If the massive illuminations or pictures of Santa Claus at every turn (that went up around Japan as the last Halloween decoration was taken down) have not tipped you off already — Christmas is just around the corner.
While the holiday season is a bit different here, many of us are still tied to Western traditions of overzealous gift giving. Whether you’re traveling back to your home country, sending packages overseas or just treating your friends in Japan — finding the right gift from Japan can be a struggle.
Here are some ideas for those who want to surprise friends and loved ones with some quirky Japanese presents — and some are perfect for those very last-minute offerings
1. Kit Kats
Kit Kat is not a brand unique to Japan but Japanese Kit Kats are unlike any others. The vast array of flavors makes these a fun and fascinating treat for anyone. There are limited edition flavors like the cough drop, regional flavors such as Tokyo Banana or classic Japanese flavors such as green tea. If you’re thinking about giving sweets to your family, Kit Kats are a safe option: they are foreign, yet decidedly familiar. My family still moans about the red bean paste cakes I gave them years ago. They saw them as some kind of abomination not even worthy of being called “cake.” With Kit Kats, you don’t have to worry about any relatives complaining that they are too alien. Kit Kats are super easy to get a hold of and are available in practically every supermarket and convenience store for ¥200 to ¥500.
2. Gachapon prizes
The vending machines of Japan are famous the world over. The stunted cousin of the vending machine, gachapon dispense little trinkets in exchange for coins and help Japanese shoppers in their ongoing quest to buy something from a shop without talking to another human being. These little dispensers can often be found in rows inside shopping malls or attached to other shops, each one holding a more bizarre item than the last. You often get one prize from a set so collectors love the thrill of getting them all — especially if the prizes are tied to a popular anime or franchise. There is sure to be something for everyone and if your family has never been to Japan they won’t realize just how inexpensive these items are, as they range in price from ¥100 to ¥500.
3. Retro video games
You can tell how well Japanese people take care of their possessions by how immaculate many of the items in second hand shops are. Some classic video game consoles and cartridges look brand new despite the fact they are over 20 years old and have had multiple owners. You can find NES, SNES, Dreamcast and Gameboy games in stores like Bookoff or at a myriad of specialty used game stores that are a welcome blast of nostalgia for many. These are usually cheaper than a modern game, sometimes costing as little as ¥100 while others can go up in price to nearly ¥1,000 (but rarely over). Buyer beware though: obviously all of these games will be in Japanese as will the gaming systems.
Another super-safe gift that can easily be purchased in the supermarket is Pocky. There have been imitations of Pocky outside of Japan, even some licensed products such as the European equivalent Mikado. This means these edible souvenir sticks will be foreign enough to be interesting but recognizable enough to not be scary. Japan also has a great deal of different flavors and types of chocolate biscuit stick made by rival companies, so why not pick up some thick Fran or Topo for around ¥100 to make your gift extra exotic.
5. “Engrish” items
Japanese clothes and other items covered in nonsensical English — or as the internet has dubbed it “Engrish” — are a really fun thing to bring back to your home country. Those who have not been lucky enough to visit Japan’s cheaper clothing outlets may not have experienced T-shirts with such amazing slogans as “Locality, what more could one desire?” and “Dwarf!” The shop 3 Coins (where all items are just ¥300) is a personal favorite of mine at which to hunt for bad English. Really, though, any cheap clothes shop should have these horribly incorrect slogans printed on things. You can also find plenty of stationery, bags and hats in the ¥100 shops featuring Engrish as well.
6. Outfits for animals
It’s not unusual to see a small dog wear a coat in the U.K. but it wasn’t until coming to Japan that I felt like the family cat was missing a hat collection. Hats for cats are a popular gachapon item (see above) and can be found in quirky animal boutiques, as well. There are hats that look like food, swim caps and fluffy hats to suit any cat’s style. But the animal clothing doesn’t stop with headwear. There are coats, socks, costumes and even kimono for animals. Depending on the quality you want these can range from ¥100 to ¥5,000. The cat hat gachapon are easy enough to find but items such as the feline kimono might have to be bought at online sellers like Rakuten if you don’t have a local pet supplies shop.
7. Secondhand kimono
If a kimono for your dog doesn’t tickle your fancy then how about a proper one? Kimono are symbolic of Japan but if you’ve ever been into a shop that sells them you will know that they are outrageously expensive. Luckily, there are plenty of places to buy secondhand kimono (Japanese) at much lower prices — around ¥1,000 (sometimes even lower) at local flea markets. These stalls have all sorts of traditional Japanese clothing and all of the accessories to go with them. The obi (sash tied around the middle of the kimono) are popular as they can be fashioned into other things. The convenient strips of beautifully crafted Japanese silk can be used as wall hangings, table runners or to create Japanese motif bags and more. Many Japanese vendors collect all of the unwanted old kimono from their friends and family then sell them at local festivals or on the weekends at markets like the Okazaki Flea Market in Kyoto — a place renowned for its variety of cheap kimono. Something to bear in mind, though, is that these clothes are pre-owned, so check for any rips, stains or other problems before you buy.
8. Strange ¥100 shop toys
These are an amazing gift for anyone. You can always find something in the toy section at a Daiso or the 100 Yen store that will be sure to entertain this Christmas. Last year, I bought my brother a plastic baby being potty trained — that was also a water gun. The water shot out from between the baby’s legs. He didn’t know what to think of it but soon had a friend fill it with rum, making it the highlight of New Year’s Eve. The toy section is great for kids as well: many of the toys are decent quality for just ¥100 and made of very durable plastic.
9. Costumes from Don Quijote
A shop that battles with Daiso for title of cheapest and most fun to shop at in Japan. Don Quijote, the Spanish literature-inspired, penguin loving bazaar is a place full of wonder — and insane background music. But we’re not here to talk about their exotic Kit Kat or super-cheap technology sections, the real fun to be had is in the costumes section. They have a massive range of costumes, some poorly made and some surprisingly accurate. You can get a sponge afro for ¥100 or a realistic Donald Trump mask for ¥3,000. A lot of the costumes are fetish gear, so make sure you don’t accidentally proposition someone with a gift that was meant to be a joke.
10. Arcade prizes
It’s only ¥100 for a go on the crane games (or “UFO catchers” as they’re called here) and that giant Snoopy would be perfect for your friend back home. You can do it! I can snag that toy dangling over the edge, you tell yourself as you put your ¥500 coin into the slot. For those lucky few skilled enough at the games, you might be able to catch a giant Tsum Tsum for just ¥100 (even though the much more achievable plan is to head down to a second-hand shop like 2nd Street and buy that giant Tsum Tsum outright). It seems that many people play the games for the thrill of victory or they don’t realize that their giant Pikachu won’t fit in their tiny apartment and then sell them because secondhand shops are full of these prizes. They will usually sell for around ¥400 to ¥800 (though it’s a bit less exciting than dong battle for one yourself).
Bonus: GaijinPot Store
Finally, if you’re looking for some high-quality and uniquely Japanese gifts, check out the GaijinPot Store. It features unique gift packages such as bento box sets, kimono accessories and classic cultural items. If you’re worried about shipping times, the stores also sells ebooks available for immediate download that support Kindle, iBooks, Nook and most other readers and devices. Get a copy of Super Cheap Tokyo for you or the budget traveler on your list. If you’re on a plant-based diet or have a vegetarian friend planning a trip to Japan, the Tokyo Vegan Guide is also available.
What kind of affordable Japanese gifts have you sent home this holiday season or which ones get the most response or requests? Let us know in the comments!