Most people who travel are hoping for unique experiences, and souvenirs to match. When I learned that some of my favorite retro video games that I’d struggled to get at home would be available during my trip to Japan, I was overjoyed.
With the birth of online shopping, you might assume that there’s nothing you can’t just order online, but Japan still has many cool things that you can’t really buy unless you go there. Gift-giving is a big deal in Japan, so they’ve got an endless number of cute things that make perfect souvenirs. Whether it’s gadgets, games, gifts, ornaments, or just a real reminder of your trip, there are plenty of unique things you can get in Japan and Japan only.
The best news is we’re not talking about cheap, kitschy things like fridge magnets either, but rather well-made, beautiful items that will make great gifts for others or yourself (and some things you can only get and enjoy while you’re there).
10 Unique Things You Can Only Buy In Japan
1. Crazy KitKat Flavors
You might already know about green tea KitKats, but japan is actually home to a plethora of flavors. I’d like to be able to tell you they’re all delicious, but it would be hard to make such a sweeping statement before trying all 200+ flavors that have been available over the years (no I’m not kidding).
KitKat is easily the most popular chocolate brand in Japan for a very simple reason – the name sounds like ‘kitto katsu’, which is a way of saying good luck in Japan. Because of that similarity in sound, KitKat is regularly given as gifts to children and teenagers before they take exams, or to anyone needing a bit of extra luck.
KitKat has many regular flavors that you can always get whatever time of year you visit. At different times of the year, though, they make specialty flavors that are both weird and wonderful. Not only do these make amazing, suitcase-friendly souvenirs, but they’re great to try while you’re travelling around Japan.
You can make a little quest of hunting for new flavors, especially since some are inspired by and sold in a particular region of the country.
2. Omamori charms
Whether you believe in luck or not, you’re likely to see these everywhere you go in Japan, so you might just end up picking out a few to take home. Most cities have entire booths lined wall to wall with these pocket-sized charms, all of which are decorated differently.
The charms stem from both Buddhist and Shinto traditions, although now they serve as a less serious way of giving yourself a little extra luck. There’s a great article here about the complexities of this little trinket (so you can decide whether they’re the right gift for you).
As a self-described stationery addict, I have to tell you that Japan is a haven for stationery lovers everywhere. Not only do they LOVE all things paper-related, but all other kinds of stationery are also popular there. Whether you love cute little pens adorned with your favorite characters, or you prefer a more minimal aesthetic, Japan’s many stationary stores have got you covered.
There are even great stores like Kakimori where you can make your own customized notebook. They have everything you need to make a beautiful gift for yourself or somebody special, with covers, papers, ring colors, and fasteners to choose from. Or you can head to Ito-Ya, which is over 110 years old and is something of a stationary mecca.
While this might seem like an obvious choice (and aren’t chopsticks available literally all over the world, Charlie?) it’s definitely one that can still be a unique and wonderful choice. Japanese people use chopsticks every day, for almost every meal, so you’d better believe they’ve got pretty skilled at making them.
You can find them literally all over the country, in the cheapest and most expensive of stores, so they’re a great gift for anyone – get a fancy pair for your spouse and a hundred-yen pair for your in-laws – what’s not to love? They come in all sorts of colors, materials, and sizes too, with modern styles and traditional ones being equally as popular.
This is a type of artwork synonymous with Japan’s image overseas, so there’s a good chance you’ve already seen it represented in some form. Ukiyo-e is artwork that was made popular during the Edo-period, and artists utilize wood blocks to make it. Famous artist Hokusai, whose “Great Wave” painting is iconic, also used block painting, as did many of his contemporaries.
The artwork is beautiful, and it would be difficult to get an original, non-printed piece of Ukiyo-e anywhere other than Japan, so if you’re planning on visiting and want to upgrade your gallery, this would be the best way to do it!
Tenugui is a type of cotton towel popular in Japan. You might think that a towel is a pretty boring keepsake, but when you see the beautiful colors and designs, you’ll likely change your mind. The towels are always beautifully made, and often have very intricate designs on them – people even choose to frame rather than use them.
Similar to tenugui are furoshiki, which are large cloths that Japanese people use to wrap and carry their luggage or other items around. Again, they are often intricately or minimally decorated, and often comprise of very bold colors. Either would make a great gift!
7. Traditional clothing
Traditional clothing is something of great importance in Japan, and while it can make a wonderful gift or memento, it’s important to understand the cultural significance of the piece that you’re purchasing before you make a rash decision to walk around your home town in it. That being said, traditional Japanese garments have been one of the most popular souvenirs for decades, and it’s difficult not to see why.
Both striking and beautiful, a well-made piece of clothing or jewelry can make the perfect memento of your time in Japan. The most common type of clothing is obviously the kimono, which can be worn by people of any gender, but more recently designers in Japan have chosen to merge some of the country’s most iconic pieces with modern fashion that’s wearable on a daily basis.
For most people in the west, a full, traditional kimono and all the accessories that come with it will probably make for an impractical and expensive purchase that winds up gathering dust in your wardrobe. Instead, why not look for a modern hybrid of that traditional Japanese ensemble; something that’s able to be combined with your existing wardrobe, like a haori (hip-length kimono) that can be worn with a more casual outfit.
8. Handmade ceramics
Japan has some of the oldest ceramic traditions in the world, and evidence suggests that Japanese pottery has been around for several thousand years. With an intense dedication to anything they do, the Japanese have mastered this beautiful craft, and what they produce is quite possibly some of the best ceramics in the world.
This might be a tricky one if you have limited luggage space, but ceramics are worth finding the room for if you can.
Japan has a high quality of ceramics across its budget stores and luxury boutiques, so no matter what your budget might be, you should be able to find something beautiful. While you’ll likely be familiar with the usual array of bowls, plates, and cups, there will also be other items that you might be hard-pressed to find where you’re from – chopstick rests, for example. If you’re really organized, you might even be able to choose chopsticks to match.
9. Japanese cooking lessons
This might seem like an unorthodox choice, but hear me out. Japanese food is some of the best in the world, and after a day or two of eating it, I promise that most of you will be in love. You might be unlucky enough to live in a bit of a Japanese food free zone like I did when I first visited Japan, so returning home without the option of authentic Japanese dishes might be too much of a downer to handle (trust me, I’ve been there).
There are many chefs that offer small cooking classes to help you learn how to make your favorite dish, and who better to teach you than the Japanese themselves? It’s likely that the experience would be much harder to find anywhere else.
Booking in a cooking class while you’re visiting Japan can be a great “souvenir” because your knowledge can last you a lifetime, and it’s something you can replicate when you return, both for yourself and for friends or family. It might be worth spending a few days trying all the different dishes before you decide which ones you’d like to learn how to make. Or, if you don’t want to risk missing out on some of the better classes, book one before you go.
10. Original Japanese video games, manga, and anime
This might only be applicable if you’re an otaku (the Japanese word for nerd…sorry), but Japan is the birthplace of anime, manga, and multitudes of video games. If you think your local comic book store has a wide selection of your favorite Japanese comics, wait until you walk into one of the many multi-story manga superstores in any city in Japan – it’s like nothing you’ll have seen in person.
You can get any number of books that will be rare or difficult to obtain anywhere outside Japan. The same goes for anime, and anime-related memorabilia, of which there is an abundance in Japan, and particularly in Akihabara.
Speaking of Akihabara, if you’re a retro video game nerd then the “electric city” should be at the top of your to-do list. There are entire shops dedicated to vintage and retro video games (both playing and purchasing), and even the megastores have “bargain bins” with old Sega, Game Boy, and other cartridges for a couple of hundred yen each. Many of these are in Japanese, which will be a positive or a negative depending on what you plan to do with them (collect or play).
Make sure you work out a budget if you’re heading to Akihabara at the start of your holiday, because there’s such an abundance that it’s easy to get carried away (yes, I’m speaking from otaku experience).
Whatever You Choose, Just Have Fun!
It can be easy to get wrapped up in picking the perfect gift or souvenir, especially when you’re traveling from a long distance, but try not to worry about picking the perfect thing. While most of the things on our list are unique to Japan, they’re very common within the country itself. So, if you miss out on the perfect pair of chopsticks in one city, don’t mourn them, because you’ll likely find a very similar pair in the next one.
As with any purchase overseas, try to pick something that reflects the time you had here and solidifies the memories you made. One of my favorite souvenirs from my first trip to Japan is a basic pair of chopsticks that cost just a few hundred yen – they’re not fancy, but the adorable rabbit motif reminds me of Ōkunoshima (bunny island) which is where I bought them. So have fun! And bring me back some matcha KitKats, ok?