Tokyo is a shopper’s paradise. This is the place to buy things that are difficult or impossible to find outside Japan, for example, Japanese makeup and skin care products, fountain pens, exquisite paper goods (notebooks and agendas), and elegant, practical bags. Here is my list of the top 5 categories of things to buy in Tokyo. (Check out my 2014 More Cool Things to Buy in Japan).
(1) Hakuhodo brushes: These are the best makeup brushes in the world. There’s a large selection and if you go without planning, you will be overwhelmed. Figure out what kinds of makeup brushes you really need and do some research (Sweet Makeup Temptations is the best resource I’ve found for makeup brushes) before you go shopping.
The Hakuhodo shop is a small one-room office in the Minami Aoyama district of Tokyo, close to trendy fashion stores. English-speaking personnel will help you select your brushes. Many are very expensive (made of goat and squirrel hair, for example) but are worth the price if you want makeup brushes that are out of this world. You can find the address and directions of Hakuhodo’s Tokyo store here.
(2) Paper products: Notebooks, agendas, calendars and all kinds of writing paper that fountain pen fanatics love are widely available in Tokyo. Some of the best brands are the Life Noble Notes notebooks, Midori (the MD Cotton and Traveler’s Notebooks are cult items), Kokuyo and Apica. You can find these notebooks and agendas at Tokyu Hands in Shinjuku, Tsutaya in Daikanyama, Kinokuniya stores and Ito-Ya in Ginza.
Here is a wonderful 2014 agenda I bought at Tokyu Hands in Shinjuku. It is made by a Japanese firm called Hightide and it is small enough to keep in a handbag. The paper quality is excellent for fountain pen writing. There are subway maps for Tokyo, Kyoto and other Japanese cities in the back of the agenda but they’re helpful only if you can read Japanese. It doesn’t matter — they look beautiful all the same.
For more, read our Tokyo Shopping Guide: Fountain Pens, Notebooks and Agendas.
(3) Japanese cosmetics by brands you can’t find outside Japan or Asia: Coffret d’Or by Kanebo makes cute makeup sets which are relatively inexpensive; Shiseido makes the Revital skin care line (which you can’t find outside Asia); Hada Labo Retinol serum and moisturizing milk can be found in many drugstores in Tokyo; Anessa sunscreen by Shiseido, also impossible to find outside Asia, is effective and waterproof. There are other Japanese brands like Kose, Ayura (famous for their Meditation Bath), KAO Sofina and Pola which I recommend.
(4) Fountain pens by Pilot/Namiki and Sailor, and fountain pen ink by Iroshizuku: If you love fountain pens, you’ve come to the right place. The Japanese make the most exquisite fountain pens in the world. Their craftmanship is unmatched by any other country and if you want to splurge on the most beautiful fountain pens, many of them collectors’ items that cost thousands of dollars, there are places in Tokyo that you should visit: the Shoshaikan Pen Boutique in Omotesando, Ito-Ya in Ginza, Tsutaya in Daikanyama, to name a few. Check out this list of Tokyo fountain pen stores. If you want to buy a fountain pen that is more affordable (under $300), you can find them in the same stores. Some of the affordable Japanese pens I recommend are the Pilot Namiki Falcon, Pilot Custom Heritage, Pilot Justus 95, Sailor 1911, and Sailor Professional Gear.
Fountain pen inks are also much cheaper in Japan if you like Iroshizuku and Sailor. For example, I bought a bottle of Iroshizuku Shin-Kai (blue-black) ink for 1575 yen (US$16). In the US, this ink retails for about US$28.
(5) Porter Bags: Porter is the brand of bags (for men and women) made by Yoshida and Company. They are elegant, durable and practical. I love the “Luna” line of bags, which was launched this fall, in particular this rucksack which retails for 20,000 yen (US$200). They make other types of bags (e.g. luggage), as well as wallets and accessories. The best selection of Porter bags that I’ve seen in Tokyo is at Kura Chika, a boutique in the Tokyo Midtown shopping center (my favourite shopping mall in Tokyo), that sells Porter bags, wallets and accessories. You can also find a good selection of Porter bags at the Tokyu Hands department store in Shinjuku.
UPDATE October 2014: Make sure you read my 20 October 2014 post about cosmetics shopping in Japan with a focus on Lunasol makeup products as well as tips on shopping for makeup and skincare in Japan. Note that as of 1 October 2014, tourists can obtain a tax refund for cosmetics, food and beverage items in Japanese stores (usually you have to spend at a minimum 10,000 yen per day in the store).
UPDATE June 2015: Just back from Kyoto and I posted my top Kyoto shopping recommendations (for Hakuhodo brushes, Imabari towels, Shoyeido incense, Gelato Pique home wear, Chidoriya organic skin care). The Japanese yen is devaluing even more against the US dollar. That means HUGE bargains!