Look closer, however, and you'll discover another breed of shop where consumers, from Japan and increasingly from overseas, hunt for everyday treasures. Maybe because of the recession, or maybe because even Japanese consumers know a good deal when they see one, 100-yen shops — Japan's equivalent of the dollar store — are booming. People may window-shop for fashions, but they actually shop at 100-yen stores.
Virtually every Japanese city has a 100-yen shop, and Tokyo has many. The ojiisan (granddaddy) of them all is the Daiso in Harajuku, the neighborhood better known for teenagers and twentysomethings who dress like anime characters and pose on the bridge by the train station.
The Daiso's third floor is the 100-yen shops' answer to the Container Store: bins, buckets and baskets; containers folders and holders for paper clips, pencils and pens; stationery and supplies. Ask for advice, though, before buying those chic-looking gift envelopes tied with fancy papier-mâché thread — they're used to hold money for different occasions, and you don't want to show up at a wedding with an envelope meant for a funeral.
It's much smaller than the Daiso, but it covers the same basics, plus specialty items such as yude tamagokko (molds that turn hard-boiled eggs into white bunnies, fish, cars and teddy bears) and banana cases, which prevent the fruit from turning brown in your briefcase or backpack.
The Daiso has a branch in Kyoto, on the central Teramachi shopping street, although this two-story shop feels cramped and a bit dingy compared with its Harajuku cousin. Still, the tiny soy sauce containers shaped like animals were darned-near irresistible. Down the block, Can Do has an affiliate store, Le Plus, where I discovered the Always Smile line of flatware, with faces cut out from the handles, bento boxes to use them with, neckties and rattan boxes, and the bright-hued Color Plus line of bathroom accessories.