While it may sound far-fetched, there are shops to be found in high-priced Japan that are inexpensive enough to make a buying spree affordable.
Just follow the footsteps of bargain-hunting Tokyoites--those who must economize to make ends meet or those who think that minding their purse strings is the best hedge against a questionable economic future.
Head for Tokyo's enormously popular discount department stores, where you can make tremendous savings on a wide variety of gift items, personal accessories and household staples.
There are two favorite stores, each offering an outstanding selection of merchandise and prices.
Fortunately, these bargain meccas stand side by side. Their proximity enables shoppers to seriously compare prices and a visit to both stores will take only one trip. That's a blessing in traffic-congested Tokyo.
Take the Subway
The stores, in Tokyo's Taito section, are easy to get to. You can use a taxi or travel economically on the subway. The stores are a two-minute walk from Naka Okachimachi station on the Hibiya line or a five-minute walk from Okachimachi station on the Yamanote and Keihin Tohoku Lines.
However you travel, ask the concierge of your hotel to write down the names of the stores and their addresses in Japanese. You can show this to cab drivers or passers-by for help with directions.
Takeya, the larger and older of the two stores, is at 4-33-2 Higashi. The nine-story building has an attention-getting purple facade. The store is open daily, except Wednesdays, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The first floor, a food market, is always crowded. Merchandise spills out of the open storefront onto the street. The best way to shop is to take the elevator to the top floor and then work your way down by staircase.
Here are some of the tempting buys: Sets of antique lacquer bowls stored in beautiful old wooden chests are about $100, hair ornaments with fantastic arrangements of tiny silk flowers cost about $13 and small wooden chests of drawers for personal treasures are $15.
Large ceramic bowls with beautiful bird motifs are $12, large vases with traditional abstract designs $22 to $100, antique netsuke figurines sell for $30 and up, stuffed pheasants (they're real!) and other birds are about $65 and exquisitely detailed porcelain dolls dressed in elegant kimonos cost $100 to $200.
A monumentally sized game of Go costs $20 and attractively carved and lightweight walking sticks are $8.
Go down one floor to eight to find handsome handbags by Courreges ($62 to $140), Lancel ($60 to $128) and Valentino ($55 to $170). Neat, pocket-size folding umbrellas are $20 and Japanese platform shoes, known as geta, with rubber rain guard tips, cost $10. Cashmere knit dresses, imported from Scotland, are $50.
On the seventh floor, children's shoes run from $9 to $13, kids' cotton knit dresses are $12 and cuddly, warm nighties with cute Japanese prints are $19 to $25.
Toys include model cars that show how gears shift ($5, reduced from $13) and a finely tuned miniature piano ($20). For women, Jean Patou hosiery is $2.50 and stylish cotton dresses and jumpers $32.
Men's articles include a full variety of fashions, relatively small in size but reasonably priced, as well as professional-looking leather boxing gloves for $18, reduced from $129. Sturdy luggage on rollers is $43 and huge vinyl carryalls $12.
You'll also find woks for $28, golden spoons (set of six for $7) and picnic sets with portable utensils ($10). Pocket radios the size of credit cards are $30, a variety of telephones about $17, Sony Discman CDs $280 and Olympus OM-10 cameras $180.
Cross pens are $28, toy-size submarines that unfold to reveal a full set of office supplies $7 and a variety of computers made by Sharp, NEC and other manufacturers.
Mickey Mouse Watches
Next door, There, at 4-33-3 Higashi, is open daily (except for Jan. 1-3) from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. The store has two expansive floors of discount merchandise, including sets of 18 watercolor paints ($2.50) and eight-colored pens ($5), useful Lint-Glove clothing fresheners ($7) and avocado-based skin-care products (about $11).
Sanyo AM/FM cassette players with built-in clocks ($98), unusual telephones (about $42), calculator/ruler/clock combinations ($11), Casio and Sharp calculators ($13 to $58), portable hot pots ($35, reduced from $55), Sony top quality cassette tapes (four for $4.50, reduced from $12), Seiko travel clocks ($13), Mickey Mouse watches ($18) and electric shavers ($2.25).
Lovely cultured pearl chokers ($342), makeup brush sets ($3.50) and sophisticated and well-designed factory tool work sets and multipurpose tools ($4.50 to $20) are on hand as well as other items for personal use and/or gifts.
Easy to Shop
The discount department stores cater primarily to Japanese patrons and few have English-speaking sales clerks.
Most of the goods are available on open shelves. Customers pick out what they want and head for the cashier, supermarket-style. Luxury items are displayed in glass cases, but pointing usually can get you what you want.
Unlike the elegant Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya and other top Japanese department stores, the discount department stores have no uniformed girls bowing at the elevators, no gorgeous displays and spacious passageways. No frills.
Check-out lines are usually long, so take along a magazine to read. You won't find one by the cash register, unless you can decipher Japanese.