Tokyo and shopping go together like Mandarin Oriental and luxury: the city is a veritable feast of designer stores, quirky boutiques and electronics emporia. A shopping tour is the perfect introduction to the chaotic yet charming city

There are so many good reasons to go to Tokyo. There’s the history and the culture, a fine appreciation of the arts, the fact that the city is a dazzling showcase for modern technology and, as last year’s liberal sprinkling of Michelin stars demonstrated (including one awarded to Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo’s Signature restaurant), the capital’s restaurant scene has finally got the recognition it deserves – in the West at least; the Japanese were never in much doubt. But there is also another, even more accessible, reason to visit – and that is that Tokyo has some of the world’s very best shops.

Issey Miyake womenswear collections

Issey Miyake womenswear collections

The view from a suite in Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo

The view from a suite in Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo

The city’s reputation for being prohibitively expensive has understandably put people off in the past, but as we all know only too well, currencies go up… and currencies go down – and the yen is not what it was. Yes, the Japanese are obsessed with designer goods and luxury – or more specifically, Louis Vuitton – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Whether it’s playfully tacky phone decorations, beautifully packaged incense sticks, antique kimonos or designer duds, the Japanese love to shop. It’s surely no coincidence that the city’s most striking developments in recent years (Roppongi Hills, Omotesando Hills and Tokyo Midtown) are all, bar the odd hotel, cinema and museum, basically rather glamorous shopping centres.

And as with so many things in Japan, they do it so well. Shop here and you can trust that your every need will have been catered for – long before you had even thought of it – and then wrapped up in a package so exquisite that… oh, you could just weep.

A shopping tour of the Japanese capital is an odyssey of discovery and delight

Shoppers in the chic Ginza district

Shoppers in the chic Ginza district

There is a caveat. Tokyoites are some of – if not the – best-dressed and most stylish people in the world. It follows then with almost algebraic clarity that Tokyoites also have access to many of the most inspiring and charming clothes shops on the planet. They do. If you are petite, a shopping tour of the Japanese capital is a joy, an odyssey of never-ending discovery and delight; if you are in any way generous of stature, girth or foot – forget it. But who said shopping was only for clothes? Tokyo has so many other dazzling distractions on offer, from plastic eyebrow-shaping stencils and Hello Kitty-branded wine to expertly crafted pottery and antique ceremonial swords, that clothes soon seem, well, mere material.

Not only that, but shopping is also one of the best ways to get to grips with the capital. Let’s face it, Tokyo can be a baffling city – not just because of its size, but also its apparent sameness; a mass of grey and beige concrete that goes on for miles. It is, of course, no more uniform than anywhere else, but breaking the sprawl into easy shopping-friendly stages is as good a way to get to know the city as any. Roughly speaking, Ginza is classic; Aoyama and Omotesando are chic; Harajuku is super-stylish; Nihonbashi (the location of Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo) has charming, centuries-old shops; Shibuya is for teenagers; Daikanyama is boutique-land; Marunouchi is great for one-stop clothes shopping (try the Shin-Marunouchi building opposite Tokyo station); and Shinjuku is hectic but worth the effort for the ever-wonderful Muji – beautiful, cheap and stocked with everything you could ever need.

Collections in the Issey Miyake store in Aoyama

Collections in the Issey Miyake store in Aoyama

But shopping, like so many things in Tokyo, has changed dramatically over the years. To see where it all began, start at Ginza and Nihonbashi, in the heart of the city. For decades this has been the most genteel part of Tokyo, the perfect place for a Sunday stroll (the main thoroughfare is pedestrianised on Sundays). It is also where westernisation, in the form of red brick buildings rather than wood, introduced in the 19th century, first began, and, unsurprisingly, home to Tokyo’s first big department stores.

This is still the place to go for the classic ‘departo’ (Japanese-English for department store) experience. The big hitters are Mitsukoshi and Matsuya, both founded in the 17th century, Takashimaya and the even more expansive Wako. The concept may be western, but this is very much a Japanese experience – and if you like your goods branded and a woman in gloves to operate the lift for you, then these are for you.

Sculpture in the basement of the Mikimoto boutique

Sculpture in the basement of the Mikimoto boutique

Despite a great deal of modernisation, Nihonbashi – and to a lesser extent, Ginza – is still the place for traditional Japanese crafts. The most famous is probably Ito-ya, the destination for fans of traditionally made paper such as washi (handmade paper) and beautiful and bespoke stationery. But also try Ozu Washi paper shop and museum for exquisite handmade paper goods, Ibasen for bamboo fans and Kuroeya for traditional lacquerware. This is also the place to (attempt to) recreate Japanese cuisine – and get a real taste for how niche Japanese shopping can be. Try specialist shops, Kiya for the ultimate kitchen knife, Yamamoto Nori for a fantastic variety of seaweed, Ninben for dried bonito (skipjack tuna) flakes, and Yamamotoyama for green teas.

There are more contemporary shopping landmarks here too: the area has undergone something of a revival of late, spurred on by the revamp of neighbouring Marunouchi. Sony and Apple have their flagship stores here, and look out for Mikimoto Ginza 2 – not just because of the pearls, but also because of its pink Toyo Ito-designed building, and also the rather sleek Armani Ginza Tower which opened last year. The idea is that the tower reflects the spirit of the designer himself; it includes 12 floors of Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani collections, his interior furniture line, a private bar and the very first Armani Spa.

While Ginza and Nihonbashi may be where it all began, it wasn’t long before other areas followed suit. Tokyo’s main shopping areas drift seamlessly from one to the next. Indeed, you could, if you have the stamina – and the cash – start at Aoyama and just continue west mopping up all the best shopping districts as you go, onwards to Omotesando and Harajuku, through Shibuya, and ending up in the villagey haven of Daikanyama.

Inside the Armani Ginza Tower

Inside the Armani Ginza Tower

Aoyama and Omotesando make up the designer heartland of Tokyo; this is where you’ll find big-named western designers and the cream of domestic talent too. Come here for Comme des Garçons; Issey Miyake, whose flagship Tokyo store also boasts the fruits of a number of designer-artist led collaborations; Yohji Yamamoto; the grandmother of Japanese fashion, Hanae Mori; and newcomer Tsumori Chisato.

Aoyama has now also found room for more ‘street’-orientated designers such as Y-3, the lovechild of Adidas and Yohji Yamamoto; accessories and handbag designer Samantha Thavasa (no, she doesn’t sound very Japanese, but then she doesn’t exist); and Nigo’s, A Bathing Ape (Nigo’s stores are deliberately hard to find – ask someone carrying a BAPE bag). This is also, conversely, a good spot for traditional booty: try Morita for antique kimonos and Carré Moji for calligraphy.

Worth a visit for the building alone is Prada. Herzog & de Meuron’s shiny glass creation set a new standard for architecture in the capital when it opened in 2003 – go and see it lit up at night for the full effect.

Following hot on its heels and just up the road in Omotesando (supposedly the Japanese answer to the Champs-Élysées) is the bold and beautifully latticed Tod Building, designed by the same team as the Mikimoto Ginza 2. Another example of how the Japanese strive to combine high art with high fashion is Omotesando Hills.

A Tokyo taxi at night

A Tokyo taxi at night

Omotesando is also, incongruously, the place to find Tokyo’s best souvenir store. Cheesy it may be, but Oriental Bazaar (look out for the large mock-Asian facade) is perfect for western-friendly Japanese presents (wood prints, chopsticks, obis, kimonos, traditional dolls, etc).

Between Omotesando and Harajuku stations is an, to outsiders at least, invisible border, where big-bucks designers give way to a more individual sense of style. Beloved by stylists and followers-of-fashion everywhere (and sung about by Gwen Stefani), Harajuku is the pulse of Tokyo – and arguably the world’s – street fashion. The shoppers are of as much interest as the shops here: many habitués dress up and hang out purely in the hope of getting snapped for fashion magazines. Brands come and go, so a journey through the Harajuku backstreets is always one based on serendipity, but look out for hip, homegrown brand Hysteric Glamour, and Laforet, a clutch of individual outlets under one roof. Don’t miss Takashita-dori, the street where the kids who dress up in costume and gather outside Harajuku station buy their outlandish get-ups.

Wander west underneath the railway tracks to Shibuya – not as cool as Harajuku, but every bit as kicking. Teenagers flock from across the nation to hang out by the station – steps away from the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Everything about Shibuya is brash and breezy, as is its landmark draw, the 109 Building (pronounced, in English at least, one-‘o’-nine). A turbo-charged teenage heaven/adult hell, this is a fascinating insight into pop culture (such was the hype when 109 opened that even the shop assistants were TV stars), if you can stand the volume.

One train stop from here but a world apart in attitude is Daikanyama, an oasis of boutiques and refinery with just the slightest whiff of boho pretension. Many western brands have made their home here (APC, Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood et al) and this is also the place to find Evisu jeans and local designers Tsumori Chisato and Sunao Kuwahara.

The iconic Prada building designed by Herzog & de Meuron

The iconic Prada building designed by Herzog & de Meuron

But these are well-charted destinations. Those looking for a shop less ordinary will know this often requires a detour, and Tokyo is no exception.  The first – and most alluring – option is Shimokitazawa, west of Tokyo. Commonly referred to as Shimokita, it is a perfect example of how the Japanese manage to be both cool and accessible (no attitude here) and is packed with charming restaurants and boutiques. The only bad news is that the area is due to be redeveloped – so go while you can.

It’s entirely possible that Shimokitazawa’s loss will be Naka-Meguro’s gain. Formerly a rather non-descript suburb known only for its close proximity to lively Ebisu and Daikanyama, and in cherry blossom season the stunning parade of trees along the river, in recent years this has begun to emerge as a shopping destination of its own. The main draw here is vintage, from the American-heavy retro of Jumpin’ Jap Flash to a prize Comme des Garçons find at Pina Colada. On first acquaintance, Naka-Meguro feels like a baffling warren, and, although there are a string of lovely shops along the riverfront, there are far more gems hidden behind. The plan of attack here is to push on in the direction of Daikanyama, and explore every alleyway – who knows what you might find.

Finally, if you only have time for one shop in Tokyo, make it Shibuya’s Tokyu Hands. The ‘Creative Life Store’ (English slogans in Japan generally mean about as much as a Premiere League player’s Chinese character tattoo) is essentially a homeware store, but you’ll find everything here from the ingeniously practical to the truly bizarre. Looking for a red baton to wave on traffic? Or a plastic device that trains your mouth to smile? Head for the first and third floors. It’s a great place for unusual presents, but more than that, it’s an introduction to a nation.

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