Of all the great cities in Japan, Kyoto is the best one to shop for traditional Japanese souvenirs! Here, you can indeed have it all: cheap little presents for friends or coworkers, or exquisite gifts for the true connoisseur. Many artisans and craftsmen that still use old traditions and only the best materials to make their goods have their home here in Kyoto. Still, shopping in Kyoto doesn't have to be expensive, since there are many beautiful options in all price ranges. Below are a few of our recommendations for the perfect souvenir from Kyoto.
No contest: The #1 gift from Kyoto are items made from silk or other fabrics. For generations, Kyoto has been the top producer of fabrics and kimono in Japan, and the imperial court in Kyoto as the best customer has always been a driving force behind innovation. A number of exquisite dyeing (kyo yuzen) and weaving (nishijin) techniques have been developed or perfected here, and even nowadays, there are many people in Kyoto wearing kimono daily, more than in any other city of Japan.
A good kimono is almost always made from silk, and thus can be very expensive. Wearing one requires a number of accessories and some help to put it on, so it may not be the best souvenir. An alternative would be a summer kimono or yukata made from cotton, which can be worn more casually. If you're not sure if this is for you, why not try one at one of the many kimono rentals in Kyoto? Wearing one for a day of sightseeing is quite the experience!
The most casual type of clothing are jinbei or samue, simple jackets and pants, short or long for summer and winter. They come in many traditional patterns and in many sizes, even for kids, and although traditionally worn by men only, there are now patterns for women and girls as well.
If you go traditional, of course, you need footwear to go with them! Yukata and jinbei require wooden geta for a perfect Japanese look. We actually believe that these were the first flip-flops ever invented.
If a kimono, however informal, is not for you, then what about a traditional towel? Tenugui, made from thin cotton, have a standard size of 35 by 90 centimetres and the Japanese use them for everything: as summer scarf or bandana, as table cloths or napkins, cheap hanging art, and as towels, of course. Many sights or events may sell special tenugui, for example, every float of July's Gion Matsuri in Kyoto has their own set of tenugui.
Furoshiki are usually made from more sturdy fabric, and they come in many (square) sizes, meant for wrapping gifts. They can also be transformed into handbags to carry home other souvenirs. Tenugui and furoshiki come in many different designs, and they are rather cheap, so you can indulge yourself and all of your friends.
Bags of all sizes are endlessly useful, from the large shopping tote bag to the pretty backpack and the delicate evening clutch. There are a number of traditional designs you will see everywhere, but for something really unique, look for small items from silk fabric used to make kimono or obi belts, like cases for glasses, pens, or business cards.
Kyoto's colorful Kiyomizuware, named after the famous temple, has fans from all over world. Even today, most ceramic artists of Kyoto live and work in the Gojozaka area near Kiyomizudera Temple. There are also many ceramics shops, where you can buy stunning pieces in all price ranges, from cheap coffee mugs to exquisite, one-of-a-kind tea sets.
Lacquerware, also called urushi, is unique to Japan. Simple items like bowls or boxes are covered with many layers of lacquer until the final layer is polished to a high shine. Other pieces may be decorated with gold or silver powder or inlays; this technique is called maki-e. A large piece of good lacquerware can take months to make, which is reflected in the price. However, simple bowls or trays can be found for reasonable prices.
The Japanese love paper! Their handmade washi has a wonderful feel. It comes in many types and colours, from thin sheets that feel like silk gauze to sturdy ones for crafts, calligraphy or sumi-e ink paintings. Or look into square origami paper, either plain colours, or with traditional prints. If you're not into crafts, look for postcards, notebooks, or letter paper. Goshuin-sho are special, leporello-type notebooks used to collect stamps from shrines and temples as you visit them. A full goshuin-sho is a lovely and always unique souvenir from Kyoto.
The hot summers of Japan make fans the perfect accessory for both women and men! Sensu are folding fans, they most often are made from wood or bamboo covered with cloth or paper. Uchiwa are fans that do not fold, their large surface makes them perfect for bold designs, and many people tuck them into the back of their obi when they need their hands free.
Both sensu and uchiwa are lightweight and easy to pack, and their myriads of designs guarantee that you'll find the perfect one for all your friends who like useful gifts.
Chopsticks are of course a standard souvenir from Asian countries. Japanese chopsticks are usually made from wood or bamboo; they are round or sometimes square and have a distinct tip. They are either simply wood coloured or beautifully decorated or painted. Japanese chopsticks also come in different lengths according to the size of your hand - the shorter ones are meant for women. There are even special training chopsticks for small children! Don't forget to buy chopstick rests while you're in the shop!
Yatsuhashi are THE sweets from Kyoto! The little triangles of cinnamon mochi, with a large, seasonal variety of fillings are the most popular Kyoto souvenir among the Japanese. They have a short shelf-life though, so make sure to buy them towards the end of your visit.
Bringing home green tea from Japan is a must. In Uji, nearby Kyoto, very good green tea is produced. There are different types of green tea and within them, different grades. Matcha is powdered green tea leaves, it has an intensive green colour, is usually used during Japanese tea ceremony and can be quite bitter. Matcha is also used as ingredient to make cookies, chocolates, cakes, ice cream,... Sencha are Japanese green tea leaves, not different than what you can buy abroad. Depending on the particular type and grade, it has often a smoother taste than matcha. Roasting green tea leaves produces hojicha. It has a distinct taste and the Japanese like to drink cold hojicha during the hot summer months.
Sake is Japan's No. 1 alcohol. Although often translated as "rice wine", production is similar to that of beer. Sake production is very local and there are hundreds of brewers all over Japan. Connoisseurs will tell you that taste depends on the milling grade of the rice, the origin of the water,... If you don't want to go to such depths, why not simply try a brand from Kyoto's own breweries in Fushimi?
Note: Please check your own country's regulations as to the type and amount of foodstuffs and alcoholic beverages you may import!
Many souvenir shops in Kyoto and Japan as well as large regular shops offer duty free shopping to temporary foreign visitors. There are a few requirements for duty free shopping: It's available only in shops showing the duty free logo, for purchases over a certain amount (usually 5.000 yen), and only for goods you intend to take abroad with you. Also, you need to show your passport (original only) and fill out a form. Just ask in the shop for assistance.
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