I went to Tokyo, Japan last fall and I’ve compiled some tips and must-know facts about shopping as a tourist in this awesome city. This post is a complement to my upcoming Tokyo, Japan Shopping Guide that will be complete with a Google Map and links to multiple photo tours of my favorite Japanese beauty shops (it’s gonna be Godzilla size). You can plan your hotel stay strategically around the shops you want to visit the most (I stayed in Shinjuku and Shibuya). Tax/duty-free stores are clearly marked because Japan want foreigners to shop and make it very easy for us to do so. Below are tips about shopping tax-free and duty-free, making the most out of Narita Airport (shopping heaven) and things to bring with you that can really save your trip!
Know the Difference Between Tax-Free and Duty-Free
Before we dive in, I want to be clear between the usage of tax-free and duty-free shopping. Duty-free is usually what you’ll see at the airports once you pass through security gates as you depart a country. Duty-free is essentially tax-free as well because you’re not paying for the local import taxes AND you’re not paying the sales/consumption taxes. Tax-free items means that you’re only saving on the sales/consumption tax of 8%; you’re still paying for the duty taxes that has been calculated in the sticker price since the item has officially been imported into the country and on sale on local shelves. Now does that mean shopping duty-free is always cheaper? No, it doesn’t. The sticker price can still be marked up and this is especially true for electronics in duty-free stores. You’re better off going to Bic Camera or Yodobashi for deals. It can get confusing when you start seeing “Duty Free” stores outside of the airports. Select Japan stores now offer duty-free shopping as they have a connection with the airport but I will get into this below.
There are two ways to pay tax-free:
- Pay at the tax-free cashier counter where the 8% tax is deducted at the point of sale. You wait on one line.
- Pay at a normal cashier counter but then wait on another line to essentially get a tax refund after you’re done shopping at the location. This is more common in big department stores where you can gather all your receipts and get a tax refund from your total purchase that day (and on that day only). You wait on two lines.
Bring Your Passport With You to Shop Tax-Free
I’ve never been in another country that advertises the tax-free break for tourists as loudly as Japan. There are signs EVERYWHERE that foreigners with a valid passport can shop tax-free if they buy over 5,000 Yen, however this can vary store to store. Some stores will deduct the tax off right away in one transaction and others will make you pay first with tax and then you’ll have to take your receipt to a tax-free counter where you get a refund after you’re done with shopping at that location. Nevertheless, I recommend always bringing your passport instead of leaving it in a hotel safe because you cannot get the tax break if you buy something without first showing your passport as the salespeople need to staple the receipts into your passport at the time of transaction.
Consumables vs. General Products
There are two categories of tax-free items: general and consumables. Consumables are cosmetics and food/snacks/drinks. General includes electronics, clothing, shoes and well, non-consumables. Note that liquor and tobacco don’t count but you can get them duty-free at airports. Your items cannot get consumed/opened in Japan so they are sealed in a specific tax-free bag that you cannot open until you depart from Japan. So if you planned on using the product during your stay, you can either just pay the 8% consumption tax or suffer by looking at your pretties in their plastic prison. Medicine is not eligible for the tax-free program (I had to pay taxes on the Rohto Lycee Eye Drops and mosquito patches I bought from my Japan Haul post).
Have Your Duty-Free Items Delivered For Pick-Up At the Airport
Shop hands-free by paying for your duty-free items and then send your goods at the airport when you’re ready to fly back home! If you have an entire trip ahead of you, why break your back and carry all that stuff with you? Select stores that have a relationship with the airport can send your items for pick-up. This is perfect since you can’t even use your items while in Japan anyway! The Tokyu Plaza in Ginza had this service on the 8th and 9th floors that’s marked as Duty-Free. I understand there’s a little bit of unease and doubt since you’ll pay for your items and not see them again until you’re about to depart so do what your gut tells you. Just remember to pick them up before you leave, there are instructions at the airport.
Buy Delicate Cookies and Candies At the Airport
Narita Airport is one of the BEST airports to shop in after Incheon Airport in South Korea. I already knew ahead of time that all the cookies I MUST get were already in the Fa-So-La duty-free shops after security check-in. The shops are even equipped with special change-counting machines so you can use the rest of your Japanese Yen and pay the difference with your credit card. Bam, no more foreign currency to take back with you! And bam, souvenir problems solved! If there are certain delicasies that you come across and you’re not sure if they are in the airports, snap it up before you miss your chance!
Don’t Bother With Price Comparison
Generally all the drugstore beauty found in other locations are priced pretty much the same at a suggested manufacturer’s price. I wouldn’t waste your precious time in this lovely city going store to store just to save maybe a difference of $1 at most. Maybe you would luck out if the store was having a special sale but Japanese cosmetics are pretty much priced the same across the board as long as you stick shopping at mass retail/drugstores stores and not in mom and pop stores (unless you don’t mind supporting local businesses by paying a little bit more).
Other Travel Tips
Bring a Portable Battery Pack
Don’t risk your phone dying on you when a big part of your trip is taking pictures and using Google Maps! SERIOUSLY bring a portable battery pack whether it be a lower 2600mAh capacity or a higher 10000mAh that may even charge up to two devices at once. Since I used my AirBnB’s mobile wifi device that needed charging too (more on that below), I brought a low and a medium capacity battery pack that charged my phone and mobile wifi just fine through the end of a day. Nobody wants to constantly look for an outlet plug or be a slave to their battery life. I loved having peace of mind that my devices were charging in my bag as I continued to my next destination.
Crash course in buying a battery pack:
- The power capacity is expressed in amperage. Now I’m not a tech geek but I think low capacity is 2600mAH – 5000mAh, medium is 6000mAH – 9000mAH and high is 10000mAH and up. You’ll only need a low capacity battery pack for a casual day out when all you’re worried about charging is your phone. Lower capacity packs are lighter and look like stick or tube. Medium capacity packs are good if you’re want to charge two devices back to 100% like your phone and a tablet. High capacity is great if you maybe have a friend who needs a charge too but these packs will be a bit heavier/bulkier and more expensive.
- Output speed is expressed either as 2.1A or 1A labeled on the USB port controls the speed of your charge. If you buy a pack with two USB ports, you actually get to choose how fast you want your device charged! This matters if you want your device charging while it’s in use. I recommend turning off your device when charging it to optimize your time but the two ports give you the option.
These are so cheap on Amazon, you can get a very decent battery pack for under $25:
- Anker PowerCore 10000, 5V 2.4A Output, $23.99 – If I can do it all over again, I’d buy this pack at 10000 mAh with one USB charging port. I never really had to use two charging ports at once because my boyfriend was better at conserving battery than I was and I survived the trip using two lower capacity packs at 2600mAH and 3200mAh with two people so 10000mAh is more than enough. If your trip buddy also drains batt juice, I’d maybe kick it up to 20100mAH that offers two ports.
Stay In An Airbnb That Gives You Free Mobile/Pocket Wifi
Staying at an Airbnb that gave us a free pocket wifi device was a gamechanger. The days of printing out paper maps prior to going on a big International trip are over. You can use Google Maps to get to any place and suddenly visiting a place with a language barrier isn’t so much of an issue (but Tokyo is very English friendly anyway). Offering free pocket wifi is very popular in Asia but I’m not sure about other countries so definitely take advantage of this value-add! Renting out your own pocket wifi at the airport is an extra cost depending on the length of your stay (my 10 day stay would’ve cost an extra $100). Even if the Airbnb you are considering doesn’t explicitly list the pocket wifi, just ask! For example on my trip, it wasn’t clear if “wifi connection” in the description meant it was a pocket device so I asked and the hosted provided it to me “because I asked”.
Buy A SIM Card
On the same note of having Internet connection, you have the option of buying a data-only SIM card instead of renting out a pocket wifi. By law, you cannot buy a voice SIM to make calls but nowadays you can make calls through plenty of apps using data only. Pro: You don’t have to carry another device around with you since the SIM card will be in your phone. Con: The SIM card can only be used by your phone versus using a pocket wifi, you can have multiple people connect on it (although it will slow down the speed). SIM cards are can be cheaper than the pocket wifi rental and easy to buy at any Bic Camera or electronics store. I had to buy a card for 2 days since I went to Nagano where our ryokan didn’t provide pocket wifis. You’re limited with data with a SIM depending on how much you’re willing to spend, usually it’s 1GB or 2GB but on a pocket wifi, you just can’t go over 1GB of data usage in a day otherwise the speed will just slow down significantly. Lastly, make sure you spend a little more and buy a faster speed on the 4G LTE (MHz) network. I must have accidentally bought on the 3G network because I had a lag in getting messages and opening up Instagram! The salespeople at Bic Camera are helpful if you’re unsure.
Download the XE App To Convert To Your Local Currency
Quickly punch in the foreign currency amount and it will spit out the equivalent of your local currency so you never get confused over the price again. I use it on every international trip and it’s free to use, download here. ‘Nuff said. Happy traveling!
Let me know what you thought of this quick travel guide to Tokyo, Japan! What were you’re smartest hacks to traveling?