Luo Yi is a senior travel writer and editor who has visited over 40 countries and worked on two guidebooks for Lonely Planet. In 2017 She moved to Kyoto and founded J MOOK, a publishing brand focusing on travel and culture in Japan. She has since published Kyoto Walk and Uncovering Treasures - A Shopping Guide In Kyoto, which were both bestsellers on major online Chinese bookstores including JD.com, Dangdang and Amazon.
Text & Photos / Luo Yi
The ancient capital of Japan for over a thousand years, Kyoto has always been the center of Japanese culture and craftsmanship. Craft and technique pass down generation to generation, and shops with histories of several centuries can be found throughout the city. When tourists come to Kyoto, they will inevitably be drawn to the beautiful crafts and like to purchase some souvenirs. Beginning October 1st, 2019, Japan has increased its consumption tax rate from 8% to 10%. But the good news is that tourists can still enjoy a policy of tax-free shopping which is not affected by the consumption tax hike.
Last year, I spent four months visiting hundreds of shops in Kyoto, and finally selected 22 types of craft, 88 shops and 200 products, and introduced them in my book Uncovering Treasures - A Shopping Guide In Kyoto. In this article, I would like to recommend four products from my favorite shops made with different craftwork. Let them remind you of the good times you had when traveling in Kyoto, even after you’ve returned home. Please note, these shops are all tax-free (when the total purchase amount is more than 5,000 yen excluding tax).
*The following prices are tax-exclusive.
① Seikado Tinware · Sukuu Series Sake Cup
Price: Small / 35cc / 10,000 yen, Medium / 60cc / 11,000 yen, Large / 100cc / 13,000 yen
Reasons why it is recommended: The round shape is pretty cute, making it feel like a treasure when you hold it in your palm. The three-leg bottom is inspired by ritual bronzes in ancient China.
Compared to ceramics, tinware is less familiar to many people, including me. Actually, tinware also originated in China and was introduced to Japan during the Nara Period. When I saw the products at Seikado, I was immediately struck by the brightness of the tin utensils: each item has its grain, as cold as silvery moonlight yet beautiful. Picking up a sake cup, I was surprised at its weight, heavier than ceramics and glass, yet giving me a sense of peace of mind. Unwilling to put it down, I rubbed it lightly with my palms, and the cup quickly warmed up, feeling softer and closer to me.
Founded in 1838 in Kyoto, Seikado initially produced metal utensils related to sacred events. Now passed down to its seventh generation, Seikado has become the only artifact shop making sacred utensils, and the only old pewter shop with a history of over a hundred years in Japan.
However, Seikado understood that in order to survive, it couldn’t stick to the production of religious utensils. Instead, it started making products suitable for people’s daily lives.
The Japanese love drinking and produce some of the best sake, beer and whisky, and tinware is the best utensil for alcoholic beverages. This is determined by the characteristics of tin: it has high thermal conductivity, superior heat and cold retention, and resistance to oxidation, corrosion and suffers almost no discoloration. Tinware can also neutralize the spicy taste of sake, bringing you a slightly sweet flavor.
The silvery shine of pewter is beautiful enough that any added decoration is redundant and vulgar. Every tin utensil at Seikado is hand-made, and the delicate grain on the surface of the tinware has been painstakingly hammered out by the craftsmen so each utensil has a unique appearance.
Of course, from a practical point of view, the grain on the surface of the tinware would not affect the taste, but the feeling it brings is different. Just like a tea lover would like to have delicate teaware, those who love alcoholic beverages also deserve to have beautiful cups or pitchers from Seikado.
Address: 462 Myomanjimae-cho, Teramachi-dori-Nijo-sagaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Open: 10:00-18:00 (Closed for 4 days after New Year’s Eve. Open during the Gion Festival apart from Sundays & National Holidays.)
② SOU · SOU · Takeshi Michiyuki Bamboo Basket Bag (Large) / SO-SU-U
Price: 8,900 yen
Reasons why it is recommended: The bag is made of durable canvas, and the pattern of Arabic numerals is the most representative motif of SOU · SOU, which is easy to match with all types of dress and will never be out of style.
When thinking of Kyoto, you might think of the beautiful scene of elegant women with kimonos walking in historical neighborhoods. When you visit Kyoto youself, you would probably like to rent a kimono for an authentic local experience. However, if you’re thinking of buying a kimono to bring back home it becomes a tricky thing: as a formal and traditional dress for Japanese, it’s complicated to put on, and would not fit easily into your daily life. Therefore, I would like to introduce you to SOU · SOU, which offers modernized and trendy Japanese-style clothing that can be easily worn in everyday situations.
Founded in 2002, SOU · SOU is a very young brand in Kyoto, but it has earned both local and worldwide recognition. SOU · SOU creates kimono-style clothing and accessories for men, women and kids, as well as tabi shoes and socks with two toe segments like those worn by ninjas.
Traditional tabi shoes are black boots, which are only worn by the rickshaw men of Arashiyama and Higashiyama nowadays, while SOU · SOU’s tabi shoes come in both boot and slipper styles, available in a wide array of colors and patterns. Wearing them, you’ll definitely look cool and stylish instead of old fashioned! This series is considered to be a masterpiece in Japanese shoemaking, and even won the COOL JAPAN Award. Don’t miss their tabi socks, which offer many more colors and patterns.
It’s the rich choices of patterns that a major feature of SOU · SOU. The patterns are inspired by Japanese traditional motifs, flowers and plants showing the beauty of the four seasons, typical Kyoto motifs, like pagodas, etc.. Among these various patterns, the pattern of Arabic numerals definitely stands out. It’s worth mentioning that SOU · SOU is pronounced as “そ う そ う” (not “soso”, but close to “so-o so-o”), which means “Yes,” and also prime numbers in Japanese.
Address: Nakano-cho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, 604-8042, Japan
Open: 11:00 - 20:00, all year round
③ Kohchosai Kosuga: Miyako Bamboo Chopsticks
Price: 800 yen / pair
Reasons why it is recommended: A chopstick length of 22.5cm is suitable for daily meals for the whole family. The tips of the chopsticks are finished with a fine point and therefore good for picking up even a small grain of rice or a tiny piece of fish. Available in 7 colors.
The noted Chinese poet Su Shi once wrote, “Having meals without meat is fine, but living in a place without bamboo is not acceptable.” When you have bamboo in your garden or bamboo utensils at home, you feel closer to nature. Eating with beautiful bamboo chopsticks, you will definitely have better appetite. So I’d like recommend you to buy a pair of delicate chopsticks when you visit Kyoto.
Founded in 1898, Kohchosai Kosuga is a hundred-old shop specializing in bamboo products, and also a long-established supplier of the Imperial Household Agency and aristocrats. Their products have been exhibited at several World Expos.
At Kohchosai Kosuga’s flagship store in Kyoto, each product is carefully placed like artworks in a gallery. With exquisite lighting, the texture and gloss of the bamboo products, as well as their delicate silhouettes are perfectly displayed.
There is a saying in Japan that the heart of a chopstick lies three centimeters from its tip. So the quality of the whole pair of chopsticks is mainly decided by the craft of the tips. The craftsmen of Kohchosai Kosuga skillfully cut and polish the bamboo boards into pieces only one centimeter thick, and the finest chopstick tips are only one millimeter thick! The two chopstick tips can fit together perfectly. In addition to general chopsticks for meals and rice, there are also chopsticks for noodles, on the tips of which are some shallow cuts so that the noodles will not slip off. What a thorough and practical design!
Common chopsticks will become discolored, deformed, or even become moldy after being used for one or two years. But a staff member at Kohchosai Kosuga told me that she had been using Miyako chopsticks at home for ten years. When my best friend was getting married, she told me that she would like to have a gift that she could use every day, “So I will think of you every day”. Without hesitation, I went to Kohchosai Kosuga to pick out two pairs of chopsticks; simple, elegant and ever-lasting, which was exactly my sincere wish for her marriage.
Address: 74 Nakajimacho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-8004 (The Royal Park Hotel Kyoto Sanjo, 1F)
Open: 10:00-20:00, all year round
④ Malebranche: Strong tea langue de chat "CHA no KA"
Price: 695 yen (5 pieces) / 1,389 yen (10 pieces)
Reasons why it is recommended: Not only the appearance of the biscuit but also the taste is exquisite. With sweetness and bitterness, the flavors of milk and tea reach the best balance in the mouth. It is only sold in Kyoto.
While the Yatsuhashi wagashi (Japanese confectionery) is a popular souvenir choice for tourists visiting Kyoto, Kyoto people would like to send their friends and relatives a box of CHA no KA. Although Malebranche has many shops all over Japan, CHA no KA is only sold in Kyoto.
Out of several shops in Kyoto, I recommend to visit the Kyoto Station Hachijoguchi Exit shop where you can enjoy its café and the tax-free policy. Besides matcha-based biscuits, it also sells a variety of Western pastries. Have a seat and take your time to enjoy!
Strong tea langue de chat “CHA no KA” is a name combining French and Japanese. “Langue de chat” in French means the tongue of a cat, for the long and thin shape of the biscuit, and “CHA no KA” in Japanese means tea confectionery.
The most famous langue de chat in Japan is Shiroi Koibito, made in Hokkaido, while in the Kyoto area, it has to be CHA no KA.
Ingredients in Malebranche products have been carefully selected, beginning with the tea.
The serious process of producing CHA no KA begins from the careful selection of tea leaves. To make CHA no KA, Malebranche staff regularly visit a particular tea plantation in Uji, where tea is carefully grown and kept away from direct sunlight. Only the freshest tea tree sprouts are picked and it’s only done once a year. As the taste of tea leaves is highly affected by the climate, they will be mixed by skillful tea appraisers in order to maintain the strong tea taste.
Between the two langue de chat biscuits, there is white chocolate with milky and sweet flavors. With one bite, your tongue first feels the crispness and the rich aroma of tea, followed by the sweetness of white chocolate, therefore sweetness and bitterness, and the flavors of milk and tea reach the best balance in your mouth.
CHA no KA is also flawless in appearance. The delicate and flat surface bears three kinds of marks in the center: “Kyo”(capital), “Cha”(tea) and “Ka”(confectionery), which reflect the Kyoto culture of decoration.
Malebranche Hachijo Exit Store
Address: 31-1, Higashishiokoujikamadonocho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto (Kyoto Station Kintetsu Street of well-known stores, Miyakomichi)
Open: 9:00 - 21:00 (L.O. 20:30), all year round
There are 1624 tax-free shops in Kyoto (as of April 1, 2019) that sell souvenirs, traditional crafts, food, alcohol, clothing, jewelry, electronics, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and more.
(Photos of products courtesy of Seikado, SOU · SOU, Kohchosai Kosuga and Malebranche.)