What You Should Know about Shopping in Japan and Korea

Shopping is a pretty straightforward thing. You go into a shop, look at things, possiby try on if you like and then choose to buy or not to buy. But each country has their own little twist on things, whether bartering is a national sport in some countries, such as Turkey or Morocco, and in others, all prices are set across all shops, such as Korea. So I thought I’d share my wisdom on Japan and Korea since I found there are pronounced features here that would have certainly helped me be confused less. If just a little.

What You Should Know about Shopping in Japan and Korea - it's not as straightforward as you think
Did you know about these Jawdropping Cherry Blossom Spots?

A Big Welcome to You

Irasshaimase! Or even better, irasshaimaseeeeeeee will be what will greet you before you can even distinguish the shop assistant from the perfectly dressed and styled mannequins. And it will follow you everywhere. Whether you approach them, walk past them, walk into their field of vision, they will be happy to welcome you over and over. And say thank you upon leaving and do a little bow. It kinda makes you feel guilty for not buying anything and just having a look. And it also makes sure you do not even try and take photos. It is highly frowned upon in Japan.

For Korea, you are also welcomed but instead of the chant the shop assistant themselves will follow you with every step you take. (Yes, insert the Police song right here.) I found it slightly disturbing but try and make a game out of it. Walk two steps and let them follow suit, then repeat. They keep pace with you to be of assistence in case you need it, and just when you decide to take something into your hand they suddenly appear next to you and volunteer to show first-hand. Case in point, they doodled their hands all over to show me how their eye brow pencils looked like. I didn’t even ask for it.

 What You Should Know about Shopping in Japan and Korea

No, Woman, no Try

Let us look at Korea first because what I found most frustrating – apart from the small sizes – was the fact that you couldn’t try on clothes in some smaller shops around Hongdae and Dongdaemun unless it were open jackets or trousers for some reason. (I was told by a reader that this isn’t very typical, so that’s good to know.)In major international stores, such as H&M, you could but if you wanted actual Korean fashion, there was no way. Don’t even ask me what the dressing rooms were for. I think they were all turned into store facilities. You can try to ask but don’t bother, really. Once I just held a dress in front of me and the store assistant came running towards me, yanked it out of my hands and kept yelling at me. This, however, is far from typical behaviour but it gets my message across. No try but buy.

In Japan, that is an entirely different matter. Each store has an albeit tiny space for changing with a pretty curtain and carpet. This means, taking off your shoes outside the fitting rooms. But before you do that, you approach the fitting room while establishing eye contact with the shop assistant so she can hold your items for you, remove hangers and hand them to you in the politest way possible. Also upon you leaving you should wait for them to come rushing towards you and hand them the items you do not want to purchase. One more thing, while you are trying on, there will be repeated knockings or yellings at you to check if you’re still breathing and are up to no mischief. Tell them you’re fine and they leave. For a while.

 What You Should Know about Shopping in Japan and Korea

Price Watch

Japan is a bit mean when it comes to prices. Sure, it’s expensive enough as it is but mostly the tax is not even included and needs to be added onto it. This makes some nice purchases suddenly look less attractive. My advice is to always look for the little “+ 税”sign and ask how much it would be. Japanese shop assistants will let you know by typing it into the calculator to avoid misunderstandings (and English). That being said you can still get some pretty decently priced findings in the typical shopping districts, such as Harajuku and Shibuya. Check out Shibuya 109!

There is nothing to worry about in Korea. If you are looking for getting cheap deals and try to compare prices, I must say that proves rather tricky since there seems to be a general concensus on pricing and most same items have the same price. However, if you are looking for cheap baseball hats Korean style, then I suggest heading to the main street of Hongik University station. Street vendors will offer them for about $5 instead of the usual $20. The best places to find cheap clothes is usually in the underground malls, such as in Dongdaemun and the Express Bus Terminal. Hongdae has some pretty decent and mixed shops as well.


 What You Should Know about Shopping in Japan and Korea


But in any case with both Korea and Japan you will find many shop that allow ‘tax back’ programs. Even some food stores offer tax back in Japan! Again, check in advance of what the minimum purchase value is to avoid getting your hopes up high. What you need to do to get the tax back is keep the receipt and head to the tax information centre of the shop to get the first hurdle over and done with. They will explain the next steps but it seems it usually includes you going to customs at the airport with all your receipts and purchases (yes, don’t check them in) and reclaim your money or validate the money you got back at this point. For all money savvy folks out there, a reader kindly reminded me that “Seoul’s duty free stores require you to spend only ~USD$30 to qualify, which is nice considering the minimum in Japan is ~$100.”

 What You Should Know about Shopping in Japan and Korea

Going the Extra Mile

If you are visiting bigger shopping temples in Japan, such as fancy skyscrapers with each floor stuffed to the brim with goodies and gifts, then you will also find a reception especially to greet new customers. The greeting ladies are dressed in stylish costumes, reminiscing of stewardesses with the cherry-on-top being white gloves. How much more classy can it be? Oh wait, did you see the lift ‘boy’? He is especially employed to push elevator buttons for the guests. And if you go al the way up to the rooftop, chances are you will stand in a garden that sometimes even includes a small shrine.

I didn’t see that in Korea but most shopping takes place in little shops anyway where the products are very similar. But that said, I stayed away from big shopping complexes, which, still, are not as prominent as they are in Japan. It is much small-scale in Seoul.

 What You Should Know about Shopping in Japan and Korea

Reading Stuff

If you are a keen reader, you might find yourself in a book shop first thing. It happened with me. I even made a video on a manga book store, I was that ecstatic. Anyway, you might be just as surprised as I was to find that many fictional books look just like manga. They have the cutesy, drawn covers with bright colours and bold fonts but the inside is just plain text. So don’t be fooled! There is a special manga section and it is not in the front of the shop. If magazines are more of your taste, you might be happy to find that many come with extras (and are double the price). Those that have rubber bands around them and are super thick usually have a little box in it containing make-up or shopping bags.

Korean bookstores were of less interest to me, I must confess but even without searching for them I passed them nearly daily as they were on my way in the subway, usually when you had to change between lines and cross the whole station. Like in Japan, they didn’t have any foreign books or magazines, though. And their stock was limited since they were rather small.

 What You Should Know about Shopping in Japan and Korea

Hot Spots for Shopping

Shopping in Japan and Korea is so easy. You will always find quirky shops, cute apparel and the same brands all over. In Japan, there is always a cluster of shops around each train station and in Seoul the same goes for metro stations. I can’t say much about the rest of the country since I didn’t see enough of it. But my ultimate shopping temples can be found here:

  • Seoul: Hongdae’s streets are good for some Korean street style, cute lace and Peter Pan shirts. From delicate jewellery over to statement baseball caps, you will find a range of styles to suit your needs.
  • Tokyo: Edgy and the typical kawaii fashion are to be found galore in Shibuya and Harajuku. Whether it is conservative chic or outrageously eccentric subculture couture, just people watching makes it well worth a visit.
  • Osaka: You don’t have to go far but just stay at the Osaka Station City will provide you will plenty of shopping opportunities. These are of a bit higher end but everything is combined under one roof in classy steel and glass skyscrapers.
  • Nagoya: If you are looking for anything manga, anime and cosplay but don’t want to rake out the big bucks, you can find amazing things in the Kannon shopping arcades, which in itself are a nice visit for foodies and window shoppers.

And there you have the difference between shopping in Japan and Korea. Are you surprised? Were you aware of these things?

Stuff to Shop

If you are inspired to shop in Japan and Korea but cannot get over there yet, fear not. There is such a thing called Amazon and I hand selected a few items that bring shopping in Japan and Korea home to you. These are affiliate links, which give me a small commission at no extra cost to you. The money will go right back to the blog for more free travel info.

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It had to happen, after ditching the 9-5 for a prolonged break, Annemarie's wokaholic tendencies led her to start a daily blog about her adventures. Realising how much travel has helped rebuild her confidence and and general #GirlBoss-iness, Travel on the Brain released a book about her adventures in Down Under and New Zealand and creates quirky video series focusing on story telling in destinations around the globe.
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    • Kelly
    • 18/04/2017

    Lived in Seoul off and on for 6 years. I am lean, half Korean and half white, and speak the language, so that all influences my experiences, but:

    The shop keepers aren’t pretending to not watch you, they’re keeping close to provide assistance. If you don’t want customer service, tell them you’re just looking (might need to repeat a few times) and they won’t volunteer information.

    You can indeed try on clothes. I never experienced not being able to try something on in a department store or brand shop. Occasionally a store in the Dongdaemun area will have special rules (like you can try on bottoms but not tops), but even the fashion shops there have fitting rooms or a big sheet thing to cover yourself with.

    Seoul’s duty free stores require you to spend only ~USD$30 to qualify, which is nice considering the minimum in Japan is ~$100. Many department stores and shopping areas have on-site/nearby refund kiosks, but if you want to collect your receipts and take it to the airport the process is easy at both Incheon and Gimpo. Haven’t had an issue with checking my luggage first.

    1. Reply
      Hi Kelly,

      Thanks so much for your input. It’s great to hear your experiences and I was there only a short time, so I might have misinterpreted some things. (Though I had quite a few of shops in Hongdae and Dongdaemun tell me not to touch or try on clothes. Weird.) Thanks for clearing things up!

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