You can buy almost anything you want in Tokyo, from a traditional kokeshi (cylindrical wooden doll) to a Chanel handbag or an up-to-the-minute video game. Tokyo-ites love shopping and, budget permitting, the city is a paradise for browsing and buying, with its huge department stores, informal street markets, and fascinating one-of-a-kind shops.
Although half the joy of shopping here is the amazing contrasts that can be found side-by-side, some areas do specialize in certain types of shops. Ginza is the place for traditional, upscale stores, while Shinjuku mixes huge arcades with electronics shops stacked high with the latest innovations. Harajuku and Minami-Aoyama are the areas for the funkiest fashions and designs; the older quarters around Ueno and Asakusa offer more traditional Japanese crafts.
Department stores grew out of Edo-period mercantile houses. Customers would sit on tatami mats and describe what they wanted, then staff would bring out the goods for their perusal.
After the 1923 earthquake, newly built stores allowed customers wearing shoes inside for the first time, revolutionizing shopping. Since the collapse of the “bubble” economy in about 1990, the opulence of Tokyo’s department stores has been more muted and prices lower, but they continue to offer a huge variety and immaculate service. Basements are usually supermarkets, where free samples are handed out. Top floors are often filled with restaurants, both Western and Japanese, plus an art gallery and sometimes a museum, too. Ginza’s Mitsukoshi is perhaps Tokyo’s most famous store; the main Mitsukoshi store is in Nihon- bashi, with other branches in Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Ebisu.
In Ginza Matsuya is aimed at a younger, yuppie crowd. Shinjuku’s department stores were given a boost with the opening of Takashimaya, which has been hugely successful. Tokyu Hands, next door, is a fun cornucopia of household wares, and items for the craft enthusiast. There are other branches in Ikebukuro and Shibuya. For a heavy dose of youth culture, try Marui Jam in Shibuya.
Isetan in Shinjuku is a trendsetter for department stores in Tokyo, and is known for its artistic window displays. It has a separate building dedicated to men’s fashion, accessed by a passageway from the main building.
Labyrinths of corridors lined with shops occupy major subway and train stations. They are good for window-shopping and sometimes for bargains, but are notoriously disorienting. Tokyo station is packed with shops and kiosks. On the Yaesu side is a sprawling underground shopping mall. It includes specialized shopping and restaurant zones such as Ramen Street and Tokyo Character Street. In Shinjuku station, underground passages run for hundreds of meters to the “Subnade” (underground shopping street) below Yasukuni-dori. Odalba’s Decks Tokyo Beach is five floors of shops and a promenade deck with restaurants. Nearby Aquacity and Wanza Ariake are similar. The lower floors of Tokyo Opera City also have restaurants and shops.
Street markets flourish outside many of the city’s train stations. Tokyo’s most famous station market is Ameyoko under the tracks at Ueno station. Takeshita-dori in Harajuku is full of shops for the young and fashion-conscious. The ultimate market experience is Tsukiji Fish Market; the area to the east is full of small restaurants where piles of dishes crowd the sidewalk, and shops with pungent crates of wasabi horseradish and dried fish hanging from storefronts.