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Forget the matcha Kit Kats and cheap kimonos; we’ve scoured the Japanese capital to find Tokyo’s more authentic souvenirs – from fashion and (affordable) art to kitchenware and beckoning cats.
The best mementos from the Japanese capital
1. Handcrafted paper
Recognised by Unesco as an item of Intangible Cultural Heritage, washi is an artisan-made paper that’s at once textured and robust. It’s made of long mulberry plant fibres – as opposed to pulp, which is the norm for regular paper – making it resistant to tear. A cultural centre dedicated to the craft, Ozu Washi was established in 1653 in Nihonbashi, and offers papermaking workshops, a museum with historic artifacts and a shop with hundreds of washi sheets in pastel colours.
2. Beckoning cats
The ultimate icon of Japan, maneki-neko (beckoning cats) are not only cute, but ostensibly provide luck to the owner in the form of money, love and a helping hand during testing times. They are typically found next to cash registers at restaurants or the entrance of establishments, summoning blessings inside. Gōtokuji Temple in West Tokyo is credited as being one of the locations these cats originated and is covered in thousands of white kitties with their paws raised next to their face. A popular site with Instagrammers, the temple also sells auspicious ceramics cats.
To most, chopsticks are simply two pieces of wood used to pincer food together. Yet for Japanese food connoisseurs and chefs they are tools used not only for the eating of food, but essential to its enjoyment. Daikokuya Edo Kibashi in downtown Tokyo crafts beautiful wooden chopsticks in a variety of sizes, lengths and thicknesses as well as for diverse purposes.
4. Second-hand books
Jinbōchō is a bibliophile’s dream neighbourhood with over 150 stores dedicated to printed matter in all forms. The large majority of shops specialises in second-hand books and it is one of the best places in Japan to find first-edition art titles, those dedicated to rare photography and exquisite prints. Among the cornucopia of treasures are bookstores featuring miniature-sized books, cat-themed tomes and old-school fashion magazines such as the 90s The Face issues.
5. Rice sampler packs
Anyone who has spent time in Japan will know understand its obsession with rice. The country’s variety is sticky and chewy than its neighbours, and is often enjoyed as is or with a small pickled garnish. Each region of Japan grows its own rice varieties and, owing to the regional climates, there are subtle differences in the taste and texture of the grain – the Northern Tohoku region is known for its translucent, dewy rice. Many of Tokyo’s shops sell small sampler bags, perfect as a souvenir.
6. Uirō herbal medicine
A panacea with hundreds of years’ history – even appearing in Edo-era woodblock prints and kabuki theatre plays – Uirō is a vegan herbal medicine known and trusted by Japanese people for its near-magical ability to treat many ailments. The small balls will aid general digestive issues and are fabulously soothing when dissolved in the back of the mouth for hoarse throats or for an after-flight gargle. True believers in quality over quantity, the company does not mass-produce their product and it is only available in its store in Odawara (40 mins by bullet train from Tokyo, but well worth the ride).
7. Cast-iron teapots
Crafted in the Iwate region of Northern Japan, cast-iron teapots last a lifetime and improve with use. Boiling water in these durable pots gives the water a silky texture and is suitable for both green tea and coffee. Skilled ironware artisans also make other items such as frying pans, wind chimes and paperweights that are widely available in Kappabashi, the kitchenware district of downtown Tokyo. Asides from ironware, Kappabashi has a plethora of food-related shops selling ceramics, Japanese knife and coffee siphons and the like.
[email protected] are collectable figurines made by Japanese company Medicom Toy and serve as a form of affordable art. While the shape is basic – a humanoid bear with a little belly and movable limbs – the company often collaborates with famous designers and artists to create limited-edition designs. Past projects include work with character brand tokidoki, designers Karl Lagerfeld and Vivienne Westwood and artists Konatsu and KAWS. There’s a dedicated shop inside the Tokyo Solamachi, the shopping mall below the Tokyo Skytree.
9. Furin wind chimes
These delicate glass wind chimes made in downtown Tokyo emit a soothing, tinkling sound – compared to their mass-produced counterparts, the bottoms are serrated, so that the tone is high-pitched and melodic (rather than the “thuddy” sound of wind chimes made in a factory mold). There are just two ateliers left in the city that have the skill to manually blow the glass, before artisans paint them from the inside (so the patterns don’t peel easily) with motifs such as goldfish and cherry blossoms.
10. Stylish sneakers
Japan is one of the world’s trainer meccas, with a plethora of famed designers and home-grown brands such as ASICS and Onitsuka Tiger. Global sneaker companies regularly release kicks that are only available in the Japanese domestic market, as well as limited-edition collaborations with Tokyo-based designers and artists. A kicks emporium for those in the know, Mita Sneakers in Ueno is a former traditional footwear shop. Asides from selling a selection of the hottest footwear, creative director Shigeyuki Kunii also designs beautiful sneakers (often with local Ueno themes) such as the Air Force 1 Nikes that feature laser cut cherry blossom motifs and are presented in a wooden box.
Manami Okazaki is the author of Takumi, Downtown Tokyo Artisans, and Land of the Rising Cat.
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