Tokyo is a shopping destination, with hundreds of small specialty stores and several of the grandest department stores in the world. If you want to shop for souvenirs, take an afternoon and plan. Do not wait until you arrive at the airport for your return flight home. This is not just because the prices are higher than in the city stores. There are a number of things you will get for a better bargain in the city – and a lot which you cannot buy at the airport – especially if you wait until you have already checked your bags.
While the new international terminal at Haneda, and the Narita Nakamise shopping street in Terminal 1, have expanded the number of stores, what you find are big-name brands like Dior, Coach, and Prada. You have to look long and hard for more traditional things.
There is an origami store in Narita Terminal 2 (near the planned capsule hotel), before boarding the shuttle to the satellite. Haneda airport has a store with traditional Japanese food near Gate 51, so you do not have to buy curry-flavored “ramune” soda until the last minute. But if you want to find things that are unique to Tokyo and Japan, you had better do your shopping elsewhere.
Another reason is that both the tax-free stores in Narita and Haneda airports still have to realize that customers do not always have direct connections. They continue to refuse to use seal-able bags, which the European Union airports require if you are to bring your purchases through the transfer security checkpoints.
If you have to change flights, you have to put your things in your checked-in luggage anyway, so you are better off buying the things you want in Tokyo before you go.
Five Things You Shouldn't Buy at the Airport
Japanese knives. For obvious reasons, knives are prohibited in carry-on luggage.
Japanese wines. Yes, Japan is a wine-producing country, but even though they have expanded their offering of sake, the tax-free stores at both Haneda and Narita do not offer anything near what you could find in a corner store.
Painting and writing brushes. There are some packed in plastic in a few of the souvenir stands, but if you really wanted Japanese writing brushes, buy them in a specialty store in Tokyo.
Japanese textiles. A kimono is a wonderful souvenir, and there are some craftsmen (and craftswomen) who make wonderful textiles. But there are no stores selling them after you have passed immigration.
Japanese ceramics and porcelain. While there is no brand that competes with international brands like Lladro, Royal Copenhagen or Wedgewood, the ceramic craft is very much alive in Japan.
That said, there are a few things that you should not buy before passing through airport security – mainly because they are not allowed in checked-in luggage, and because they are quite expensive. With the recent sales tax hike, even getting back that 8% is a bonus. So here are a few things you should hold off on buying until you have passed the security gate and immigration.
Lithium batteries. You know, the Eneloop and other similar batteries. They are not permitted in checked baggage after a few incidents in which they nearly set fire to airplanes, but the tax-free stores carry them.
Noise-canceling earphones. You will find the same brands and models in the tax-free store as in the shops in Akihabara, but what you will not find is the airplane plug. Yes, the small two-pronged plug for the earphones is the only electronic thing you can not find in Akihabara.
Gift-wrapped cookies, cakes, and traditional Japanese sweets. If you have ever seen how the baggage handlers handle baggage, you will realize that anything breakable will be broken before it reaches its destination. (Even the Japanese baggage handlers, who are actually very careful when compared with their colleagues in airports in other countries.) Besides, the traditional Japanese sweets you buy at the airport are vacuum packed and sealed, so they keep much longer than the fresh ones you buy in a store.
So plan your souvenir purchases as carefully as the rest of your visit to Japan. While bringing something home for everyone may not be as mandatory as it is to the Japanese, walking around Akihabara looking for that particular action figure is much more fun than trying to make sense of the games at arcades.