Tokyo Shopping

Tokyo is Japan's showcase. The crazy clothing styles, obscure electronics, and new games found here are capable of setting trends for the rest of the country—and perhaps the rest of Asia, and even Europe and America.

Part of the Tokyo shopping experience is simply to observe, and on Saturday especially, in districts like the Ginza and Shinjuku, you will notice that the Japanese approach

to shopping can be nothing short of feverish. You’ll probably want to resist the urge to join in the fray, especially since many of the wildly trendy clothes and accessories for sale will already be "uncool" by the time you get home. But shopping in Tokyo can also be an exercise in elegance and refinement, especially if you shop for items that are Japanese-made for Japanese people and sold in stores that don't cater to tourists. With brilliantly applied color, balance of form, and superb workmanship, crafts items can be exquisite and well worth the price you'll pay—and some can be quite expensive.

Note the care taken with items after you purchase them, especially in department stores and boutiques. Goods will be wrapped, wrapped again, bagged, and sealed. Sure, the packaging can be excessive—does anybody really need three plastic bags for one croissant?—but such a focus on presentation has deep roots in Japanese culture.

This focus on presentation also influences salespeople who are invariably helpful and polite. In the larger stores they greet you with a bow when you arrive, and many of them speak at least enough English to help you find what you're looking for. There's a saying in Japan: o-kyaku-sama wa kami-sama, "the customer is a god"—and since the competition for your business is fierce, people do take it to heart.

Horror stories abound about prices in Japan—and some of them are true. Yes, European labels can cost a fortune here, but did you really travel all the way to Tokyo to buy an outfit that would be cheaper in the designer mall at home? True, a gift-wrapped melon from a department-store gourmet counter can cost $150. But you can enjoy gawking even if you don’t want to spend like that. And if you shop around, you can find plenty of gifts and souvenirs at fair prices.

Japan has finally embraced the use of credit cards, although some smaller mom-and-pop shops may still take cash only. So when you go souvenir hunting, be prepared with a decent amount of cash; Tokyo's low crime rates make this a low-risk proposition. The dishonor associated with theft is so strong, in fact, that it's considered bad form to conspicuously count change in front of cashiers.

Japan has an across-the-board 8% value-added tax (V.A.T.) imposed on luxury goods. This tax can be avoided at some duty-free shops in the city (don't forget to bring your passport). It's also waived in the duty-free shops at the international airports, but because these places tend to have higher profit margins, your tax savings there are likely to be offset by the higher markups.

Stores in Tokyo generally open at 10 or 11 am and close at 8 or 9 pm.

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