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The Times Shopper

Department Stores of Tokyo Are Bigger, Better, More Complete

April 26, 1987|ENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

Cities worldwide have department stores. Tokyo has departos. They're bigger, better, more complete.

The Japanese have expanded the Western concept of the department store. Departos not only sell fine traditional and contemporary Japanese goods and products from around the world, but they are also cultural and educational institutions offering art exhibits, theater and dance performances, lessons in subjects ranging from ikebana (flower arrangement) and calligraphy to golf and English, Spanish or French.

Departos sponsor baseball teams and compete to present prestigious fashion shows, operas, lectures and scientific exhibitions. Even if these lose money, they attract crucially important good will. Services they offer include hair salons, travel bureaus, children's play areas, dentists, real estate agencies, pet salons, shrines and saloons.

Insight Into Culture

Even if you only have one day in Tokyo, take time to visit a departo. As you make purchases, you'll gain insight into the Japanese life style and culture.

Tokyo has about a dozen top departos, with branch stores, clustered in five main shopping areas: Shibuya, Ginza and Nihombashi (on the Ginza subway line) and Shinjuku and Ikebukuro (opposite ends of the Marunouchi subway line).

Don't worry if you don't speak Japanese. Most departos have English-language brochures and maps at information desks near main entrances. Helpful and courteous English-speaking store hostesses offer directions.

If you arrive at opening time (usually 10 a.m.) you'll be met at the door by legions of employees, neatly uniformed and bowing, welcoming customers and wishing them "happy shopping." Even during peak hours, especially on Sunday when Japanese families flock to departos , the staff is accommodating.

Departos offer everything under one roof. The array of merchandise ranges from the latest in electronic gadgetry for home improvement and personal entertainment to collections of hand-decorated silk fabrics for custom-made kimonos.

Western fashions, accessories, children's clothes, toys, stationery supplies, kitchen appliances and tableware, books, cassettes and records, and fine and costume jewelry are abundant.

Lower floors are frequently vast food markets with traditional Japanese delicacies. Browse along the aisles, watch demonstrations, sample exotic tidbits, teas and coffees.

Departos have special gift floors, especially well-stocked during two annual holidays, oseibo (New Year's) and chugen (in June), when presentsare given to influential friends, bosses, teachers and in-laws.

Some items may seem odd: A 10-pound fancy box of laundry detergent, for example, costs about $40; imported six-packs of beer cost about $15 to $20.

Other items are ideal for family and friends: lacquer trays (from $40), ceramic five-cup tea sets ($35 and up), wristwatches and clocks ($70 and up), fabric totes (from $15), credit card-size calculators and radios ($20 and up), netsuke (from $50) and electric rice cookers (about $45).

There are also cultured pearl pendants and earrings (from $50), Japanese dolls ($25 and up), individually wrapped toothpicks sold in hand-painted wooden cases ($5 to $8) and other items.

Some departos publish illustrated catalogues so you can gift shop without searching the crowded selling floor. Gifts are wrapped in pretty store paper.

You probably won't want to visit all of Tokyo's departos. Here are highlights of some of the best:

Mitsukoshi at 1-7 Muromachi, Nihombashi, phone 241-3311, and 4-16-16 Ginza, phone 562-1111 (closed Mondays), founded in 1673 as a kimono shop, earned a reputation for fair prices and quality. In 1905, after its director visited Paris and London, the shop was Westernized with a second story and display cases showing European goods alongside quality traditional Japanese merchandise.

Affluent and conservative Mitsukoshi appeals to the 40-and-over crowd. Widely considered the classiest of departos, Mitsukoshi lost face and customers in 1982 when its director and his mistress were accused of exhibiting and selling fake art.

The 33-foot gilded statue of the "Goddess of Sincerity" at the main entrance is a landmark. Don't miss the silk and cotton fabrics and ready-to-wear kimonos ($100 to $4,000) on the fourth floor, antique Japanese swords and armor, and the selection of traditional accessories.

The seventh-floor book department has more than 100,000 volumes, some in English, plus language cassettes. Designer boutiques, with fashions by Celine, Chanel, Lanvin and others, feature small sizes for women. Prices are high. On the roof are stone lanterns ($185 and up) that can be shipped home.

Takashimaya, 2-4-1 Nihombashi, phone 211-4111 (closed Wednesdays), a bit older than Mitsukoshi and an adamant rival, holds an Imperial warrant. It is known in the United States but its Japanese branches have a broader selection of merchandise.

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