With countless well-known local stores and a busy shopping district downtown, Kyoto is a souvenir-lover's dream come true. One of the most common questions we get from guests at KyoTours Japan is "What should we buy in Kyoto?" Here are some of our favorite items to take home with you, a few of which are a little more unique that what you'll find on other Kyoto shopping lists.
These famous Japanese garments are probably the most requested souvenir we hear about from our guests. You can go high end and drop serious money on a new, custom-made kimono (we're talking over $10,000!), or you can take a more reasonable route. There are countless small shops in the tourist areas all over the city selling complete "kimono sets" for fairly cheap, but these are usually not even made in Japan and are low quality. Nothing wrong with picking up one of these if you're on a budget, or if the kimono is destined to be used as a dress-up item for kids. You can usually get a package with kimono, obi belt, and sandal shoes for about 5,000 yen, and the prints are often exactly what tourists are looking for: colorful cherry blossoms, Mt. Fuji, dragons, etc.
If you want something a little more authentic and with a bit of worn-in charm, how about a used kimono? There's a wonderful used clothing store called "Chicago" in the Teramachi shopping street district, and the entire second floor is dedicated to kimonos of all sorts. These are real pieces of traditional clothing, not tourist junk. Used clothing is famously kept in excellent condition, so there are usually no worries about stains, tears, etc. (give it a look over before you buy just in case though). From light summer yukatas for girls to the cool (in both style and temperature) shorts and shirt combo for men called a jinbei, Chicago has it all - and at amazing prices. Even if you already have your own kimono and just want to pick up a new obi or other accessories, it's worth stopping by here to browse their impressive selection. (The selection of regular vintage clothes at Chicago is worth checking out as well)
Moving on to another kind of textile, tenegui are charming cloths traditionally used as towels and headscarves. Originally made of a thick terry-cloth style fabric, you often find tenegui nowadays made of thin cotton that are designed to be decorative rather than practical. Kyoto has a long history of hand-woven textiles and intricately dyed fabrics, so modern tenegui are the product of centuries of Kyoto craftsmanship. You often seem these long rectangles of fabric framed and hanging in restaurants and homes in Kyoto, or used as wrapping for presents given on formal occasions. Some creative designers have even found ways to tie tenegui through wooden handles to create unique handbags and purses. And of course, you can always still use it as a all-purpose towel.
The greatest aspect of tenegui is how they're all so different in their design and style. Some are simple and Zen-like in their downplayed elegance, while others are printed with a riot of colors and shapes bursting from the fabric. The stencils and resist-paste used to print tenegui allow for a surprisingly sharp level of detail that you don't often see on thin cloth. Many tenegui shops rotate their selection by season, allowing you to get a set of decorations that you can change out all year. This variety ensures that you'll be able to find exactly the right tenegui for you when you peruse the stacks and stacks of fabrics. They even have some modern designs with characters from worldwide popular culture. And the best part... most tenegui are less than 2,000 yen, making them a cheap and easy to pack souvenir.
You'll see tenegui for sale all over the city - even at temples and shrines - but the best selection is available at a chain of stores called Eirakuya/RAAK. This company is Japan's oldest cotton merchant, so they know their stuff! They have locations in downtown Shijo and Gion, as well as a store on the south side of Kyoto Station near the entrance to the shinkansen bullet train.
Here's a really off the wall souvenir to bring home with you: ema. These are the wooden boards that you see hanging at Shinto shrines with worshipers' wishes written all over them. Centuries ago, horses were offered as gifts to the gods at local shrines. When this was prohibitivly expensive for some people, they would instead offer a drawing (絵) of a horse (馬) on a wooden board. Eventually, this simply became known as an ema (絵馬), and took on a life of it's own as a way to ask the gods for favors.
Nowadays, the pictures on the boards are different at each shrine, and you'll see way more than just horses on ema now! Kyoto alone offers hundred of various animals, people, demons, samurai, landscapes, and all sorts geometric designs. And it's not only the artwork that changes at each location. The traditional shape of ema is rectangular, but you'll often see the wooden boards cut into strange shapes like animals, leaves, or other famous symbols. The most famous special ema in Kyoto has to be the brightly colored torii gate wishboard at Fushimi Inari. Feel free to purchase these boards at shrines and take them home as souvenirs. There's no rule stating that you have to hang it up when you buy it! Most ema are about 500 yen, so these little artworks are a great chance to collect something unique at a great price. And yes, I have hosted several guests who bought a TON of ema around town to decorate their Christmas tree back home!
No visit to Kyoto is complete without a visit over to Arashiyama over on the western edge of the city. The rural atmosphere is a great way to unwind after a busy vacation through Tokyo and the tourist spots of Kyoto. Everyone walks through the famous Sagano bamboo forest, but not many people take a a piece of it home with them (well, legally). Arashiyama is well known for its local crafts using the forest's bamboo wood to create all sorts of decorative and practical items.
My favorite spot to pick up some bamboo goods in Arashiyama is a chain of stores called Iwai. Their signature pieces are cups made from bamboo stalks that can be used for hot or cold drinks. The sake sets made from bamboo and lacquered to preserve their fresh greenness are impressive, and the thick tea cups are equally rustic and charming.
Looking over the bamboo kitchen utensils, you'll see some items that you recognize, and others that are a little more mysterious. Guessing what each one is for is part of the fun. Before you know it, you'll decide you need a wooden radish grater, a spiky noodle stirrer, and a traditional spice holder. And wait til you try a bamboo foot massager and the shoulder-smacking golfball-on-a-bamboo-stick thing (you just have to try it for yourself to understand this one). Iwai also has an impressive selection of incense, some of which can only be bought in this part of town. Be sure to check out one of Iwai's several locations in Arashiyama when visiting, either on your own or with KyoTours Japan on our Arashiyama Backroads Tour.
If knives or cooking are your thing, you've probably already heard about Aritsugu. This cutlery shop goes way back to 1560, when the owners used to make samurai swords for the imperial family. In the 19th century, the emperor left Kyoto and laws were passed prohibiting the public carrying of swords. So Aritsugu made a shift to more practical blades. At first, they produced carving knives for making wooden Buddhist statues, and you can still see a variety of strange bladed tools for carving wood, gardening and clothcraft, and bamboo splitting in the back of the shop. Eventually, Aritsugu moved into kitchen knife production as more people started to cook at home in the modern era. Their kitchen knives are still made using the same techniques that produced the finest swords for some of Japan's most famous samurai.
Locals will tell you that this is THE place to buy knives, and the collection of blades is impressive to say the least. The display cabinets on the left side of the shop are filled with specialty knives for chefs. Blades more than a foot long come in both left- and right-handed varieties, all measured for use on various types of fish. This is probably not what you're here for, so take a look at the all-purpose kitchen knives in the lower display case running down the center of the shop. Most of these blades come in two styles: western style and Japanese handles. Ask to see the same knife with different handles. You'll see how the center of gravity shifts from the back to the front when you pick up each style of knife, allowing you to choose how you want to control the blade.
The all-purpose knives start at around 10,000 yen here, which I think is a pretty attractive price for a high end Japanese knife. They'll even carve your name onto the blade in Japanese for no extra charge. Most of the staff at Aritsugu speaks some basic English, and they'll show you how to care for your knife before boxing it up to take home. Don't buy a knife anywhere else in Japan. Seriously.
Any of these items catch you eye? We can often work in some time to do some shopping during our half- and full-day tours of Kyoto. There's lots more to discover in the markets and stores of Kyoto, so leave plenty of space in your luggage!
Final bit of shopping advice: be sure to carry your passport with you at all time (you're legally supposed to do this anyway) because most shops will offer tax free discounts if you show your passport for purchases over about 5,000 yen. Save that 8% and put it towards more souvenirs somewhere else!