in vogue recently, and there are few better places to get one than at Kamawanu. Don’t be fooled by the name, either: these ‘towels’ can be used for a lot more than just drying stuff. Address and map

Honeyx bathtime box
Claska Gallery & Shop ‘Do’, Shibuya
Keeping people’s skin fresh and perky since 1927, Hoken’s honey- and royal jelly-dervied cosmetics are an ideal gift for the lady in your life. This gift set includes soaps, shampoo and conditioner, all housed in an attractive paulownia box.Address and map

Mt Fuji tissue case
Katakana, Jiyugaoka
There’s an entire section devoted to Mt Fuji at Katakana, Jiyugaoka’s ever-reliable ‘shop presenting Japanese cool’. Their tissue cases are particularly nifty – notice how the protruding tip of the hankie matches the shape of the mountain’s peak.Address and map

Rilakkuma phone straps
Kiddy Land, Harajuku
Harajuku toy shop par excellence, Kiddy Land devotes a hefty chunk of its fourth floor to ubiquitous bear character Rilakkuma, including these only-in-Tokyo phone straps featuring landmarks like Kaminarimon and Mt Takao. Address and map

Retro kit models
Tokyu Hands, Shibuya
One of the nerdiest corners of the Tokyu Hands shop in Shibuya is floor 7B, home to a panoply of plastic model kits. The nostalgia-inducingFubutsushi sets recreate scenes of Showa Japan, from the local sweet shop to the late-night soba cart.Address and map

Tooth jewellery
Aquvii Tokyo, Shibuya
As unusual Tokyo souvenirs go, you could do a lot worse than Aquvii’s line of tooth earrings and necklaces. And don’t worry: they’re fashioned from medical-grade resin rather than real human gnashers, so you shouldn’t have any trouble getting them past customs. Address and map

Cheap snacks
Don Quijote, Shinjuku
Sure, you could splurge on some highfalutin Japanese sweets at a department store. But your recipient would get a far better sense of contemporary Japan from a selection of cheap ‘n’ nasty children’s snacks, courtesy of our friends at Don Quijote. Address and map

‘Washi’ paper goods
Bingoya, Wakamatsucho
A six-floor bazaar devoted to traditional Japanese crafts, Bingoya should satisfy even the most jaded souvenir shopper. Their handmadewashi (Japanese paper) products are oh-so-practical, with business card holders, book covers and more.Address and map

Manga… in English
Manadarake, Nakano
Manga, dojinshi fanzines, out-of-print books, fan merchandise: whatever your otaku obsession, you’ll be able to sate it here. Perhaps more importantly, Mandarake also has a selection of English titles, if you want something that people back home can actually read. Address and map

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Kumamon makes his Paris debut at Japan Expo

Paris won’t know what hit it. From July 4 to 7, the French capital will be awash with anisongs, cosplay and kawaii, as the world’s largest overseas festival of Japanese pop cultureJapan Expo, returns for its 14th edition. Guests this year range fromFist of the North Star creator Tetsuo Hara and Macross mecha designer Shoji Kawamori to Visual-kei band Nightmare, idol group °C-ute and brainiac instrument makers Maywa Denki… but they might find themselves overshadowed by a bloke in a bear costume. Yes: unfathomably popular regional mascot Kumamon (250,000 Twitter followers and counting) is lined up to make a guest appearance at the Expo, where he’ll be performing his trademark exercise and dance routines.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, this rosy-cheeked, sack-shaped bear is the official representative of Kumamoto Prefecture, where he made his debut in 2010, ahead of the completion of the Kyushu Shinkansen line between Fukuoka and Kagoshima. Such mascots are common in Japan, where they’re described as yuru-kyara – literally ‘loose characters’, though a better translation (offered by Daniel Krieger inThe Japan Times) might be ‘cheesy but lovable characters.’ As Krieger puts it, ‘unlike multi-billion dollar stars such as Sanrio’s Hello Kitty, this variety … earn their keep by drawing attention to a particular place, organisation or idea despite, or because of, their lack of polish.’

Designed by Manabu Mizuno, Kumamon (whose name combines the first character of Kumamoto with the local dialect rendering of ‘mono’, or thing) seems to fit the bill. The only difference is that, well, he’s actually popular: he won the nationwide Yuru-Kyara Grand Prix poll in 2011, beating out competition from the likes of Ehime mascot (and 2012 Grand Prix winner) Bary-san, and earned nearly ¥3 billion in merchandise sales last year. When revered German toymaker Steiff launched aJapan-only Kumamon stuffed bear in a limited edition of 1,500 earlier this year, it sold out immediately – despite the not-inconsiderable price tag of ¥29,800.

So will Les Françaises embrace this burly furball? Kumamon has already made PR appearances around Asia – including Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore – but that’s hardly a guarantee of European success. Still, he might find a sympathetic audience in France – not least because the country has been tentatively trying toboost its own native bear population.

Oh, and if you’re looking for Kumamon merchandise in Tokyo, ‘antenna shop’ Ginza Kumamotokan is the place to head.

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What to buy in Tachikawa, Tokyo; some nice demon cookies

Local businesses could have turned to Buddhism or Christianity to boost the profile of the western Tokyo city of Tachikawa, but instead they have taken a more demonic approach.

An animated adaptation of “Saint Young Men,” a popular manga series about Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ living together as roommates in a cheap apartment in Tachikawa, hit cinemas nationwide in May.

Hoping to cash in on the opportunity, a Japanese confectionery shop is offering sweet pancakes branded with an “oni” demon character, which is based on the design of a playground slide in a city park that is featured in the manga. An oni-themed cellphone charm produced five years ago is also proving a consistent seller.

“Saint Young Men” follows how the founders of Buddhism and Christianity spend their daily lives as they make “miracles.”

The original manga series by Hikaru Nakamura has been running in Kodansha Ltd.’s Morning 2 comic magazine since 2007.

Toshio Ochiai, 51, who operates Yanase confectionery store in the city’s Nishikicho area, came up with the idea of making and selling “onidora” pancakes.

He created the sweet in tribute to Nishiki Daini Koen park, commonly known as Oni Koen, with its “oni” playground slide, which is located near the shop.

Ochiai decided to develop the new product when the production of the animated feature adaptation was announced.

“I wanted to draw more people to the shopping streets in the area,” he said.

It was around the end of last year when he chose the special pancakes because they can be kept a long time. He made a branding iron in the shape of an oni to burn the mark into “dorayaki” pancakes filled with bean paste with chestnuts–hot-selling items at Yanase–to sell them at 200 yen ($2) in March. He sells between 20 and 30 a day, according to Ochiai.

Ochiai, who is to become the president of the Nishiki shopping street promotion association, said, “I’d be pleased if other shops develop products with the oni motif.”

Ochiai’s design was also inspired in part by a previously successful oni-themed item. In 2008, the Tachikawa Bureau of Tourism, in collaboration with city officials, local business operators and other parties, produced 1,000 Oni Koen Strap cellphone charms. They distributed the phone charms at events and other occasions.

But even after the bureau ran out of stock, people continued asking for the charm, said Mitsuaki Iwashita, 55, who runs a real estate rental business on the shopping street. He requested that the manufacturer produce more.

The phone charms are now sold for 500 yen each at Yanase and elsewhere. About 100 are sold every month, according to Iwashita.

“With the release of the movie, I want to promote the city coupled with the Oni Koen,” he said.

The Cinema City cinema complex in the city’s Akebonocho area, which shows the animated movie, is also expecting an increase in audience numbers.

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‘Tenugui’; the perfect souvenir from Kyoto

A “tenuguihand towel, featuring a traditional scene from the ancient capital of Japan in the summer, is the hot ticket item to wrap around the head, wash oneself with or even use as a fine decoration.

Using pattern paper, craftsmen of 400-year-old dyed goods maker Eirakuya were dyeing fine patterns on its 100-percent cotton tenugui towels. The new item, released in June, is a towel themed on the traditional Tanabata Star Festival, on which bamboo decorated with colored strips of paper are painted in nine colors. It is priced at 1,680 yen ($16.80).

“Consumers are seeking towels that give them the feeling of the seasons in Kyoto,” said Keisuke Iwako, 42, a product planning officer of Eirakuya. “I hope our products will bring them a sense of each season in Kyoto.”

In July, Japanese put up displays of bamboo and hang strips of paper with their wishes written on them, to celebrate the festival. On Eirakuya’s new product, one can see decorated bamboo displayed in front of traditional Kyoto-style townhouses.

The towel maker, located in Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward, was established in 1615. It has been releasing 20 new items annually since 2000 to give consumers the feel of a changing of seasons, featuring familiar sights from around Kyoto in each season.

To make such new towels, the manufacturer used designs featuring themes between the early Meiji Era (1868-1912) and the early Showa Era (1926-1989) as a reference.

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What to buy:Tokyo souvenirs for panda lovers

20 great gifts inspired by Ueno Zoo’s most famous residents

Tokyo souvenirs for panda lovers

Pandas: people just can’t get enough of them. Ever since the first giant panda arrived at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo in 1972, the Japanese public has barely swerved in its devotion to these ambling bamboo-munchers. The domestic media obsessively tracks the procreational activities of the zoo’s current residents, Shin Shin and Ri Ri, and when a newborn cub died of pneumonia last year it was practically a cause for national mourning. Even if you don’t make it as far as the zoo, pandas are an unavoidable presence in Ueno, adorning everything from doughnuts to daruma, snow globes to one-cup saké (no, really). Here are 20 of our favourite Tokyo panda souvenirs.

Panda doughnuts:

Who’s that cheeky critter poking its head out of our teatime treat? These fluffy doughnuts from Nakashibetsu, Hokkaido have been given a panda-style makeover in their Tokyo incarnation, with flavours including Hokkaido Milk, Shiretoko Salt Caramel, Hokkaido Pumpkin and Cocoa Chocolate.
Price: ¥1,050 for three
Available at: Siretoco Factory, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda stationery

Panda-themed stationery is easy to come by in Ueno, but for the biggest selection you need to venture into the park itself. Adorned with miniature bears and an official panda logo, these pens, mechanical pencils and rulers bring a dash of fun to even the most boring desk job.
Price: ¥365 each
Available at: Parks Ueno, 7 Ueno-Koen, Taito-ku

Panda daruma doll

Even traditional craftspeople aren’t immune to the charms of Ri Ri and Shin Shin. This cute, handcrafted ornament comes courtesy of Terunaga Mashimo, a third-generation daruma doll maker from Gunma Prefecture, and wouldn’t look out of place in even the most stylish of abodes.
Price: ¥1,890 each
Available at: Yu Nakagawa, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda bento box

Lunchtimes will never be the same again once you’ve tucked into one of these creations from venerable food maker Tsukuasa Shoten. A rice panda adorned with umeboshi plums sits amid lightly seasoned vegetables, chicken, salmon and egg roll. It’s a deco bento to die for: just be warned that there are only 20 available each day.
Price: ¥735 each
Available at: Okazu Honten Tsukuasa, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda pouch

Fluffy pouches are a staple of panda merchandise in Tokyo, but you might struggle to top this tasty little number, available at the ultra-girly Plame Collome shop. At 10cm wide, it’s large enough to accommodate make-up or a small camera, while that ribbon is sure to have your friends squealing ‘kawaii!
Price: ¥1,260 each
Available at: Plame Collome, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda waffles

The Ueno 3153 branch of cake shop Cozy Corner sells waffle sandwiches adorned with cat and dog faces – but the panda reigns supreme. Get your spongy confection with a choice of fillings, including custard and milk cream flavoured with strawberries and sweet azuki beans.
Price: from ¥150
Available at: Ginza Cozy Corner, 1F Ueno 3153, 1-57 Ueno-Koen, Taito-ku

Panda origami set

In this part of town, it’s practically a requirement that any gift shop has a dedicated panda section, and stylish stationer Angers Bureau is no different. We like this origami set by Realfake, which uses paper printed with photos of actual animal fur. The 16 sheets are enough to make eight paper pandas, with bilingual instructions to help English speakers.
Price: ¥840
Available at: Angers Bureau, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda snow globe

Speaking of panda sections, the local branch of hipster knick-knack bazaar Village Vanguard has got one too. This trinket comes adorned with a Sichuan landscape, though we’re not sure that quite redeems its utter tackiness.
Price: ¥840
Available at: Village Vanguard, 5F Ueno Marui, 6-15-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda purse

If a fluffy panda pouch isn’t quite sophisticated enough for you (see above), here’s a more elegant alternative. This palm-sized purse, fashioned in the traditional Japanese style, comes to us via Bel Regalo, a Kyoto brand that’s only just starting to become widely available in Tokyo.
Price: ¥840
Available at: 1F Ueno Marui, 6-15-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda kamaboko

Mmm, panda-faced processed fish paste… It’s hard to imagine these finding an audience overseas, but they’d make a welcome addition to the average Japanese schoolkid’s lunch box. Pick them up in black, pink or yellow versions at Fujiya, a stalwart of the bustling Ameyoko market.
Price: ¥400 each, ¥1,000 for three
Available at: Fujiya, 6-10-4 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda rice crackers

The Osama-do shop has been cranking out okaki rice crackers since the 1920s from its base in nearby Senzoku, but you’ll need to visit the Ueno Station branch to get these. Seaweed-flavoured and with a nice salty tang, the ‘Ogaki Panda’ would go equally well with tea or something a little stronger (and stiffer).
Price: ¥210 each
Available at: Osama-do, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Diablock giant panda

Why buy a readymade panda when you can build your own? This Diablock giant panda from Lego imitators Kawada is likely to appeal to bored office workers as much as kids, and it’s not as fiddly as the Nanoblock kits for which the company is better known.
Price: ¥1,260
Available at: Yamashiroya, 6-14-6 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda handkerchief

This large, tenugui-style handkerchief is one of the more understated offerings on our list: only a small illustration in one corner indicates that it’s pandering to the panda crowd (sorry). It’s a useful little number, too: the pocket on the reverse could accommodate a kairo hand warmer in winter or an ice pack in the summer.
Price: ¥630
Available at: Flower Jelly, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda pin badge

Every branch of Hard Rock Cafe has its own exclusive pin badges – and no prizes for guessing what the main theme is at the Ueno restaurant. If regular offerings like the ‘City Guitar’ pin (pictured) aren’t enough, look out for the limited edition pins, released on the third Saturday of the month.
Price: ¥1,200 each (limited edition pins ¥1,500)
Available at: Hard Rock Cafe Uyeno Eki, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda mooncake

China’s favourite calorie bomb never looked cuter than when adorned with a doe-eyed panda face. These popular mooncakes are sold in sets of two at the Ueno branch of Chinese restaurant chain Toh-Ten-Koh, though you can also get panda-branded manju and niku-man buns at their online store.
Price: ¥500 for two
Available at: Toh-Ten-Koh, 1-4-33 Ikenohata, Taito-ku

Panda one-cup saké

It would be remiss not to suggest at least one panda-related way of getting pished, and Gifu’s Miyozakura Jozo have got us covered. This ‘one cup’ saké was launched to mark the arrival of Ueno Park’s first giant panda in 1972 – and unlike most other varieties of this street-drinking staple, you might actually keep the glass once you’ve drunk it.
Price: ¥231
Available at: Kinokuniya, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda roll cake

You’ve probably tried to make something similar at home and failed miserably (or was that just me?). Let the experts at Les Patissieres show you how it’s done with this oh-so-soft roll cake, filled with whipped cream and chocolate mousse to create a panda face. One word of advice: warm your knife before slicing it, to keep the design intact.
Price: ¥1,470 each
Available at: Les Patissieres, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda bouncy ball

If you make it as far as the Ueno Station ticket gates before realising you’ve forgotten to buy any souvenirs, nip into design shop Rezept nearby to snag one of these: cheap, cheerful and likely to last longer than anything else on this list.
Price: ¥200 each
Available at: Rezept Design & Store, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda cookies

Ueno’s best stocked emporium of panda produce is, unsurprisingly, to be found in the zoo itself. Among the sweets, keyrings and stuffed toys on offer, these butter and chocolate cookies seem to be particularly popular – though it’s hard not to feel that the tin is a bigger selling point than what’s inside.
Price: ¥650
Available at: Ueno Zoo gift shop, 9-83 Ueno-Koen, Taito-ku

Panda yaki cakes

Sometimes the traditional options are the best, and that’s probably true of these old-school ‘panda yaki’ sponge cakes, filled with the sweet bean paste so beloved of Western tourists (joking). Just be warned: look at that panda face for too long and it starts to get strangely hypnotic.
Price: ¥480 for six
Available at: Sakuragitei (inside Ueno Park), 9-84 Ueno-Koen, Taito-ku


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Where to shop: musashi koyama shoutengai; a slice of the real Japan


Musashi koyama shoutengai: domestic shopping as far as the eye can see!

Musashi koyama shoutengai: domestic shopping as far as the eye can see!


When most visitors imagine shopping in Tokyo, they think of classy department stores with well-turned-out women pointing white gloves in the right direction. Other popular images include the massed ranks of electronic goods at Akihabara, or perhaps the trendy boutiques for the young or young-at-heart in places like Shibuya and Omotesando.

For those actually living in Tokyo though, shopping is a much more practical activity; the criteria for a good location to shop being that you can get most things you need at a reasonable price. That’s why traditional shopping streets, or “shoutengai” as they are known, are an important feature of Tokyo life. These shotengai, often located near stations, tend to mix the old with the new, and you often find family-run stores next to modern fast-food restaurants or pachinko parlors.

Two stations from Meguro on the Tokyo-Meguro Line, Musashi Koyama has one of the most interesting shotengai in Tokyo. The 1km long street was opened in 1956, when it was known as the biggest in the Far East, and it still has plenty of stores left over from that time. Turn left as you leave the station and you’re already at the entrance to this vast glass-roofed arcade. There are open-fronted shops strategically placed at the entrance serving Chinese dumplings (gyoza), fried octopus balls (takoyaki) and skewered chicken (yakitori).The latter also doubles as a standing bar and pulls in shop-weary customers of all ages on weekends and leads into the maze of small side streets, filled with tiny bars and restaurants, that exist by the side of the shotengai – the limited size of these establishments guaranteeing that, should you enter, you are bound to end up talking to someone.

Inside the bustling shotengai proper, there are fruit stores, ¥100-shops, sushi-restaurants, pharmacies, pachinko parlors, cafes, as well as shops selling Japanese cakes and vegetables, books, kimono, green tea… the list is endless. Interestingly though, the further you walk away from Musashi Koyama station, the cheaper the goods on offer seem to be. The greengrocers at the end of the shotengai is the place of choice for the older ladies, who know a good deal when they see it, and ¥100-for a bunch of bananas in Tokyo is a pretty good deal.

Elsewhere, places like “Book Off”, a chain, second-hand CD, DVD, manga store is worth a browse, as is the bizarre “Hollywood Mirror,” a novelty goods shop where you can buy souvenirs that will confirm to your friends back home that Tokyo is just as wacky as they thought. More practically, the Shinryudo clothes outlet has T-shirts, shirts, sweaters etc at prices you wouldn’t hear mentioned at department stores, and if you hang around till 8pm, the Chiyoda Sushi store starts to slap big discounts on its take-out sushi.

If you do find yourself loitering there till evening, you could do worse than slipping into one of the side streets mentioned earlier, which seem to come alive at night when the red lanterns of the izakaya traditional Japanese bar-cum-restaurants are turned on. There are bars with drinks as cheap as ¥500, and quite a few interesting non-Japanese places too.

Not on most people’s travel itinerary perhaps, but Musashi Koyama shotengai gives you a chance to experience a real slice of Tokyo life, and to come away with one or two bargains in the process.

Access: Musashi-Koyama Station, Tokyo-Meguro Line


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Desperately seeking sake, where to buy Nihonshu in Tokyo

Japanese school children posing in front of donated sake casks at Meiji jingu shrine>

Japanese school children posing in front of donated sake casks at Meiji jingu shrine>


In terms of sheer variety, Tokyo is undoubtedly the best place in the world to try premium sake. Between the frequent tasting events, excellent restaurants and sake bars, the city provides no shortage of opportunities. But once you’ve developed a taste for the good stuff, where can you go to purchase a bottle to enjoy in the privacy of your own home?

Many supermarkets and convenience stores sell sake, but most do not carry a wide selection of top-grade brews. Not to worry, a number of terrific specialty shops exist. Dotted across the city and sometimes hidden in random places, these purveyors of premium sake take their nihonshu seriously, and go the extra mile in caring for their bottles by storing them in large refrigerators. They delight connoisseurs with choice, and some even offer the chance to sample before you buy.

What is sake?
Sake or saké (/ˈsɑːk/, “sah-keh”) is an alcoholic beverage of Japanese origin that is made from fermented rice. Sake is sometimes called “rice wine” but the brewing process is more as rice beer, converting starch to sugar for the fermentation process.

In the Japanese language, the word “sake” generally refers to any alcoholic drink, while the beverage called “sake” in English is usually termed nihonshu (日本酒, “Japanese liquor”). Under Japanese liquor laws, sake is labelled with the word “seishu” (清酒, “clear liquor”), a synonym less commonly used colloquially.

Sake is sometimes referred to in English-speaking countries as rice wine. However, unlike wine, in which alcohol is produced by fermenting sugar that is naturally present in grapes and other fruits, sake is produced by means of a brewing process more like that of beer. To make beer or sake, the sugar needed to produce alcohol must first be converted from starch.

The brewing process for sake differs from the process for beer, in that for beer, the conversion from starch to sugar and from sugar to alcohol occurs in two discrete steps. But when sake is brewed, these conversions occur simultaneously. Furthermore, the alcohol content differs between sake, wine, and beer. Wine generally contains 9%–16% ABV, while most beer contains 3%–9%, and undiluted sake contains 18%–20% (although this is often lowered to about 15% by diluting with water prior to bottling).

The history of sake
The origin of sake is unclear. The earliest reference to the use of alcohol in Japan is recorded in the Book of Wei in the Records of the Three Kingdoms. This 3rd century Chinese text speaks of the Japanese drinking and dancing. Bamforth (2005) noted that the probable origin of sake was in the Nara period (710–794 AD).

Sake is mentioned several times in the Kojiki, Japan’s first written history, which was compiled in 712 AD

By the Asuka period, true sake, that which is made from rice, water, and kōji mold (麹, Aspergillus oryzae), was the dominant alcohol and had a very low potency. In the Heian period, sake was used for religious ceremonies, court festivals, and drinking games.[4] Sake production was a government monopoly for a long time, but in the 10th century, temples and shrines began to brew sake, and they became the main centers of production for the next 500 years. The Tamon-in Diary, written by abbots of Tamon-in (temple) from 1478 to 1618, records many details of brewing in the temple. The diary shows that pasteurization and the process of adding ingredients to the main fermentation mash in three stages were established practices by that time.

In the 16th century, the technique of distillation was introduced into the Kyushu district from Ryukyu. The brewing of shochu, called “Imo—sake” started, and was sold at the central market inKyoto. Powerful daimyo imported various liquors and wine from China.

This is the title page of the earliest explana...

This is the title page of the earliest explanation of the process of brewing sake to be published in the West. In 1781, Isaac Titsingh published Bereiding van Sacki in Batavia, which was then the main city of the Dutch East Indies. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Title page of Bereiding van Sacki, byIsaac Titsingh: earliest explanation of the sake brewing process in the Dutch language. Published in 1781, in Batavia, Dutch East Indies.

In the 18th century, Engelbert Kaempfer and Isaac Titsingh published accounts identifying sake as a popular alcoholic beverage in Japan; but Titsingh was the first to try to explain and describe the process of sake brewing. The work of both writers was widely disseminated throughout Europe at the beginning of the 19th century.

During the Meiji Restoration, laws were written that allowed anybody with the money and know-how to construct and operate their own sake breweries. Around 30,000 breweries sprang up around the country within a year. However, as the years went by, the government levied more and more taxes on the sake industry and slowly the number of breweries dwindled to 8,000.

Most of the breweries that grew and survived this period were set up by wealthy landowners. Landowners who grew rice crops would have rice left over at the end of the season and, rather than letting these leftovers go to waste, would ship it to their breweries. The most successful of these family breweries still operate today.

During the 20th century, sake-brewing technology grew by leaps and bounds. The government opened the sake-brewing research institute in 1904, and in 1907 the very first government-run sake tasting/competition was held. Yeast strains specifically selected for their brewing properties were isolated and enamel-coated steel tanks arrived. The government started hailing the use of enamel tanks as easy to clean, lasting forever, and being devoid of bacterial problems. (The government considered wooden barrels to be unhygienic because of the potential bacteria living in the wood.) Although these things are true, the government also wanted more tax money from breweries, as using wooden barrels means that a significant amount of sake is lost to evaporation (somewhere around 3%), which could have otherwise been taxed. This was the end of the wooden-barrel age of sake and the use of wooden barrels in brewing was completely eliminated.

In Japan, sake has long been taxed by the national government. In 1898, this tax brought in about 55 million yen out of a total of about 120 million yen, about 46% of the government’s total direct tax income.

During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–1905, the government banned the home brewing of sake. At the time, sake still made up an astonishing 30% of Japan’s tax revenue. Since home-brewed sake is tax-free sake, the logic was that by banning the home brewing of sake, sales would go up, and more tax money would be collected. This was the end of home-brewed sake, and the law remains in effect today even though sake sales now make up only 2% of government income.

When World War II brought rice shortages, the sake-brewing industry was dealt a hefty blow as the government clamped down on the use of rice for brewing. As early as the late 17th century, it had been discovered that small amounts of alcohol could be added to sake before pressing to extract aromas and flavors from the rice solids, but during the war, pure alcohol and glucose were added to small quantities of rice mash, increasing the yield by as much as four times. 75% of today’s sake is made using this technique, left over from the war years. There were even a few breweries producing “sake” that contained no rice at all. Naturally, the quality of sake during this time varied greatly.

After the war, breweries slowly began to recover, and the quality of sake gradually went up. However, new players on the scene—beer, wine, and spirits—became very popular in Japan, and in the 1960s beer consumption surpassed sake for the first time. Sake consumption continued to go down while, in contrast, the quality of sake steadily improved.

Today, sake has become a world beverage with a few breweries springing up in China, Southeast Asia, South America, North America, and Australia. More breweries are also turning to older methods of production.

While the rest of the world may be drinking more sake and the quality of sake has been increasing, sake production in Japan has been declining since the mid-1970s. The number of sake breweries is also declining. While there were 3,229 breweries nationwide in fiscal 1975, the number had fallen to 1,845 in 2007.

October 1 is the official Sake Day (日本酒の日) of Japan.

Recommended sake stores around Tokyo:

Hasegawa Sakaten

This stylish sake enclave in Omotesando Hills features a small standing bar where patrons can taste brews on the weekly changing menu starting at ¥300 per 50ml glass. Their friendly and knowledgeable staff will help you pick the perfect bottle, and some staff members can assist you in English. The newest location, in the basement of Tokyo Station‘s Gransta shopping area, is a great place to wait for that next Shinkansen bullet train – they even have bar stools.

Jingumae 4-12-14, Omotesando Hills 3F | Tel. 03-5785-0833


The interior of Fukumitsuya more closely resembles a gallery than a sake store, but the shop represents a brewery in Kanazawa that dates back to 1625. Everything, from the sake bottles to the delicate glassware, is attractively displayed and tastefully backlit. A bar runs along the left side of the shop, where you can order sizable pours from ¥600 off the English menu.

Ginza 5-5-8 | Tel. 03-3569-2291

Meishu Center

At the other end of chic in Hamamatsucho, the tasting bar here provides a terrific chance for sake buffs to nerd out.  What the Meishu Center lacks in style, it more than makes up for in the quality and breadth of sake available. They will even set up a blind tasting for you. No English spoken.

Hamamatsucho 2-3 | Tel. 03-5405-4441

Aji no Machidaya

This cool and quirky shop boasts and impressive collection of one-cup sakes, in addition to the amazing variety available in larger bottles.

Kamitakada 1-49-12 | Tel. 03-3389-4551

Suzuki Mikawa Sake

This little shop in Akasaka features a nice selection of sake from several producers representing the new generation of young brewers. Most of the bottles are available for informal tasting – the staff will give you a small plastic cup and leave you to it. English service is limited.

Tel. 03-3583-2349

Sakaya Kurihara

Feast your eyes on the excellent selection at this small shop in Hiroo. You’ll even be able to read the shelf-talkers – most include brief explanations in English.

Moto-Azabu 3-6-7 | Tel. 03-3408-5378


The folks at Mitsuya have crammed their tiny shop full of great sake from all over the country. Once a month, you can join their benkyoukai tasting events, which feature a different brewery each time (in Japanese only). Ask the staff for more information.

Nishi-Ogikubo Minami 2-28-15 | Tel. 03-3334-7447


An incongruously hip shop in down-to-earth Saginomiya, Iseyuu features a small but well-chosen selection with some interesting and hard-to-

find brews.

Saginomiya 3-35-3 | Tel. 03-3330-0434


A hidden gem in Gaienmae, this place has everything you would want in a local shop – great sake, good prices, and helpful, laid-back service. They hold tasting events every season, so check with the staff for details.

Jingumae 2-4-1 | Tel. 03-3401-4462

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Where to shop: Takeya; a bargain hunters paradise

Takeya department store, a bargain hunters paradise!

Takeya department store, a bargain hunters paradise!

Takeya in the Okachimachi district of Tokyo is about VFM (value for money) from the moment you enter to the moment you leave. Floor upon floor of rock-bottom prices on as wide a range of goods as you are likely to find in any other single store in the capital pack shelves throughout this bright purple, no-frills building.

From make-up to basic foodstuffs (that actally make great souvenirs) such as Japanese biscuits and pickles, to self heating patches popular with the elderly in winter (peel off a sticky patch and apply the roughly 30cm square patch to the lower back or spot you have suffering from the chills of winter), Takeya’s first floor is a supermarket meets pharmacy blend that serves as an unequalled insight into downtown living in this corner of the capital.

Higher up, electronics, cosmetics, souvenirs and a huge range of household items dominate. Many are ahead of the game when compared to similar pieces seen overseas, but do confirm electrical appliances will work back home before making a purchase: advice that should be followed wherever you shop

Staff conversant in various tongues are always on hand as are leaflets in several prominent Asian and European languages – the Chinese leaflet perhaps the most popular of those placed at various locations around the store.

Whenever you opt to drop by though, do so with a warning if a tourist; you are unlikely to leave empty handed – such is the range and temptations on offer.

Admittedly, Takeya may not be on a par with outlets in Ginza and Shinjuku in as far as location, appearance and even image goes. Takeya trumps many, however in terms of service and price – and who ever complained about getting a good deal?


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Where to shop: Mitsukoshi department store; the Harrods of Tokyo

Tokyo's version of Harrods

Tokyo’s version of Harrods

Long before reportedly becoming the world’s first department store, the enterprise now known as Mitsukoshi was revolutionising retail practices in Japan. Originally established in 1673 under the name of Echigoya, Mitsukoshi became the first company to break with the Middle Ages tradition of selling door-to-door, instead enticing customers to its kimono store in what is currently central Tokyo. Now, almost 350 years later, the Mitsukoshi brand is famous around the globe, gracing several of the world’s capital cities and boasting 18 stores in Japan alone. Its claim to fame is further enhanced by the fact it was founded by the Mitsui family, and is thus part-responsible for the growth of one of the world’s largest trading companies.

Mitsukoshi’s main store and headquarters are presently located in Nihonbashi, a powerful stone’s throw from the Bank of Japan. The company has maintained a presence on the existing site since 1683, although the architecture has obviously undergone several redesigns. Currently, the imposing 95-year-old Rennaisance-style Mitsukoshi buildings, which span several blocks, represent everything that is glamorous about shopping in Japan, holding similar status to Harrods of London and Galeries Lafayette of Paris. The main entrance is adorned with large bronze lion statues, reportedly replicas of those in London’s Trafalgar Square. These icons have become the most popular meeting place in the area, for young friends and distinguished business-folk alike.

The history of the Mitsukoshi Head Store, once labelled ‘the greatest architectural asset east of the Suez Canal,’ is certainly eventful. In 1914, it housed what was claimed to be Japan’s first escalators. Nine years afterwards, as with much else in Tokyo, it was burned to cinders during the Great Kanto Earthquake – and rebuilt two years later. In 1927, it claimed to stage Japan’s first fashion show in the area now known as Mitsukoshi Theatre. In 1932, business was boosted by the completion of Mitsukoshimae Subway Station, which was built into the basement floor of the department store. Then, during the Allied Occupation of 1945-52, the eighth floor was actually converted into a Catholic Church.

In 2010, Mitsukoshi Head Store continued to attract locals and tourists in their millions, its wide range of coin lockers for luggage making it particularly convenient for the latter. Several international brand names are housed within (Ralph Lauren is the latest), with armies of dapper staff forever seeking to charm customers with their smiles. Store highlights include the legendary kimono section, currently located on the fourth floor. There are seven restaurants on the upper floors of Mitsukoshi, serving pricey but enjoyable Chinese and Japanese cooking, including an impressive array of shark fin dishes. Ten cafes are also on site, including one which bears the Harrods name. With grilled food and even a pizzeria occupying the basement, shoppers are spoiled for bank-account-threatening choice when it comes to dining.

Since establishing its Fine Arts Department in 1907, Mitsukoshi has enjoyed a long and fruitful connection with the art world and a section of its sixth floor is permanently devoted to the exhibitions of established and up-and-coming artists; an art display at Mitsukoshi is considered to be the pinnacle of every young artist’s aspirations, especially due to the well-connected and well-endowed nature of the clientele.

Mitsukoshi department store flagship store

Mitsukoshi department store flagship store

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