The Japanese are legendary shoppers, paying top prices from Honolulu to Helsinki for gifts and adornments. In Tokyo, a walk through the department stores and Pritzker Prize-winner-designed boutiques in the Ginza and Omote-Sando districts is enough to make one wonder, "What Japanese recession?"
A single 100-yen coin (plus an additional 5 yen for tax, totaling about $1.15) buys you more than just plastic tchotchkes. At 100-yen shops you'll find ingenious, well-designed goods you probably didn't know you needed. Sixty dollars can outfit a kitchen (with teacups, rice bowls, chopsticks and strainers, sponges shaped like kittens, and graters for daikon and wasabi), laundry room (with hampers and hangers) and office (with pens, paper and boxes to hold them), with funds leftover to spoil the kids (toys, elegantly patterned origami paper and erasers shaped like mini-milk cartons or tiny bowls of ramen).
Virtually every Japanese city has a 100-yen shop, and Tokyo has many. The ojiisan (granddaddy) of them all is the Daiso in Harajuku, the neighborhood better known for teenagers and twentysomethings who dress like anime characters and pose on the bridge by the train station.
At four stories and more than 10,500 square feet, the Harajuku Daiso is gigantic by Japanese standards. The trendiest items tend to be on the ground floor — goods as diverse as decorative baskets and button-down shirts — though some of these items cost up to 525 yen, or about $5.75. Upstairs, you can accessorize with lace, ribbons, buttons and rolls of felt. The nearby pet section offers treats and toys, leashes and vacuum-packed vittles in flavors such as sasami (chicken breast) and kabocha (winter squash).
The Daiso's third floor is the 100-yen shops' answer to the Container Store: bins, buckets and baskets; containers folders and holders for paper clips, pencils and pens; stationery and supplies. Ask for advice, though, before buying those chic-looking gift envelopes tied with fancy papier-mâché thread — they're used to hold money for different occasions, and you don't want to show up at a wedding with an envelope meant for a funeral.
As in the grand department stores of Ginza, the basement at the Harajuku Daiso is all about food, but here it's packaged. Besides familiar snacks such as peanuts, potato chips and chocolates, it's a low-cost opportunity to try Japanese treats such as sembei (rice crackers), dried iwashi (sardines) or dried ika (squid).
Another centrally located 100-yen shop is Can Do, across the street from the Grand Hyatt in Tokyo's fashionable Roppongi Hills complex. It's much smaller than the Daiso, but it covers the same basics, plus specialty items such as yude tamagokko (molds that turn hard-boiled eggs into white bunnies, fish, cars and teddy bears) and banana cases, which prevent the fruit from turning brown in your briefcase or backpack.
Japan's other big tourist destination, Kyoto, has no fewer than five 100-yen shops in its central shopping district. At the Meets store, above the Segami drugstore in the Nishiki food market arcade, there's a selection of slippers, essential in Japanese homes, and techie goods such as USB cables that sell stateside for many times the price. Other unique items include candles for Buddhist altars, which are appropriate in a city with about 2,000 temples and shrines.
The Daiso has a branch in Kyoto, on the central Teramachi shopping street, although this two-story shop feels cramped and a bit dingy compared with its Harajuku cousin. Still, the tiny soy sauce containers shaped like animals were darned-near irresistible. Down the block, Can Do has an affiliate store, Le Plus, where I discovered the Always Smile line of flatware, with faces cut out from the handles, bento boxes to use them with, neckties and rattan boxes, and the bright-hued Color Plus line of bathroom accessories.
If stuff for 100 yen is good, stuff for 300 yen ($3.28) must be better. Apparently this is the thinking behind 3 Coins, a short walk north of Le Plus. It's three times the price, and three times the sense and sensibility. It's also very girlie, with lots of pink and candy colors, polka dots and animal shapes, so dudes might be happier waiting outside. Inside, though, shoppers can find their fill of padded hangers, lacey placemats, floral-print thermal bags, knit socks in geometric stripes and patterns, and knick-knacks painted with country French motifs.
All that, and you've barely dented your duty-free exemption.