Thrift Shop Treasure Hunting

A famous American author once remarked that Japan continually remakes itself. The Tokyo of today hardly looks like the Tokyo at the end of the Showa era (1926 – 1989). And even though history runs deep with towns marking 1300 years and even elementary schools celebrating 130 years, it is rare to see buildings last more than 30 – 50 years. Holding onto old things is often seen as “uncool” and “unsophisticated.” During the bubble era in the late 1980’s one could outfit a whole apartment just by strolling through the neighborhood on days when large trash was being collected. You were certain to find well-preserved items destined for the dumpster, often in hardly used condition, their fate justified by their former owners' simple need for an upgrade. 

However, today, things are much different. The long economic malaise that hit Japan made people rethink what to do with old things and if it was really necessary to buy the latest item. As more people face economic hard times, markets sprung up to buy and sell used items. These range from books to washing machines. While most people do not buy used clothes unless it is a fashion statement, it is no longer considered shameful to purchase secondhand stuff. The bad news is that it is not as easy to find great deals in garbage piles. The good news for everyone is that stores have sprung up to serve customers with high quality goods. And it does not require Japanese language -- just a willingness to get out there and do some old school shopping.

There are lot of noteworthy shops out there but hopefully this list can get you started on your own treasure hunt, where you will find that your yen stretches much farther than you can imagine:

1. Book Off

Inside a Book Off shop via

Brand new books average ¥1,500 a copy. But at Book Off, Japan's largest used book chain, they average ¥300, and if you're lucky, you might even find great reads for less in their ¥105-150 bins. Impossible to miss, store signage is in English in big blue font against a yellow background. Aside from books, Book Off sells CDs, DVDs, video game software, and electronic devices related to games, smartphones and media players.  Book Off is a great place to get some Japanese manga or picture books to give as souvenirs back home. The huge success of Book Off is partly due to the high quality of the books they resell, thanks to an innovative machine that shaves off the dirty or yellowing text blocks and book covers.  Some branches have extensive collection of English and foreign language books. Browsing and reading is allowed, if not encouraged. Unlike a regular book store, it would be impossible to locate exact titles, but the joy is in the unexpected. 

2. Offshoots of Book Off 

The other Off stores via

With the success of Book Off, the company has expanded to other items. While not as numerous as the Book Off chain, these other Off stores are worth checking out when you see them:
  • Hard Off carries hardware such as personal computers, audio equipment, musical instruments, digital devices like cameras and wristwatches.
  • Off House handles typical home store items (think Cainz Home or Nitori) such as furniture, appliances, interior design, but also some clothing.
  • Hobby Off sells toys novelty items, models, action figures, and collectibles.
  • Mode Off focuses on fashion: clothes, accessories, shoes and is a great place to look for name brands.
  • Garage Off is where you'll find car parts and accessories, from tires to more complicated navigation systems.
  • Liquor Off, no explanation needed but ID required. 

3. Pre-loved fashion

Used clothing and kimono shop Chicago in Omotesando via

Fashion trends change so quickly, it often isn't worth paying the full price for clothes. There are so many great reasons why you should shop for secondhand clothes. Oogling that 90s style collection at Uniqlo? Why not look for the authentic deal in a vintage clothing shop? Truth is, there's a far wider range of styles and colors to choose from in a secondhand clothes shop than in any regular boutique.  Because most of the clothes, shoes, and accessories have already been "broken in," the benefit is that you can clearly see which items are of high quality and pass the test of time.  Some tourists would like to buy a kimono, hakama, or a yukata to take back home but recoil at the price of a new set. A used clothing shop is where you will find impressively preserved outfits at astonishingly cheap prices. I highly recommend the shop Chicago in Harajuku-Omotesando. They have a huge collection of traditional Japanese attire and related accessories, and they are foreigner-friendly (instructions on how to wear a kimono are available in English).

Address: Olympia Annex Bldg. B1F, 6-31-21 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Hours: 11:00am~8:00pm
Access: Beside Exit 4 of Meiji-jingumae Harajuku Station of the Chiyoda and Fukutoshin Lines

4. Pop-up Flea/Free Markets

One of Tokyo's many pop-up flea markets via

I'm never really quite sure whether the Japanese term フリーマーケット meant "flea market," in the usual understanding of the term, or free market, as in anyone can freely set up a booth and people are welcome to shop freely in a warm, friendly, and carefree atmosphere. In any case, pop-up flea/free markets should be your destination for awesome bargains and unique souvenirs to take back home. One person's trash can be another person's treasure.  Another great thing about these markets is that it is possible, and maybe even expected, that customers ask for a discount, especially if buying multiple items -- something impossible in any of the shops listed above. The downside is that most of these markets are held only on the weekends. The Citizens Recycling Society page (in Japanese) lists the schedule of markets in the Tokyo and Saitama areas. The  Tokyo Recycle page (also in Japanese) is also worth checking out for more detailed information on markets in Tokyo.  These Japanese sites are worth plodding through with a translation tool but for starters, here are some of the most popular markets in Tokyo:
  • The Tokyo International Forum Flea Market, set up on the square outside the meeting hall and about a minute away from Yurakucho Station. Held one Sunday a month only, so it's best to check the above pages for the schedule. About 200 vendors sell vintage home, art, antique, and crafts. 
  • Yoyogi Park Flea Markets, set up in the event space near NHK and across the park. The Yoyogi Park schedule lists what they call the "Earth Day market" one Sunday a month, in which vendors will also set up booths and sell secondhand stuff. There might be markets on other Sundays so if you're already in the area, it's worth dropping by.
  • The Shinagawa Intercity Flea Market, set up at the Intercity Complex, accesse from the Konan Exit of Shinagawa Station. Held most Sundays, you can find a wide variety of things to wear, use, and display.

Sherilyn Siy