First, just to get you in the mood for how big, how huge, how overwhelming Tokyo can be, let’s Sing A Song (click on link below):
It’s from a video taken at the Shibuyu scramble crossing, a place I went to on my recent trip to Tokyo. The advertisers must pay Big Bucks to have four screens going at once.
I have to admit, I like the Ginza scramble crossing better (above), although I never got a video with people crossing, as I was always there early in the morning, before the rush.
But we’re here to talk about the fabric shopping. I found shopping in three different places: Nippori Fabric Town (the nickname), Yuzawaya (an elegant store, 6th floor, Ginza area), and a place you might not think of: buying tenugui, or wiping cloths, in an artisan shop near Akihabara.
Here are three large files of the map of Nippori Fabric Town, 2017 version (click on each picture to enlarge it). I had printed out an older version of this map and taken with me, so this might help someone; these maps are available in many shops. True confession: I didn’t shop the entire street, as my time was short, so I will only share my experiences with part of the street.
Nippori Fabric Town is a section of a street, not too far from the Nippori train station. I had downloaded Hyperdia, an app that gives you travel directions for the massive subway system, and referred to it often. Google Maps was also really helpful
But the real godsend was the portable wifi hotspot we rented, which made our lives infinitely better while traveling in a place where you don’t speak the language (although there is a lot of English around, once you figure out where to look).
Oh, and Google Translate, another app. You can open it, hold up your phone’s camera up to a sign, and it will translate it, so you can find out things by reading. Of course, once in a shop, it translated the ingredients of a pastry as containing “walnuts, flour and Breath of Heaven,” so there you go. (I actually downloaded this at home to read a recent purchase of a Japanese book about lettering–helpful there, too–although the idiomatic expressions may always be a challenge.)
My Hyperdia map (and Google map) said to exit the South Gate. Where you exit in the Tokyo train stations can be as critical as to which train you take. I had to ask once for help, and they redirected me, for even though you have the maps, you still get lost.
Pretty panels outside the South Gate, as I headed on a walkway over the tracks to the stairs down to the street below:
Come down the stairs, go across the street, then proceed straight at the next street.
Turn right when you see this:
(You’ll be coming from the other direction: look for the giant upside-down hockey stick next to the iron maiden statue, and turn right in front of the stick.)
I loved seeing these patterns all in Japanese, but didn’t buy any, being reminded of that line said by Barbara Bush about Nancy Reagan: “She’s a size 4. So is my left leg.” (I loved Barbara Bush; Japanese clothing is just not made for me.)
I knew there was also a Happy Fabric I was supposed to scout out when I went to Seoul (next post), but doubted that they were related. If you do a search for “fabric shopping in Tokyo,” there are several blog posts that will each give you a different piece of information about jumping into this experience. And they all said:
“Head for Tomato Fabrics.”
The first Tomato shop was my favorite. The fabrics were nicely organized, the shop was clean, the sales staff had a smidgen of English and were very helpful. The down side of shopping on Nippori street is that the minimum purchase is 1 meter. When I’m home shopping, and I have the back of my mini SUV to throw all my purchases in, this is not a problem. But when I’m traveling overseas, and I have one small suitcase, slightly bigger than the size of my dresser drawer, this is not happy news. I figured if I got desperate, I could leave half a meter of each fabric behind, but instead I left my pajamas behind, rather than part with any of my fabric (and a blouse in Incheon was abandoned, but that was a mistake: always check the closets, she now says).
Why is she wearing a face mask? It’s complicated. But you see it everywhere.
At this shop I purchased these fabrics. I made sure that everything I purchased was made in Japan, and I loved finding fabric by Keiko Goke and Yoshiko Jinzenji. The sunflower print fabric, one a canvas and one a quilting cotton, are by Suzuko Koseki, with Yuwa again being the manufacturer.
One down, more to go. I’d asked the ladies in the above picture which Tomato shop had “patchwork” fabric, and headed that direction.
This shop wasn’t it. This was the 100 yen shop, or 1 meter for 100 yen. At this time, we estimated that 1000 yen was roughly 9 dollars, so 100 yen was about 90 cents. This is where I started to fall out of love with this adventure. Again–if you are local, it’s bliss. If you are a foreigner, with limited cash and space, it’s not really helpful to have a lot of fabric that is sort of clearance stuff, upholstery stuff, etc. How can you possible carry home 3 yards of fleece, even if it is incredibly cheap?
I moved on to this Tomato Shop, with five floors. (Doesn’t it make your heart leap to see all these rainbow colors, even if it is just fabric for dress lining?) I passed on the American fabrics, for I learned that I’m just not keen to pay $20 bucks for a yard, and instead concentrated on local fabrics, of which I found plenty to choose from.
Final Tomato store was a lot of fun. While I was waiting to be checked out, I took a snapshot out the window of this electrical pole. A work of high-powered art.
Dots are universal. I had obtained a rolling cart from a helpful employee, loaded it up with cute Japanese Christmas fabric and rolled it carefully to the cutting table, having checked to make sure I didn’t have the kind of tag that indicated I’d have to buy a meter of each.
Wrong. I had to buy a minimum of a meter of each (above). I put half of the bolts aside, and purchased four pieces, instead of the ten I’d picked out. Even after I’d bought one meter of fabric, he wouldn’t cut a half of the next. One meter per roll.
I wandered through the remaining Tomato shops, feeling very much like it was warehouse shopping, and didn’t buy anything else. My backpack was heavy, and it was only the 4th day of my trip. Space would be a problem, for sure.
When they say there are over thirty shops here, some of them are like the one above: leather skins hanging out front, along with mink balls, and a dingy interior (where the owner was slurping his ramen).
Halloween? Traditional Costume? With one black hand, one white hand?
Time to go home. I retraced my steps back to the Nippori Station, a combination of old and new. New, in that they have the barriers at all the track edges, and old with the arches.
When I came back to my hotel, I noticed this little shop. Always when I’d passed by it, early in the morning on the way to the subway station, the rollup metal door had been down, and I hadn’t known what was behind it.
So later that afternoon I went to see what was there.
It had Liberty Fabrics, sashiko embroidery kits, lots of stitchery kits–a very charming shop in a very small space. The employees knew about 5 words of English, a larger vocabulary than my pitiful Japanese, but they were unfailingly polite and tried to be helpful, always smiling.
The younger woman in the shop kept that smile plastered on her face, even when helping two other obtuse Americans who where there with me. Maybe it was the end of a long day, or just their nature, but I was immediately embarrassed to be from the same place as them. Woman A was nearly taking apart one of the displays, trying to figure out how it was put together, taking several photos. The young employee came over and smiled, and held out her hands, as if offering to help. Woman A barked at her “How will I know if I should buy this, if I can’t read the instructions? I have to figure out if I can even make the darn thing!”
I wanted to pretend to speak French or German…anything but be associated with this person, who had not figured out the basic rule of Japanese consumerism: Don’t Touch the Stuff. Seriously. You can ask them to show it to you, you can lightly gesture towards whatever you want to see and if they give you a nod, then proceed, but we Americans like to shop with our hands. Touch touch touch.
And one more rule: be nice.
I remember once trying to buy a little wiping towel when I was in Japan in 2001, for there really weren’t towels or dryers in the bathrooms. Every woman carried around a little towel in her purse, and pulled it out and dried her hands that way. In this department store from the display, I leaned over to pick up the towel (really a washcloth) and the woman helping me said gently, “No, no.” Then she scurried off to the back, came out with a washcloth like the one I was interested, and with both hands, presented it to me. [This trip I saw dryers nearly everywhere, but still not too many paper towels. And women everywhere were whipping out their little towel to dry their hands.]
I accepted all my packages this week with both hands. I offered up my credit card with both hands. I took the receipts given back to me with both hands. But rarely did I ever touch anything in a shop without their permission.
Woman A ended up leaving without buy a thing.
I also learned to let the shop know that my purchase was a gift, and the simplest wrapping job — in this case a cellophane bag with a piece of paper, a little bit of ribbon with a sticker — became a work of art to take home. This little bit of Japan in my suitcase was far better than yards and yards and meters and meters of wadded up fabrics.
Next post: Yuzawaya, Tokyo Shopping Heaven, and We Venture into Dongdaemun, in Seoul.
15 thoughts on “Shopping for Fabric in Tokyo, Part I”
What an adventure!
Those sewing patterns would have appealed to me! We are used to different sizes in Australia. They are different to American and European sizes. And the Japanese sure know how to wrap parcels. A friend of my son was here recently and even the Japanese sweets were a delight to unwrap!
Thank you Elizabeth, for such a lovely reminder of our trip to Tokyo last year for the quilt festival. I still have my plastic bag from Tomato and I also appreciated the politeness. A year later still find myself nodding and using both hands. I was also embarrassed by Westerners who didn’t know that it is rude to blow your nose in public (you are suppose to just sniff–which seems ruder to me!)
I love Japan and hope to go back sometime.
Thank you so much for another of your lovely travelogues. I so enjoy them! I too have been in other countries where touching the fabric is a no, no! Unfortunately, we Americans are so used to touching fabric that it is second nature. After making that mistake once, I always ask now before touching. Love the pictures and admire you taking off on your own in foreign cities. Keep posting your adventures. I love them!
From the mask explanation to etiquette – what a marvelous post!!!! So glad to read your adventure and yes, exploring to the really good places is gutsy, but so worth it. Cannot wait for the next installment!
Thank you Elizabeth ! What a delightful way to enjoy my coffee this am! It’s all so interesting, especially to us fabric lovers. I think I should let you know….. I collect selvages for quilty projects….( wink, wink, nudge, nudge!;–) )
Looking forward to part 2…..
Elizabeth, thanks SO much for this fabulous post and video! WOO HOO! My son and his family live in Kyoto, and they make trips to Tokyo for the holidays with her family. I could never quite picture it till I read your post.
Lets go to Tokyo!!!!
Sent from my iPad
It looks and sounds overwhelming, but it was such fun to join you on the trip.
You got me at those selvages!!! So interesting, all of it. Rude Anericans. It must be hard to be associated with such women.
Thanks for the peek into Fabric Town.
What a fun read. The couple times that I’ve traveled to the UK, I’ve been slightly embarrassed to be an American and there isn’t really even a language barrier.
What fun fabrics to remember your trip. I love that you left your jammies!
We have lived in Europe twice (husband in Air Force–youngest son born in the Netherlands and we lived in Germany also)….Americans truly can be embarrassing. We have stories…it really isn’t difficult to be polite and respectful of their etiquette. Good for you for making the effort to learn the “do’s” and “don’ts”…
Yet another fun travel post. I din’t know about all the translation apps but it makes sense these days. I’ll have you know that I always put a little ‘Breath of Heaven’ in all my pastries. Or would if I made pastries, but I don’t really bake so there. Also, I don’t like walnuts.
Thank you for the glimpse into Japanese shopping culture and wonders. Your descriptions and photos are so lively. Allows me to travel in my mind to places I will never be able to go. And I laughed out loud at the reference to what Barbara Bush had to say about Nancy Reagan – had never heard that. Made my day!