Tokyo – The shopping experience

Posted by jerry on January 30th, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Travel

Are you looking for some ‘washi’ traditional handmade paper or a watch by Cartier or perhaps a Burberry coat? How about a diamond from Tiffany’s or a Mont Blanc pen? Tokyo has it all. I found it almost by accident, taking a long meandering walk from my hotel, I found myself in the Ginza district – the high end of town on the east side.

The Ginza district, Tokyo

I was vaguely on the lookout for some handmade paper – after all the Japanese have made an art form of it for hundreds of years. But mostly I was enjoying the ambience, the combination of the strange and the familiar.

One prerequisite of shopping is of course to have some cash in your wallet. And here is a tip for the unwary – most banks have ATMs in abundance. The downside is that not all of them offer an English language option. And many of the Japanese banks service only the domestic market and so international credit cards are not always accepted. Here is where I encountered another aspect of Japanese culture – businesses offer service.

I went into one bank which according to the window stickers supported my credit card. After queuing briefly I went to an ATM and found I could not read any of the options – was it asking for my account? or whether I wanted a withdrawal or account statement? I pressed the red button which I figured was the cancel one. It cancelled alright – and said something quite loud and possibly quite rude about my card in computer-generated Japanese. An assistant rushed over. I said there is no English language – I can’t read the buttons on the machine. The assisted rushed away, gesturing for me to wait. They came back moments later with a card with pictures and about five language options. I pointed to ‘withdrawal’ and ‘credit card’. The assistant bowed and rushed away to fetch someone else. They directed me to the post office up the street. I thanked them and went off to find it.

The post office had no ATM machine, but there was another bank over the road. Bank of Tokyo I think. I tried again. Once more there were no English language options on the machine. I looked puzzled and cancelled the transaction. The doorman came over – ‘you have problem?’ he asked. I explained about the ATM and my language difficulty. ‘Follow me’ he said and he led me about 100 metres up the street to a rival bank – the Hongkong Shanghai Bank Corp (HSBC) where the ATM was in English. I thanked him very much ‘No problem’ he smiled. Now THAT’s service!

I found the paper in a large stylish and very ‘establishment’ department store called Mitsukoshi, along with handmade cards and some wonderful stationery. The assistants (yes more than one) handled the transaction. One carefully wrapped the paper in other paper that could easily have had its own price tag, while the other wrote up a chit and showed me the amount on a calculator. I pulled out notes to cover it and she took it to a third cashier who counted out the change onto a silver tray. Then the first assistant brought my rolls of paper, carefully wrapped, followed by the second assistant with the tray for the change and receipt. I was told that tipping is not the norm in Tokyo, although some places will add a small service charge in the fancier restaurants. If you go there, the basement has a great food display. The place started up in 1673 selling kimono fabrics and grew from there.
Much bowing and ‘Arigato’-ing later (thank you) and I found a taxi to take me back to the hotel. The taxis are all brand new versions of old Toyota Crown cars. They have become a Tokyo icon much like the old London black cabs so they are made still in the old shape. Inside the driver wears white cotton gloves and a waistcoat. And the headrests are fitted with white lace covers.


After a brief respite it is time to find the Tokyo of William Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ in his novel Neuromancer. The place to go is Akihabara district where you will find Denki-gai – ‘Electric Town’ – a suburb of electronics markets with every conceivable gadget and computer component. It is an experience of sensory overload with flashing lights and neon and loud pre-recorded spruikers and sales jingles extolling the virtues of this phone or that computer and this DVD player. This is geek heaven and if you are looking for an obscure computer component or chip you will surely find it here somewhere.

Akihabara – ‘Electric Town’

The mac shop goes for five storeys. Ground floor has iPods and new laptops. Next floor has new desktop macs, then the used laptops, floowed by a floor of used desktop macs going back to G3 models, and the top floor has music interfaces, keyboards, midi devices, microphones and effects pedals – everything for the mac on five floors!

I wound up being very restrained and bought a wireless mouse for a little less than I would pay at home. The real entertainment was the experience of shopping in a crazy Asian electronics market, and marinating in neon and visual noise.


Like the ad says – this is the 21st century digital dream. And if the gadgets are not enough, you can always have your appearance modified – here the sign says: “Cosmetic Plastic Surgery” above a grimy door in a side alley. Inviting huh?

One can picture a Manga villain seeking out a place like this to have an implant upgraded illegally and away from prying eyes. That such a thing is imaginable speaks volumes about the atmosphere of this place. Perhaps it’s that interspersed between the hi tech buzz of biz there is also a roaring trade in pornographic manga books and graphic novels. Most shops are open until 8.00pm – even in winter.
It’s time to seek out the sanctuary of the hotel and get online. The coffee shop has wifi access and bottomless coffee… the Chiba is making just a little too much sense now. The trusty iPaq handheld and fold-up keyboard attracts little attention in the coffee shop as I email home and prepare some blog entries. Upstairs, I insert the camera’s SD card straight into the portable CD burner and run off a couple of CDs of the photos – backups in case the airport scanners corrupt the photos on the camera card.


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