The Joy of Japanese Souvenirs

11/10/2022 | By Waheeda Harris

Shoppers adore retail epicenters like London, New York and Paris and will quickly fall in love with Tokyo. As the second largest market in Asia, travelers will discover a wide variety of options from cool indie boutiques to vast department stores tempting with a bounty of souvenirs such as budget-friendly keepsakes, handcrafted traditional treasures and contemporary creations. 

From the well-known washi, paper creations made from plant fibers, to traditional ceramics known as tojiki or yakimono, to modern designs from Japan’s numerous retailers, I knew I would happily fall through the rabbit hole shopping in Japan—and maybe add some wallet-friendly couture or a dash of kawaii too.  

 

Discover Paper Treasures

Washi has been recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, but it doesn’t mean this is an antique: in Japan, paper is still as current as the latest generation of mobile phones. 

My first Japanese souvenir was a paper gift, a striking black and white origami star. Origami, the art of paper folding, was first referenced in 1680 in a short poem by writer Ihara Saikaku, who mentioned an origami butterfly. In 1955 an exhibition in the Netherlands showcased the folding prowess of origami master Akira Yoshizawa (1911-2005), introducing the artform to many as well as celebrating his technique and lasting influence on generations of origami enthusiasts.

Beautifully-folded origami was something I spotted everywhere—for sale in train station kiosks and shopping district boutiques as well as gifted to me from boutique hotels and as a memento after dining at a ramen restaurant. This easily-found souvenir always made me smile, and I came home with a group of small cranes, a jumping frog, a swan and a lotus flower all tucked carefully into my carry-on bag. 

The Japanese continue to hold paper in high regard—from ornate paper packaging to their love of business cards, a ritual exchange when meeting colleagues. There’s another non-digital essential in their high-tech work lives: techo, a carefully designed paper planner. It has a full page for each day but is slim enough to be carried in a jacket pocket, thanks to incredibly lightweight Tomoe River Paper sourced from the Sanzen Paper Manufacturing Co., Ltd.

 

 

Then there was stationery: oh, such pretty little notebooks, covered in traditional washi, patterned writing paper and matching envelopes illustrated with the elegance of a bamboo stem or the exuberance of cherry blossoms. Plus, greeting cards for every occasion, marvels of paper engineering with illustrations created from layers of different colored papers like a mosaic. 

Taking advice from a hotel concierge, I headed to Itoya, quickly labeled as my paper happy place. Located in Tokyo’s Ginza district, there are 12 floors to fuel all your paper needs with a designated floor just for desk accessories. The top floor is a café, a relaxing spot to refuel before dedicating oneself to making a decision on which diaries, fountain pens and postcards would make the cut for my next souvenir purchase.  

With a plethora of Japanese papers on offer, the temptations were endless. I treated myself to two sheets of blue and white patterned paper; one in the traditional wave pattern with its soothing repetition of curves, which I then carefully placed within a treasured storage box to surround other items found while traveling. The other paper I couldn’t resist  featured a floral pattern, the delicate swirls of petals reminding me of being in Japan in early spring, when I had the pleasure of seeing the delicate ume, or plum blossoms.

 

Appreciate the Art of Pottery

Whenever visiting Japanese restaurants outside Japan, I happily indulge in the tasty cuisine, taking note of the ceramic cups, tea pots, bowls and plates. The distinctive muted color palettes and textures have been a siren’s song to me, but little did I know a visit to a small town on the southwest coast of Japan would bring me another level of appreciation for Japanese pottery. 

In Hagi, my guide brought me to the studio of a local Hagi-ware maker, where a vast display of tea cups and teapots filled the entry of a gallery with fine art sculptures and vases. I learned how Hagi-ware gained popularity beginning with the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1600), when Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi instructed his feudal lords to bring Korean potters to Japan to teach their pottery methods. During the Taisho period (1912-1926), Hagi-ware became the preferred choice for tea ceremonies, the porcelain known for being as simple as possible and rarely decorated, its distinctive cracked surface a result of the firing process.

Learning how the artisan focused on the shape of each cup and his reverence for the porcelain’s surface, how could I resist choosing a cup? Sadly, I couldn’t make up my mind and ran out of time. I still think of those lovely Hagi-ware vessels, and how one (or two) could have been waiting for me every morning. 

Although I didn’t make a purchase in Hagi, I did pull out my wallet while in Kyoto, where it is recommended to wander through Unraku-gama. With a workshop next door to where all the magic happens, ceramic fans can see how pieces are created during a half hour tour before perusing the showroom filled with kyo-yaki, the Kyoto style of pottery. The designs are bolder and more vibrant in comparison to what I had seen in Hagi; each offering their own kind of porcelain beauty. I had to decide between earthenware decorated in bold flowers or delicate tree branches with leaves, wishing it could all fit into my suitcase. In the end, two tea cups with delicate red maple leaves made a perfect addition to my home, my own kind of ikigai, a reason to get up in the morning.

Delve into Japanese Fashion

For years I had perused the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle magazines, appreciating the photo spreads dedicated to well-known Japanese designers like Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcons or Kenzo by Kenzo Takada. While I didn’t think my budget would allow such a splurge, I certainly didn’t anticipate that my first purchase of Japanese fashion would be socks.

Arriving at the entrance to crowded Takeshita Street in Tokyo’s popular Shibuya shopping district, I was overwhelmed by the chatter of teenagers as they swarmed around small boutique doorways. I was surprised by the numerous shops selling socks. As I had discovered, removing one’s shoes was a daily occurrence in Japan, a sign of respect when entering many interiors. Without shoes, socks are an important focus for the wardrobe, and I happily adopted a new obsession—buying several colors, patterns and even a pair of bright green socks depicting cute cartoon frog Keroppi, one of the many characters within the Hello Kitty world created by Sanrio. 

Next on the list was Daikanyama, an area nicknamed “Little Brooklyn,” for its cool and chic reputation. Walking the tree-lined streets of this pedestrian-only district feels like a quiet retreat, even though it’s only a 15-minute walk from the well-known Shibuya crossing. 

After spending time relaxing in the pretty surrounds of Saigoyama Park, we head into what locals call the T-Site – the Daikanyama T-Site, a cultural complex featuring a bookstore, café, art gallery, cd/dvd rental shop and a dog garden. I indulge in Tsutaya Books’ Magazine Street, a memorable collection of vintage magazines from the 1960s and 1970s, before perusing the shelves of books, movies and stationery.

Leaving Shibuya, my friends and I quickly headed via Tokyo Metro to Uniqlo, originally founded in 1949. Owned by Tadashi Yani, Uniqlo is part of the world’s third largest apparel company. After entering this gallery of casualwear, within minutes each of us were lured into different departments. At Uniqlo Ginza, the temptations weren’t just for my travel wardrobe, there are exclusive options including a flower shop, café and items only found at this location. 

Muji was my next stop, the minimalist household and consumer goods store, which has successfully expanded beyond the borders of Japan with its distinctly simple designs. I had fallen hard for their streamlined stationery, wanting to outfit my home office with cylindrical containers of colored pencils and a stack of beige notebooks—both part of the original 40 products that have been produced since Muji launched in 1980. 

I soon discovered Muji to also be a source for wardrobe essentials like soft and classically-styled t-shirts, linen and hemp shirts, tunics, dresses and pants. Each piece is constructed and conceived with a graceful flow, without the decoration or embellishment seen in other Japanese craft. When visiting Muji Ginza, this location offers travelers the ability to immerse in all things Muji: stay at Muji Hotel Ginza, dine at Muji Diner and experience Atelier Muji Ginza, galleries of art and design. 

The retail therapy continued with stops only found in Japan like discount giant Don Quijote. There I bought snacks like onigiri, rice balls or kokeiya, seaweed flavored potato chips and a baker’s dozen of Japanese toiletries perfect for traveling (like the eye warmers for relaxation). Then it was time to peruse the contemporary household goods on the shelves of Loft, purchasing Keana rice masks and kawaii stickers before making my way to Tokyu Hands, with its myriad of housewares, travel gadgets, kitchen accessories and DIY kits (like the one I had to buy: Popin Cookin! DIY sushi kit). 

 

Wrap Up in Furoshiki

My love affair with textiles extended beyond clothing when I was introduced to furoshiki, traditional Japanese wrapping cloths perfect for presenting a casual gift. Originally called tsutsumi (wrapping) and used during the Nara period as a wrapping for temple objects, in the Muromachi period the cloths became known as furoshiki and used to hold the belongings of high-ranking visitors when bathing.

The squares were readily found everywhere, rebounding in popularity as an environmentally-conscious alternative to disposable gift wrap. At one hotel in Nagano, toiletry items were encased in furoshiki, with a note of explanation, its original use back again in the 21st century. 

I spotted furoshiki in shops, as owners would transform a small item into something memorable when it was wrapped in a pretty square of cotton or silk. I bought a few furoshiki to be passed from friend to friend—an ongoing cycle of gifting that would be presented within a cotton patterned square with a sweet pattern of small blue whales. 

 

Enjoy the Little Things

Although I was well aware of the popularity of sweet characters like Hello Kitty, kawaii and the appreciation for all things adorable or cute was beyond my expectations. From 7-Eleven to Daimaru Tokyo, there was always a place to source some kawaii—from cartoon-adorned t-shirts, socks in neon colors, or an illustration of a beloved baby animal. As I observed on the metro, it was obviously essential to have a lovable charm swinging from a Prada backpack or Coach handbag. 

Not wanting to feel left out of the fun, I chose my second Keroppi item, a double duty charm/luggage tag for my travel backpack, bringing a knowing smile from several locals. 

Once I headed home from Japan, my suitcase was filled with souvenirs celebrating history, style and design—all made in Japan and all tied to unforgettable memories.