Backpacking isn’t conducive to buying souvenirs. It’s not only a money factor, but a space issue too. If you only have a backpack and whatever else you can hold in your hands, it’s quite difficult to buy anything. While traveling in most countries, this hasn’t been an issue. I love the night markets of Thailand or Cambodia, but nothing compels me to buy. Sure, a pair of $3 elephant pants would be fun, but do I need them?
Then I arrived in Japan. Japan is so different for me.
Be warned: if you travel to Japan, no matter how much you dislike or don’t want to shop, you will be so tempted to buy things. Why? Because everything is so adorable. And useful. And well designed. And the packaging is so elegant you don’t ever want to open it. Looking around stores in Japan just makes me wonder how I could have ever lived with such boring, inefficient things in my life.
It’s not only the products, the sales assistants in Japan make every purchase, even something at a bargain store, feel like I’m in a luxury department store.
I spent quite a few days wandering in and out of stores in Tokyo, as well as little shops in smaller cities. There was no shortage of cutesy gifts with animal faces on them. There was also a huge amount of beautiful, high quality products. If I had to narrow my Japanese purchases down to my three favorites, they would be the following:
The line for these sweets wraps around the Tokyo train station with good reason. The pastries are essentially light, fluffy sponge cake filled with puréed banana. The cakes are shaped liked small bananas and come individually packaged in delicate trays. Like most things in the Japan, the presentation is half the appeal. I personally love the “Miitsuketa” or banana shake flavored cakes because they come with a pink and yellow flower print on the cakes and a bright pink bow tie on the package. I also find the caramel flavor heavenly.
The only catch with these delicacies is that they should be eaten with a week or so. If you want to bring home something that doesn’t spoil as quickly, you should consider their cookie sandwiches. They are a bit smaller and more delicate than the banana sponge cakes, and come in a single package with two flavors of individually wrapped sandwiches: milk and coco. I love the faint yellow banana design on each of the cookies.
If you want to impress your friends with the most indulgent, yet simple DIY dessert, make a super cookie ice cream sandwich. Use sandwiches as the outer layers and fill the inside with a heaping scoop of ice cream. It’s even better if you roll the edges in sprinkles. It’s a dessert made for Instagram.
Most Buddhist temples in Japan have small gift shops connected to them or sometimes outside that sell Dharma Dolls. These paper mâché dolls are used for wishing or goal setting. Each one is shaped like a small, round person (supposedly modeled after the founder of Zen Buddhism) and usually has blank white spots for eyes. It’s common to purchase dolls at the beginning of the year, then fill in one eye when you set a goal for the year. When you complete your goal, you fill in the second eye. According to one Buddhist monk I spoke with, at the end of the year you burn the dolls who’s goals have been fulfilled and can use the remaining blank eyes as a reminder of the goals you have yet to fulfill.
The dolls are absolutely adorable and most temples sell them in various colors to represent the category of goals that you’ll be working towards such a love, money, health, and work. They’re a lightweight, meaningful souvenir and are also a great reminder to never stop improving ourselves.
Yukatas are kind of like the casual cousin of the Kimono. Where Kimonos are very formal attire, have lots of rules regarding how they should be worn, and are very hot, Yukatas are traditionally worn after bathing though can be worn at any time, have less strict rules and are much cooler since they’re unlined cotton. I learned most of this when I was shopping in Kyoto and couldn’t for the life of me tell the difference between the garments. When I told the assistant that I wanted a Yukata but kept pointing to all of the lovely Kimonos in her store she was really confused. Then I was confused when she told me they were Kimonos, but looked almost identical to the yukata that I was holding.
As much as I loved exploring Japan, I actually looked forward to returning to my hotel room and slipping into my yukata. The cotton was so soft and I loved the way it wrapped around my body like a bath robe but looked far more elegant. I knew that I wanted to bring one home.
The struggle with shopping for a yukata, for me, was that I was comparing them to the quality of the one in my hotel room. Everywhere I went, the cotton seemed to be too rough. The Westin had spoiled me.
I shopped for nearly a month without finding one that was equally beautiful and soft. I finally settled on one at a vintage shop in Kyoto, where I had to climb up a tiny flight of stairs and take off my shoes to walk across the bamboo mat floor. On the second level, the sales assistant sat with me on the floor, with her legs tucked under her, as she carefully pulled out a box of vintage yukatas and handed them to me, one by one, to examine. I fell in love with the dark indigo color contrasting with the pure white to form a pattern resembling bamboo plants.
Having such a beautiful, vintage yukata at home feels so elegant. It’ll make you regret ever purchasing a bath robe. Plus, on days when you just don’t want to get dressed, if you throw on a yukata, you are technically dressed. At least in Japan you’d be.