Souvenirs can be a special token from your trip and making them sustainable means that the positive effects reach the planet and the makers too.
When picking up gifts for friends and family, it can be tempting to pop into a Daiso shop (a Japanese “dollar store” chain) and get all the weird and wonderful trinkets your heart desires. Environmentally, however, this isn’t really the best idea. Choosing quality over quantity may cost a little more, but we help you save for a reason, right? Here are some fantastic shops that support craftmakers, focus on sustainable produce and offer handmade creations that will make for meaninigful gifts that will last a lifetime.
Sustainable souvenir shopping in Tokyo
Covering a variety of locations from high-end Ginza to the Sunday streets of Jiyugaoka, you can find sustainable souvenirs in all corners of Tokyo. If you’re lucky enough to be in Tokyo for Earth Day, be sure to check out the annual market, but otherwise you can check out the roster of weekly flea markets taking place across the city too.
1. 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan: Unusual crafts
An arty alternative to the overwhelmingly hi-tech streets of Akihabara, 2k540 is a collection of independent shops found under the train tracks. Once a parking lot and machinery storage area, the re-energized area is now home to cute cafes and craft shops—perfect for an unusual gift hunt. Choose from hand-dyed tenugi (hand towels) at Nijiyura, customizable wooden gifts from Hacoa or try your hand at a workshop to create your own gifts! Check out our full guide to visiting 2k540.
2. Farmers Market at UNU: Fresh and homemade treats
Perfect if you want to pick up some seasonal produce as well as souveniers, this is a fantastic and long-running market held in the grounds of the UN University. Along with fresh veg and street food, you’ll find homemade and organic preserves and pickles, locally grown teas and coffees as well as unusual Japanese sauces, dressings and drinks. If you have any food-obsessed friends, this is the perfect place to give them a taste of Japan. Read more about the UNU Farmers Market.
3. Pass the Baton: Antiques and unusables
A recycle shop with a personal touch and dedication to the cause, Pass the Baton is a unique shop that goes above and beyond the idea of re-using things. As well as sharing belongings, the shop wants to help people share stories, attaching a fond memory in note form to each individual item. The profile of the previous owner and sometimes even photos accompany the items. Sellers also have the option to donate any money made to charity.
The three Rs have been reclaimed here: they Recycle (antiques and vintage items with notes), Remake (redesigning ‘unfit’ products like Dean and Deluca bags) and Relight (rescue clothes disposed of by companies like United Arrows, once again “giving them light again”). Whether it’s discounted jeans or an accessory crafted from a 400-year-old Japanese store’s offcuts, you’ll be sure to find something unusual at their Marunouchi or Omotesando locations.
4. Yoyogi Village: Art and lunch
Another small alternative shopping area, Yoyogi Village is a trendy corner with shops, cafes restaurants and occasional events. The Sora Botanical Garden Information Center is perfect for the green-fingered, while Contenart has unusual designs, exhibitions and delicious tea. Eau, shop of Takefu, focuses on natural bamboo fabric pieces with workshops held in the tatami area too.
If you get peckish, Super Me offers seasonal, local, pesticide-free ingredients, bio-wine and vegetarian options, while bakery Pour-kur offers homemade yeast and Ishigaki-style pizza. Dim Light Coffee focuses on third-wave coffee with homemade ginger lemonade, cakes and buttery toast.
5. Three: Natural make-up and skincare
A natural make-up brand from Japan, Three stands for natural, honest and creative. Japan has a great reputation for cosmetics (but not so much for animal care) and the niche of ethical brands is growing with encouragement from big names like Lush. Three ensures that over 85% of their product ingredients are natural—using organic ingredients wherever possible and sourcing as many from Japan as they can.
They do not use parabens, artificial colors or fragrances and they do not test on animals (hurrah!). If you’re looking to treat yourself or someone you know, this is the guilt-free way of doing it. Three’s products can be found in its stores in Aoyama and Hibiya and in some department stores in Tokyo.
6. Katakana in Jiyugaoka: Cute gifts from across Japan
A cute and very fun shop in trendy Jiyugaoka, Katakana is a blend of local Japanese crafts and international creations. Perfect for small gifts from around the country, all items are carefully chosen for their quality craftsmanship and design. Choose from Onomichi’s Ushio chocolate to Kyoto’s Hachidakai chopsticks, with all sorts of fashion, food and trinkets in between, you’ll no doubt come out with far more than you planned, but feel all the better for it.
7. Support craftsmen: the pricier gifts
If you have something specific in mind, there will no doubt be a family-run shop in Tokyo ready and waiting to make it happen. Whether you want a kitchen knife crafted by an expert in the kitchen district of Kappabashi or a pair of exquisite scissors from a 200-year-old store like Ubukeya, it’s going to be there somewhere. Rather than heading to an all-in-one option like LOFT or Tokyu Hands (although we do love them), take a little time to research and find a specialty business that make quality items.
Online and outside-Tokyo options
If you’re around long enough to receive post or want to arrange delivery abroad, online options can widen your souvenir horizons.
8. The Nozomi Project
Turning fragments of pottery into beautiful jewelry, The Nozomi Project seeks beauty in the broken. Based in Ishinomaki, a town devastated by the 2011 Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the social enterprise is run soley by women. Meaning ‘hope’ in Japanese, the project offers a sustainable and rewarding income to those involved, and donates to local organizations and charities. Making necklaces, bracelets and earrings, the tight-knit team name each line after inspiring women they have known and lost. This souvenir option is not just a beautiful piece of jewelry, but an opportunity for you to support a community rebuilding itself in the wake of unfathomable tragedy.
9. Singing Crane
Singing Crane is a small business that transforms vintage obi (wide traditional belts worn with kimono) into guitar straps—the perfect gift for musicians. Inspired by her kimono-making grandmother, Ayumi seeks out secondhand obi and uses them to create strong but beautiful straps. Often disgarded for the smallest of stains, the belts have eye-catching colors and are woven with the utmost care. Thanks to the use of vintage obi, each strap is unique in design and combined with a leather backing for extra strength. Belts can be viewed and bought online—and are shipped from Kyoto.
10. Newsed: Unusual items from unusual materials
A trendy upcycle brand, Newsed is based in Nagoya and creates stylish items from used materials. Focusing on backstories and history, the company embraces the wear and tear of fabrics to give character to “new” items. Offering bow ties made from seat belts, bike saddles made from wetsuits and unique acrylic badges made using factory offcuts, any Newsed souvenir will be an unusual addition to your life. Items are available in pop-up shops from time to time as well as in shops around Japan (including Tower Records in Shibuya and the Roppongi Hills Art and Design Store, but their online catalogue might be the best way to see their full range.
Looking for something extra (special)? There are still some great options that are a little alternative. For an experience plus souvenir, why not try a workshop—you can learn a skill and head home with something to remind you of your day. Try a calligraphy class or one of these Japanese cultural experiences.
If you have friends who are in school, just got their drivers licence or are getting married (among a myriad other activities), you could opt for a charm from a shrine or temple. Offering protection and good fortune, there are temples with strong reputations for love, safety and allsorts—so a small charm can be a thoughtful gift.
If you find it hard to justify gifts for yourself or have very little luggage room, sonsider a reusable item, like a nice water bottle or a portable set of chopticks—these are practical, long-lasting and, most importantly, guilt-free gifts.
Working with a smaller budget? Check out these 25 Japanese souvenir ideas.
Photograph the famous Shibuya scramble crossing, wander around the curious and quirky love hotel hill, visit Yoyogi park and Meiji shrine...